I'm not dumb, I just don't know any better

Yesterday I talked a little bit about how the key to engagement in the educational space (especially with MOOCs) is having course material that is designed properly, so that the student achieves some learning *success* (an aha! moment) each time they engage with the program in question.

The aha! moments are the *rewards* in the operant conditioning loop.

I then talked about how the devil is in the details, and how creating the proper course materials and course structure is where the behavior-design really occurs—and I gave you a book that can help you with this process: “Why don’t students like school?

Today I want to talk a little bit about a concept that applies to every design challenge you’ll face, whether you’re creating communications, building a website, or planning a talk to your colleagues – “background knowledge”.

Each of us, based on our life experience and education, has a huge storehouse of knowledge in our minds. If you live in the United States, for example, you likely know a good deal about baseball—even if you don’t realize it. First of all, you know that it’s a game involving a small, hard ball. Second, you probably know that it takes place on a diamond and that it involves someone called a “pitcher”. Third, you likely know that this individual throws the small, hard ball at someone who holds a long cylindrical piece of wood—“a bat”—who tries to hit it as hard as he can. And so on.

Now, let’s pretend that you’re in a meeting and a colleague of yours says that the proposal they just presented “struck out” with the management. Because you have the background knowledge about baseball I just laid out, you’re quickly able to understand the meaning of his phrase—his presentation with management did NOT go well. If you didn’t have that information in your head, you’d be out of luck, and would likely misinterpret what your colleague said (“Oh! It sounds like the meeting went well.”)

People don’t realize how important our memories are to our cognition. If someone doesn’t understand the meaning of something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are dumb; it just means that they don’t have the right background knowledge (the right memories) in their head in order to make sense of the situation at hand. So much of what we consider thinking is really memory retrieval.

This is something that all of us need to realize when we’re building things. We need to have a deep understanding of what the people we’re building for *do* and *do not* know. If they’re unlikely to be familiar with Facebook, for example, they probably won’t instantly know how to use a feed and understand the “friending” model the app is built around. Yes, they’ll be able to learn, but it might not be instantaneously obvious.

Before you write or build anything, be sure to sit down and do some real thinking about your audience. If you have time, do a methodical study of what they read, what they do, and what they know. Get into their heads. It’ll save you plenty of headaches, and give your project a fighting chance of ‘clicking’ with its intended audience. You’re speaking their language, after all. 

I’ll write more about how to do this properly in future emails.

Jason Hreha