Attention, please

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Is Google making us stupid?

To make this author’s point for him, I didn’t finish reading that article. I was researching something else, and it was one of about five open tabs I was skimming simultaneously.

Yesterday I read a fantastic interview on the Spinoff about why our political system is broken — policies tinker around the edges in neat soundbites rather than tackling actual structural change, which is not only seen as too big to manage, but too hard for the public to comprehend in a Stuff article or a news segment.

But the world is complex. Our problems are complex.

In my work, we take difficult government information and make it easier to understand and act on. Clients and users and user-experience researchers tend to think this means we can make it simple. We can simplify, but this type of information fundamentally isn’t simple.

After user testing, testers frequently used to come back to me with, “users said it was too long and hard to understand. We recommend you make it shorter.”

This is why we try our hardest to always be involved in planning and executing testing now — it’s valid feedback, but for government entitlements and processes, it’s also useless. We’ve already made it as short as we can: whatever’s left is the information required to do the thing. There are ways of cutting it up and displaying it and phrasing it to make it easier for most people to find only the pieces they need (which is where we try to focus testing), but until someone gives us leave to rewrite legislation along with the website, the information required is the information required.

Recently, we’ve had several meetings with clients’ senior managers about syndicating content. This is an idea that goes around government every few years before sinking back into the depths of 5-year technology strategies. It’s a great idea, in theory: rewrite your web content so you can serve compact, distinct “bites” of information on any site or platform (the word “snackable” was used repeatedly).

The thing is, I’ve never really seen it work in government. I’d argue it’s never really worked anywhere other than a google results page. If your content boils down into a three-line snack, it’s not content — it’s a fact.

There might be a place for this, if it’s ever worth the technology that would be required to centralise it: “The GST rate is 15%”, “Daylight savings changes on Sunday 24 September”, “Student loan repayments are 10% of your before-tax income”. (Also, Google is already doing this, and with reasonable accuracy.)

Anything beyond that would have to be so simplistic as to be functionally useless. We already try to write page summaries that say something definite about the content of the page, so our best suggestion is probably to just syndicate your page summaries where they fit and provide a link to the main content… then fix that main content as best you can. There will never be a way to claim paid parental leave or figure out your child support in three lines.

There will also never be a plan to end child poverty or a way to grasp the impacts of climate change that can be conveyed in a news break or a paragraph you can share on Facebook. I worry the internet is not only rewiring our brains to read less deeply and and spend less time thinking about what we’ve read (I did read some of the article), but to expect that everything we need to know can be rolled up into a Wikipedia page summary — and that it’s okay to form opinions and make choices and vote based only on that summary.

For anyone who’s interested, here are two things we’ve worked on lately that experiment with syndicating or bite-sizing content, with reasonable success:

By Katie Freire

Writer of things. Annoyer of cats. Mother of very small dragons.

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