There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Information

I often hear people complain that they’re swamped with too much information. They’re wrong. Nobody wants to go back to a world in which we had access to less information. We’re fortunate to live in a world where we can access massive amounts of information, anywhere.

The problem isn’t too much information. The problem is that we experience much of it out of context. We feel overwhelmed because we’re exposed to too much stuff we either don’t understand or can do anything about — at the moment.

Information is only useful to the degree that it allows us to make better decisions. (That is, decisions that support skillful actions.) This requires that information be meaningful and actionable. Much information we come across is neither, but not because these things are somehow missing from information. Meaning and actionability aren’t inherent to information. Instead, they emerge from the interaction between particular people with particular information elements at particular moments.

Let me give you an example. Whenever my car has a problem, I take it to a repair shop. There, a mechanic will examine the car to see what’s wrong with it. After a day or so I get a call to explain what’s wrong. Invariably the caller will rattle off a list of the parts that are giving trouble.

Now, I only have a cursory understanding of how cars work. I’m also busy. For somebody like me, this list of parts is not useful information; it’s cruft. I patiently wait on the line for the service agent to tell me in plain English what’s wrong with the car, what they propose to do about it, and — most importantly — how much it’s going to cost me. (Usually, the longer the list of bad parts, the more anxious I get, since I know it’s likely to cost more. I suspect that’s why many repair shops do this.)

I must take this person’s assessment of the situation on faith because I don’t have expertise in car repair. (In fact, this difference in expertise is why I took the car to them instead of fixing it myself.) I don’t want the list of parts; I can’t do anything with it. What I want is 1) an expert’s evaluation, 2) what he or she suggests we do about it, and 3) how much it’s going to cost. That’s meaningful and actionable to me.

But that’s me. I also have a friend who’s restored and re-built many cars in his life. To him, the list of bad parts would be meaningful and actionable. (But then again, he’d be quite capable of diagnosing what’s wrong with the car.) Same information; completely different circumstances.

In other words, what’s “too much information” for one person is just right for another. It’s all about context. You don’t want to dumb things down; you want to get the right information to the right person at the right time, so he or she can make good decisions. Identifying and optimizing that sweet spot is one area where information architecture creates enormous value.