[update] Actually, it was the weekend before last. I forgot to publish this post last week…

I was reading a couple of unrelated articles in The Sunday Times last weekend that shared a common theme – the stickiness of information. It made me think (yes, my brain is still in recovery). On the one hand, we can be very lazy about acquiring information (Google trumps the local library for starters), spectacularly avoiding it when we don’t like what it tells us. But on the other hand, when we find information that fits our expectations, it becomes very sticky and we are reluctant to let it go. I believe this has important consequences for information systems design.

Article no.1 – Michael Schumacher

In Formula 1 motor racing, Michael Schumacher has been at the top for over a decade and the results speak for themselves. Seven world championships and in the running for an eighth. With his retirement all but announced (and it was on Sunday), Martin Brundle wrote an article covering Schumacher’s career and the reasons why he won’t be remembered just as a great champion.

“He cannot see when he crosses the line between tough but fair and ruthless but foul… exacerbated by his total belief that he cannot be wrong. He has a default mode in the car: if you’re going to pass him, he will drive you off the road.”

Brundle goes on to list some examples, including two title-deciding races that saw the contenders seeing dust, literally. There were other incidents too, such as when his team-mate was required to move over to let him win, and when he won a race by delaying a penalty pit stop until his final lap to minimise the time he would lose. He didn’t break the rules but his behaviour didn’t fit with ‘fair play’, an emotive subject. And that’s why everybody remembers. For all the races he won, the pole positions, the podium finishes that by far outweigh incidents of questionable behaviour and the sheer brilliance of his driving skills, he’ll be remembered for the sticky information.

Article no.2 – Afghanistan

On a far more serious note, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan was back in the headlines. A comment in one of the many articles highlighted the challenge facing the NATO-led campaign:

“The Taliban have won the information war”, admitted a senior military officer last week. “Everyone is convinced we’re there to destroy the poppy and thus their livelihood. We’ve not provided any information to farmers so why should they think any different?”

Here is sticky information of a very different and far more dangerous nature, putting lives at risk. The story the farmers have been given fits with the evidence in front of their eyes and directly affects them in a bad way. Whose side would you take if you were in their shoes? How do you persuade them to believe you instead?

Fortunately, most information systems do not involve risking peoples’ lives. But information systems design rarely takes into account the sticky factor. Instead, the focus is usually on prioritising information based on its importance, and importance is usually determined by the sender rather than the receiver. Hence the home page of an intranet will be filled with business goals and news (e.g. “we’ve won a big new order for product X!”) that, at best, gets read once whilst the sticky information (e.g. “they’re going to outsource product X and make us all redundant”) travels through the unofficial grapevine. Next time you are designing a web site or thinking about adding another KPI (key performance indicator) to a dashboard, ask whether or not the information is sticky – will it change actions or will it be ignored? Is there existing sticky information that needs to be removed? Can it be removed?

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