The Power of Information

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Both having access to large amounts of unorganised information and having access to no information at all trigger similar feelings of anxiety and unease.

Much has been written about the current information age, how we are information overloaded, and have access to tonnes of data and information everywhere, and how all that information is making us feel anxious and confused. At the same time, little has been written about those situations in which the lack of information can trigger similar feelings. The following ordinary story will hopefully shed light on how having too little information can affect our reading of a situation, and consequent feelings and actions:

  • The situation. Last month, I went to the airport to take a flight back home. As soon as I arrived to the airport, I looked for a ‘Departure screen’ to check the flight status. The flight was ‘On time.’ Because I didn’t have any luggage to check-in, I went directly through passport control.
  • Knowing. I was looking for a place to sit down and wait for the flight when I received a text message letting me know that the flight seemed to be almost three hours delayed.
  • Confusion. My instant reaction was responding ‘No, you are wrong’ to the text message. How could it be that someone that wasn’t in the airport and wasn’t related to the airline at all had more information about the flight status than me. With the phone on my hand, I walked to another ‘Departure screen’, and I checked the flight status. Now, the flight was ‘Delayed.’ The text message was right.
  • Seeking Information. I decided to walk all the way to my gate and talk to someone from the airline. When I arrived to the gate, it was closed. So, I walked through the entire Departures Hall trying to find a customer service representative from the airlines or an information desk, but I didn’t find any at all. Luckily, the airport had free WiFi and I had my laptop (my phone was running out of battery and didn’t have the charger with me). I checked the flight status online. The flight was ‘2.30 hours  Delayed.’
  • Realisation. My 1-hour flight was 2 and half hours delayed. I had also arrived to the airport more than one hour in advance, so all together my waiting time would be more than four hours. And it was already 6.30pm.
  • Seeking Understanding. By now I knew my flight was delayed, but I didn’t know the reasons. In addition, mine was the very last flight of the day going back home, if that flight was cancelled, I would have had to say overnight. In order to understand the situation better, I checked the weather forecast in the airport and back home. Weather was sunny, no rain, snow, or strong winds here or there. Then, I tracked the plane to know whether there might be any mechanical problems reported somewhere. I found nothing.
  • Anxiety. Almost an hour later, tired of not finding any further information, I found a quiet spot and try to do some work, but I was quite distracted and still needing to understand why the flight was so delayed. About one and a half hours left for the new departure time, I checked online the flight status again, because the only information provided by the screen monitors was that the flight was ‘Delayed.’ According to the Internet, the flight had been delayed for another hour. It was already 8pm, and the new delay was pushing the flight for around 10.30pm. At this point, I needed an answer from someone at the airport as all my information was coming from Google, maybe the Internet was wrong after all? I went to the gate again. The gate was still closed and almost empty.
  • Gaining Understanding. Eventually a person from the airline came to the gate and explained the problem. First, there had been a mechanical problem with the plane, and then they had a problem with the crew. They were waiting for a new crew to arrive in order to fly the plane.
  • Ease. Instantly, having the answers and information I needed helped me understand what the problem was and made me less anxious. I still had almost two more hours of waiting, but my mind was at ease. I sat for the rest of the evening reading and working until the flight finally took me back home.

Often, when we encounter a problem we go through the above phases until we find the pieces of information we need that allows us to gain the understanding we need. This understanding can or cannot be the solution to the problem, but it will help us find it or deal with the problem. When a key piece of information is missing or the information given is incomplete or misleading, we can get stuck in the initial phases experiencing anxiety and, sometimes, anger, because we don’t know what to do.

Wurman explained the phenomenon of information anxiety as ‘the gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand.’ This phenomenon is often related to situations in which we are overloaded with information, because we have too much information to digest, make sense of and gain an understanding from. However, similar feelings are experienced when we have no access to information at all. In these cases, our understanding of a situation is non-existent or incomplete too.

In terms of information design, ill-conceived solutions are the ones that fail to provide key informational components that provide readers/users the information they need to gain an understanding of a situation, and therefore generate feelings of anxiety and stress, or make people take the wrong decisions. In other words, ill-conceived information design does not refer to the use of certain tools or aesthetics.

To conclude, some wise words by Will Burtin about this topic:

“Information is power. Conveying information is conveying power to people, empowering them”

– Wurman, R.S. (1989) Information Anxiety. DoubleDay
– Remington, R.R. (2009) The Display of Visual Knowledge. RIT. Cary Graphic Arts Press

 

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