Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Saul WurmanNotable passages from
Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Saul Wurman

Que, Indianapolis, 2001

   More sophisticated audiences aren't the only changes in the landscape. Information was once a sought after and treasured commodity like a fine wine. Now, it's regarded more like crabgrass, something to be kept at bay. When Information Anxiety was published, the cry was less data, more information. More than a dozen years of exploding quantities of information have elevated us to a higher level. How can we find what we want and tune the rest out?


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   "This quantity over quality shift in our culture has created an even deeper need for truly informing experiences—for insight, the most precious form of information."
– Nathan Sherdroff, Experience Designer (nathan@nathan.com)


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   In developing guidebooks, I've employed some principles that are applicable to the study of information-at-large and to reducing its anxiety-production factor in particular. Perhaps the three principles closest to my heart—and the most radical—are learning to accept your ignorance, paying more attention to the question than to the answer, and never being afraid to go in an opposite direction to find a solution.


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   When I was an architecture student and in my early 20s, I had an epiphany. My epiphany was not that I was an information architect, but that I wasn't very smart. I was, in a sense, an empty bucket—a bucket being filled up by others. All that I knew was what people were teaching me. So I decided that I would put into that empty bucket only those things that I truly understood. How would I know if I truly understood something I would know I understood if I could explain it to another human being. So my epiphany had nothing to do with architecture— only with my personal limitations, a collection of my own thoughts which had nothing to with a career. In fact, it led to a very unsuccessful life (for quite a number of years).
   Nobody cared about the fact that I was stupid or an empty bucket. Nobody cared at all. In fact, I was unpopular at meetings for admitting that I didn't understand what people were saying, because an admission of ignorance wasn't the behavior that was rewarded in or society. It wasn't—and still isn't—popular to ask questions rather than answer questions. Answering questions was rewarded; asking them wasn't. It also wasn't popular to try to understand the nature of failure. It was popular to try to replicate success.
   I kept doing what I was doing, and success caught up to me when I was in my 50s. But I had a long run of not doing anything that was thought to be valuable to society—I'm talking about financial success, power, positioning in companies, positioning in society.


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   My expertise has always been my ignorance, my admission and acceptance of not knowing. My work comes from questions, not from answers.


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   There are two parts to solving any problem: What you want to accomplish, and how you want to do it. Even the most creative people attack issues by leaping over what they want to do and going on to how they will do it. There are many how's but only one what. What drives the how's? You must always ask the question "What is?" before you ask the question "How to?"


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   Once you see or understand something, you cannot conceive of what it was like not to have seen or understood it. You lose the ability to identify with those who don't know.


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Tell me and I forget,
Teach me and I remember,
Involve me and I learn.
– Benjamin Franklin


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   Ideas that aren't attached to images are forgotten. If you are trying to understand the DNA molecule, you could memorize all the formulas or you could read the story of Francis Crick and how he unlocked its secrets. The image of the man and his work would help you remember the formulas.
   Learning is like Velcro. An unfiltered fact is not a complete fastener. Only one side of learning is made up of facts; the other consists of stores—that is, ideas and images.


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   When you are presenting information to your audiences, remember that although you're exceptionally familiar with the topic, they may not have any idea what you are talking about. In every presentation, begin with something familiar. Give your audience at least one fact they already know and tie that into the new material you are presenting. Give them something slightly familiar so they have a starting point, and initial connection to the new world that you're bringing to them.


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   The most common frustration I have is trying to use the "Help" section on a specific family of software products that I'm sure many of you use every single day. have you ever wondered how to set up a spreadsheet so that a certain column will print on every single page? Do you know what they call that process? I don't either. Which is why every single time I want to accomplish this task, I spend about the same amount of time searching the help menu for what I think this topic should be called as I did creating the spreadsheet.


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   When we communicate, we usually have some idea we are trying to share, but we don't always know if that corresponds with the picture we have planted in someone else's mind. When we give instructions, we test our ability to communicate information and gauge how much we really know about a process or place, by how well our instructions are followed.


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   When people ask me what I do, sometimes I tell them that I give good instructions.


