Three tips to make your content more brain-friendly – by Tina Lüdtke
Tina Lüdtke | December 03, 2020
The link between psychology and technical writing might not be obvious but this article will show you why you should care. Once you understand how the brain registers information and processes it, you can design your content to leverage those mechanisms. Learn how to improve your writing based on the intellectual processes in the brain.
The brain's information processing mechanisms
The psychologists Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin have discovered that the brain has three different kinds of memory. Their purpose is to determine what impressions from the world around you should remember and for how long. Unimportant information is forgotten in a matter of seconds or minutes, so making content as brain-friendly as possible matters. The three memories are the sensory memory, the working memory, and the long-term memory.
Learning with our senses
Our senses connect us to the outside world. Depending on which expert you are asking, humans might have up to 53 different senses. Let’s stick with the well-known five: hearing, taste, vision, smell, and touch. While vision and hearing might be the predominant mode of learning, please note that all senses contribute to learning processes. For example, babies explore their surroundings with their mouths. Smell is also relevant to identify the quality of an object. In a workplace setting, technicians might spot defective parts by smell when bare metal parts rub against each other without a lubricant. However, as technical communicators we present our audience with texts, images, and sometimes multimedia content, so this article focuses on vision and hearing.
The sensory memory
The sensory memory has the shortest recall span of the three systems. Its purpose is to filter out any unimportant information. The attention span of our senses vary. When you listen to a conversation, the auditory information is retained for about three seconds before it is discarded. That means when a sentence ends, you can still remember the last few words of that sentence. Visual information remains for even less time in the sensory memory, with about one second. If our brain decides that what we perceived is worth recalling, it is passed on to the working memory.
The working memory
The purpose of the working memory is to actively process information. It holds information longer than the sensory memory, for up to 30 seconds. Different types of information are processed by different subsystems of the working memory. The following three subsystems, as proposed by psychologist Alan Baddeley, are relevant for technical communication:
The central executive: This part coordinates the different parts of the working memory and decides what information goes into the long-term memory. It helps us to focus on one thing by suppressing the urge to think about distractions.
The visuo-spatial sketchpad: The visuo-spatial sketchpad processes visual impressions and the space around you. When you focus on an image, your mind creates a copy that helps you remember objects and their position. An everyday example is navigating your way through the city. It is easier to use a map from a bird’s eye perspective when it is simplified than when it shows the terrain. You can remember the plain map more easily because of its reduced complexity.
The phonological loop: The phonological loop processes auditory information. To remember sounds and speech, your mind keeps on repeating them. This phenomenon is called the “inner ear” and is the reason why you can’t get rid of a catchy song. There is an “inner voice” as well, which generates inner speech. Fun fact: even when your lips don’t move, inner speech activates the same brain areas as speaking. The inner voice plays a key part in the reading process. Although your eyes register the text in the visual part of the working memory, your inner voice reads the words and activates the phonological loop as well.
Before we look at saving information to our long-term memory, let’s examine how the long-term memory is organized to make sure we’re addressing the right kind of memory.
The long-term memory
Mental Models are the glue that sticks together facts, beliefs, emotions, and also certain behaviors about a concept. Let’s take the smartphone as an example. Some aspects of a smartphone apply to all smartphones, such as that it has a touchscreen or that it is portable. The mental model also stores usage patterns, such as using the home button to return to the home screen. This is a behavior that you have learned and employ quite naturally. Fun fact: There are many metaphors in tech, when you look out for them, such as home and home screen.
When you buy a new smartphone that doesn’t have a home button anymore, you might have to swipe up from the bottom edge of your screen to get to the home screen. At first, you might be frustrated, because you liked the home button. Over time your mental model adapts to the new workflow and you become used to it.
Different regions in the brain store different kinds of memory. Some memories are consciously available (explicit), that means you can recall them when asked. For example, when someone asks you what four times five is, you answer 20 because you’ve learned your tables. The explicit memory stores facts and events - basically all knowledge you have learned.
