The aim of information designers is to get to the bottom of a problem and find the most appropriate solution. Constructing deep understanding of each situation is essential to achieve that goal, and develop high quality effective outcomes. In a previous post, I briefly explained the learning process we go through in order to gain an understanding of a problem or situation. In this post, I discuss a correlation between the levels of understanding (e.g. deep or surface), and the levels of learning. Knowing what each level involves may help information designers develop the necessary skills and tools to gain full understanding at the beginning and during the process of sensemaking. And, they could also help them identify the missing bricks in order to reach deep understanding.
The SOLO taxonomy of learning represents the cognitive processes we experience when we face a new situation that requires knowledge construction, e.g. a new project. The more we learn about a project, the more complex the learning process becomes, and more cognitive actions are required. This taxonomy describes five phases involving different levels of learning and understanding. To exemplify the taxonomy, I describe each phase using a client-information designer interaction throughout different stages of a project:
1. Pre-structural level
When we face a new situation we have no understanding at all because we may not be familiar with the subject matter. Consequently, we often can’t distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, and sometimes we can even miss the point.
Client explains: So, the problem we need help with is how to describe the process of photosynthesis. You know, we need to communicate the importance of converting light energy to chemical energy and storing it in the bonds of sugar. But of course pointing out that Kingdom Protista plants need only light energy, CO2, and H2O to make sugar.
InfoDesigner responds & thinks: Ehhh… yes of course (…mmm what are Protista plants…)
Information designers don’t often have a chemistry background or basic related knowledge, and initially when working in an interdisciplinary project, all incoming information can sound foreign. We need to actively interact with all stakeholders, request further information and clarifications to make sure what our next steps will be.
2. Uni-structural level
As we gain familiarity with the situation, we start acquiring basic related knowledge, which gives as competence to start identifying the most relevant aspect. At this point, we can only focus on one relevant aspect at the time. To develop our understanding, we need to complement clients’ incoming information with our own research and learnings.
InfoDesigner identifies: Ok, so the problem is to communicate a process about how plants react to light energy. But… I’m still unsure why the way they have been communicating the process so far is unclear, and what those plants are.
As info designers, we need to learn the big picture of the problem. This means that we need to get familiar with the specific subject matter of the problem, but also with all aspects involved and understand why the problem emerged. So this means we learn two types of knowledge: problem subject domain (e.g. chemistry, health care, finance), and problem characteristics (e.g. communication problem, process problem, a story, specific audience, technicalities, etc.)
3. Multi-structural level
The more we learn, the more we start focusing on many different aspects of the problem (e.g. stakeholders involved in the communication of the process, more aspects involved in the process itself that need to be communicated), but we still haven’t gained enough knowledge to connect all aspects to get the big picture. So, we work with all aspects independently by enumerating, classifying and organising them.
InfoDesigner describes: The main aspects of the problem are plants, light energy, CO2, and H2O… I need to consider the audience to which the clients want to communicate the process, identify the reasons why it isn’t currently working, and how was the situation before…
Some info designers stop the learning process at this level as they have already identified main components and aspects of the problem, and don’t ask any more questions or gather any further information. When this happens info designers fail to get to the bottom of the problem and understand why the problem is happening, and what would be the best way to solve it.
4. Relational level
When we conduct further explorations and research, we start integrating all aspects into a coherent whole (big picture!). We link details to conclusions, and we understand the meaning of what the client was initially describing. We have gained enough familiarity to relate, compare, and analyse the incoming information.
InfoDesigner connects: Ah! Protista plants are a type of plans which experience specific characteristics during the photosynthesis process. And this point wasn’t explained clearly in the slides the clients have previously created and used to show to the students. This is why the problem started. This group of students may not have understood that point, but they did understand the process of photosynthesis in general. So the solution should be focused on adding clarity on some slides…
5. Extended understanding
When we are immersed in a situation we develop the capacity to generalise a case beyond the information given. We start to hypothesize, and depending on the complexity, even to theorise. This helps us produce possible hypotheses and solutions based on our previous learnings.
InfoDesigner reflects: This problem reminds me of one I worked a few years ago. I will compare this case with that one, revise what methods I used, and what solution I created. And also check feedback from any evaluations. That experience will help inform the client new insights and enrich the process in general too.
When we only reach a learning level 2 or a 3 about a problem situation, we are gaining surface understanding, but when we push ourselves and get into the problem reaching learning levels 4 or 5, we are achieving a deeper understanding. As information designers, these are the levels we should always aim for.
Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding 2/3: Watch Video here