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   There are only three means of description available to us: words, pictures, and numbers. The palette is limited. Generally, the best instructions rely on all three, but in any instance one should predominate, while the other two are used to serve and extend. The key to giving good instructions lies in the ability to choose the appropriate means.


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   Everybody is talking about customization: how to customize newspapers, the Web experience, marketing. What a worthless idea. Companies have invested millions in this idea. They are all missing the fact that people often buy what they didn't know they wanted, or are most interested in what they didn't know they were looking for. That's why print newspapers survive. You can learn about something that wasn't on your "topics of interest." That's the whole serendipitous appeal of newspapers. No matter what you put in, you should never be given exactly what you ask for because you never know the limitations that puts on you. If you get everything you want, you won't get much.


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   Isador Isaac Rabi, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, attributed his success to the way his mother used to greet him when he came home from school each day. "Did you ask any good questions today, Isaac?" she would say.


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   So many meetings are based on people telling you why you shouldn't do something. We learn too early that the way to protect yourself is to be negative. As an architect, I created Wurman's Law #3: "In recognition that any good idea is a fragile thing, you have to give it a few minutes to breathe—like a good red wine."


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   To comprehend something yourself, you have to have the impetus to make it understandable.


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   The quality of information is judged not only by its accuracy and clarity, but by the impact it has on its audience.… Does it have meaning or is it merely facts?


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   Following instructions is one of the most most difficult comprehension tasks encountered in daily life.
– H.A. Simon & J.R. Hayes, Understanding Complex Task Instructions


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   Just how effective communications are depends in large part on how well they instruct. The quality of information is judged not only by its accuracy and clarity, but by the impact it has on its audience.

  • Is it useful and relevant?
  • Does it have meaning or is it merely facts?
  • Is it feedback to the audience's question?
  • Does it have the power to change or expand the audience's knowledge?


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Building Blocks of Actionable Instructions

  1. Purpose (Reason) - We're having a party to celebrate our anniversary.
  2. Objective (Destination) - We'd like you to come to our house next Friday.
  3. Core (Procedure) - Our address is 1015 Forest. Get off at the Oak Park exit on the Eisenhower Expressway.
  4. Time (Duration) - The whole drive should take about 35 minutes in moderate traffic.
  5. Expectation (Anticipation) - On the expressway, you will pass Central Avenue and the Austin Avenue before you come to Oak Park.
  6. Failure (Error) - If you see the exit for River Forest, you have gone too far.


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   Instructions are so powerful that just adding an instruction to be creative can lead people to solutions that are more creative. Psychologist Melba A. Colgrove conducted a study at the University of Michigan with 475 students who were asked to find solutions to time-scheduling problems on a subassembly line. The students were divided into two groups and were both given identical instructions to suggest a work schedule that would produce the best results. One group received an additional instruction—"Be Creative."
   In the group given the standard instructions, only 39 percent arrived at what was deemed the highest quality solutions. In the group that received the instruction to be original, the rate was 52 percent.


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   The chances for clarity increase as a message becomes more absolute, but so do the constraints. The search for perfect instructions requires finding the balance between clarity and constraint, between the relative and the absolute. There is magic in the ambiguity of the relative, but there is also confounding mystery.


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   According to T. Harrell Allen in The Bottom Line: Communicating in the Organization, "research indicates that 50 percent understanding between supervisor and subordinate on job descriptions is about the best level of understanding that is generally reached."

Importance of Job Elements, as Seen by Employees and Foremen

Chart showing employee's and foremen's rating of job elements


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   My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.
– Charles F. Kettering


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   The notion of learning to walk has lingered in my mind, and I've contemplated the process of teaching someone to walk again. I realized that this process has a lot to do with thrusting a leg out into the terror of losing your balance, then regaining your equilibrium, moving you forward, then repeating with your other leg. Failure as loss of balance, the success of equilibrium, and you move forward. Terror of failing, confidence, regaining your balance—it's a fascinating metaphor for life. Risk is half the process of moving forward. The risk of falling is inherent in achieving a goal.


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