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3 “Magical” Steps to Curbing Information Overload

Posted by Jen Golden on Wed, Feb 24, 2016

iStock_000024159442_Illustration.jpgRecently the WNYC podcast “Note to Self” (@NoteToSelf) released a week-long challenge to its listeners aimed at curbing information overload in our daily lives. In today’s internet-driven society, we’re hit from all angles with information, and it can be difficult to decide what information or content to consume in a day without being totally overwhelmed. I decided to participate in this challenge, and as the week progressed, I realized that many of the lessons from this exercise could be applied to our clients—who often struggle with information overload in their businesses.

The “InfoMagical” challenge worked like this: 

Challenge 1: “A Magical Day” – No multi-tasking, only single-tasking.

  • This challenge centered on focusing on one task at a time throughout the day. I knew this was going to be a struggle right from the start since my morning commute on the train typically involves listening to a podcast, scanning the news, checking social media, and catching up on emails at the same time. For this challenge, I stuck to one podcast (on the Architecture of Dumplings). By the end of the day, I felt more knowledgeable about the topics I focused on (ask me anything about jiaozi), as opposed to taking in little bits of information from various sources. 
  • Research Implications: Our clients often come to us with a laundry list of research objectives they want to capture in a single study. To maintain the quality of the data, we need to make trade-offs regarding what we can (or can’t) include in our design. We focus on designing projects around business decisions, asking our clients to prioritize the information they need in order to make the decisions they are facing. Some pieces may be “nice to have,” but they ultimately may not help answer a business decision. By following this focused approach, we can provide actionable insights on the topics that matter most.

 Challenge 2: “A Magical Phone” – Tidy up your smartphone apps.

  • This challenge asked me to clean up and organize my smartphone apps to keep only the ones that were truly useful to me. While I wasn’t quite ready to make a full commitment and delete Instagram or Facebook (how could I live without them?), I did bury them in a folder so I would be less likely to absentmindedly click through them every time I picked up my phone. Organizing and keeping only the apps you really need makes the device more task-oriented and less likely to be a distraction. 
  • Research Implications: When we design a questionnaire, answer option lists can often become long and unwieldy. With more and more respondents taking surveys on smartphones, it is important to make answer option lists manageable for respondents to answer. Often, a list can be cleaned up to include only the answer options that will produce useful results. Here are two ways to do this: (1) look at results from past studies with similar answer options lists to determine what was useful vs. not (i.e., what options had very high responses vs. very low) or (2) if the project is a tracker, run a factor analysis on the list to see if it can be paired down into a smaller sub-set of options for the next wave. This results in more meaningful (and higher quality) results going forward.  

Challenge 3: "A Magical Brain" – Avoid a meme, trending topic, or “must-read” today.

  • I did this challenge the day of the Iowa Caucuses, and it was hard to avoid all the associated coverage. But, when I looked at the results the next day, I realized I was happy enough just knowing the final results. I didn’t need to follow the minute-by-minute details of the night, including every Donald Trump remark and every Twitter comment. In this case, endless information did not make me feel better informed. 
  • Research Implications: Our clients often say they want to see the results of a study shown every which way, reporting out on every question by every possible sub-segment. There is likely some “FOMO” (fear of missing out) going on here, as clients might worry we are missing a key storyline by not showing everything. We often take the approach of not showing every single data point; instead, we only highlight differences in the data where it adds to the story in a significant and meaningful way. There comes a point when too much data overwhelms decisions. 

The other two pieces of this challenge focused on verbally communicating the information I learned on a single topic and setting a personal information mantra to say every time I consumed information (mine was “take time to digest after you consume it”). By the end of the challenge, even though I didn’t consume as much information as I typically do in a week, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything (except maybe some essential Bachelor episode recaps), and I felt more knowledgeable about the information I did consume. 

Jen Golden is a Project Manager on the Tech/E-commerce practice at CMB. She wishes there was more hours in the day to listen to podcasts without having to multi-task.  

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Topics: mobile, business decisions, research design