Other mental models are stowed away in the subconscious (implicit) memory. The implicit memory holds knowledge about procedures and emotional reactions. It allows you to perform routine tasks, such as brushing your teeth, without actively thinking about which angle to hold the toothbrush and remembering to scrub. By automating procedures, the brain lowers the load on the working memory and allows you to process new information.
As technical communicators, we want our users to remember concepts or procedures. Therefore, we aim at two different areas of long-term memory, as concepts go into the explicit memory, and procedures are stored in the implicit memory.
How does information get to the long-term memory?
Now that we know how and where knowledge is stored, we still need to discuss the mechanisms to get into the long term memory.
When you look at the smartphone example from earlier, did you notice how the mental model changed? The user changed their behavior after repeatedly performing the swipe gesture. Psychologists refer to learning by repetition as “compilation”. Compilation plays a great part in learning new activities but is also useful to solidify explicit knowledge, for example when rehearsing new vocabulary.
The second way to learn is called “elaboration”, which means expanding the existing mental model with new information. This method is useful for adding factual information to a mental model. Let’s assume that you currently do not own a smartphone, but you believe owning one makes your life easier. At the beginning of your buying process, you research different models at different price ranges and consider whether they will prove sufficient. These new facts and associated thoughts expand your mental model of a smartphone. This example is a form of active elaboration, meaning that the person has the ability and motivation to think about all these new ideas.
Three tips to improve your content
Now you know how the brain processes information but what does that mean in practice? Improve the reader’s memory performance by applying these three tips:
Write short and concise: Follow simple sentence structures to go easy on the working memory. In general, try to follow the 7 ± 2 rule which says that our working memory can process between five to nine items at a time. For example, when you create a list, try not to include more than seven items.
Know your audience: When creating help content, think of who will consume the information and in what setting. Provide context and activate prior knowledge so that new information fits into the existing mental model.
Code information twice: Engage different senses to raise the chances of remembering. You could describe a concept as a text and provide an infographic as well. Since humans can process images and sound at the same time, video tutorials might be a great addition to your existing help content. Often, a simple screen recording can help your user navigate through a process and might reduce support costs.
However, there is one pitfall concerning mixing text and narration, also known as Powerpoint karaoke. When you present a text and narrate it at the same time, your audience will have a hard time remembering anything. Your audience reads the text, engaging their inner voice and inner ear, but at the same time listens to the narration. This confuses people where to place their attention.
In the following example, I have tweaked the KnowledgeOwl documentation on ratings to illustrate how content looks like using these tips.
What the article already does well is providing context. In the first few paragraphs, the reader learns what the purpose of ratings are, and can decide if they want to implement them. I added screenshots of the features mentioned in the text so the reader knows what the features look like. Another area the article already does well in is providing short and concise information. Instead of explaining the features of the dashboard in a lengthy sentence, the authors chose a bulleted list.
A deficit in the documentation is that the instructions on enabling ratings are not numbered. This can lead to confusion, as it is not clear which tasks belong together. Therefore, I added numbers to the steps in the section Enabling ratings. The reader can easily identify what to do and in which order.
Another area the article could improve in is engaging different senses. For some years now, video is becoming more and more important. A recent survey has shown that the average user spends 2.2 hours per week consuming learning videos. Depending on the preferences of your audience, it makes sense to include video tutorials, since they are 60.000 times faster to process than text. However, since video creation takes a substantial amount of time, I recommend adding video tutorials only for the most important use cases.
As technical writers, we heavily rely on our audience’s vision and hearing, as we explain things using texts, infographics, or videos. Everything we know is stored in mental models.
The content we create becomes better when our audience can easily add new information to their mental models. We can achieve this by giving context or designing our content so that it can be rehearsed. If you want to learn about your users’ mental models, I recommend resources from the Nielsen Norman Group.
The tips mentioned in this article help you create brain-friendly content and can be applied independently of the kind of content. For example, employ the principle of writing short and concise in a reference document to help the reader find quickly what they were looking for. A tutorial benefits from addressing multiple senses at the same time and adding context, as the user might do something for the first time.