This entry is part 14 of 43 in the series Words

No, I’m not talking about a system error message like Windows’ infamous “Abort, Retry, Fail?”

I’m talking about active cognitive ignoring.

This occurred to me as I’ve been using an electronic medical record system called DocuTAP. It has many very, very busy screens, each with a hundred or so items from which to choose.

But I and other have learned to use it relatively quickly and efficiently. It’s hard, and it takes a lot of concentration and time, but we’ve done it.

Quoting from the website: “The DocuTAP system is extremely user-friendly and easy to learn. We can typically teach a new staff member how to use the system in less than two hours.” –Greg Troyer Owner. Yes, but how long does it take to learn to use it efficiently and effectively? I probably shouldn’t be picking on DocuTAP, as it’s no worse than many other point-and-click charting solutions, and at least you can learn to use it fairly efficiently, which is not true of a fair number of its competitors, so I’d rate it better-than-average.

How did we learn to use it “fairly efficiently?”

We learned to ignore. We ignore most of what’s on the page, the vast majority of which we never use. We focus our attention, our foveal vision, and even our mouse cursors on the place where we have learned to focus, to the exclusion of everything else on the page.  Our eyes and mousing hands (and brains) have learned where the commonly-used items are. In fact – due to slow performance – I often find my mouse cursor hovering over a particular place on a blank screen, waiting for the screen to refresh and allow me to click the link that should be right here.

There is a lesson in this. Learning to ignore things is hard work. Cognitive work. The more we have to ignore, the higher the cognitive friction. The more choices on a screen, the more we have to learn to ignore.



So, cutting down on the number of choices on a screen improves learnability and memorability.This seems obvious, but if it really is obvious, why do the screens of most medical software have such a bewilderingly-massive number of choices on each screen?

If you have a single listbox with many choices, for example, the standard x-rays you may order, that’s not too bad, as long as they’re organized in a quickly-comprehensible way. It’s when you have five or six different boxes on the page, each containing a different type of option, and each with a long list of items, that things get really confusing, and the friction slows cognition to a crawl.

The infrequently-used choices on the screen should be grouped and then hidden behind a single item. A simple way to do this is to offer a few of the most common choices and then a link or button with More…

The concepts of information hiding and encapsulation are well-established in computer programming, but somehow many programmers have difficulty applying it to their user interfaces.

The lesson in this essay and other essays here applies whether you’re designing medical software; or, critiquing it, perhaps with an eye to buying it. This is another way to actually quantify (or at least qualify) user-friendly.

The bottom line? Ignoring is hard work. Ignore this at your peril.

Series NavigationDialog-Box RoomsWhat’s in a word?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted by kconover on Monday, December 12th, 2011 at 8:48 pm and is filed under Tutorials . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.