Brain-Friendly Principles for Document Design

Whether creating Work-as-Prescribed in our documents, or Work-as-Instructed in our training materials, it is important to consider good cognitive practices. If we start from two principles we quickly can start doing some amazing things.

  1. Organize resources so it’s easy to understand. Reduce cognitive load by breaking information down into small, digestible chunks and arranging them into patterns that make sense to the individual. Always start by giving an overview so individuals know how all the smaller chunks fit together.
  2. Use visuals. The brain has an incredible ability to remember visual images so you must exploit that as you look for ways to reinforce key learning points. Create tools that are primarily visual rather than word-based. Use images in place of text (or at least minimize the text). Use videos and animations to help people understand key concepts.

We can drive a lot of effectiveness into our processes by structuring information to make complex documents more transparent and accessible to their users. Visual cues can provide an ‘attention hierarchy’, making sure that what is most important is not overlooked. People tend to find more usable what they find beautiful, and a wall of text simply looks scary, cumbersome, and off-putting for most people. I am a strong advocate of beauty in system design, and I would love to see Quality departments better known for their aesthetic principles and for tying all our documents into good cognitive principles.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory (CLT) can help us understand why people struggle so much in reading and understanding contracts. Developed by John Sweller, while initially studying problem-solving, CLT postulates that learning happens best when information is presented in a way that takes into consideration human cognitive structures. Limited working memory capacity is one of the characteristic aspects of human cognition: thus, comprehension and learning can be facilitated by presenting information in ways minimizing working memory load.

Adapted from Atkinson, R.C. and Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). ‘Human memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes’. In Spence, K.W. and Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation, (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195

Structure and Display

Information structure (how the content is ordered and organized) and information display (how it is visually presented) play a key role in supporting comprehension and performance. A meaningful information structure helps readers preserve continuity, allowing the formation of a useful and easy-to-process mental model. Visual information display facilitates mental model creation by representing information structures and relationships more explicitly, so readers do not have to use cognitive resources to develop a mental model from scratch.

Leveraging in your process/procedure documents

Much of what is considered necessary SOP structure is not based on how people need to find and utilize information. Many of the parts of a document taken for granted (e.g. reference documents, definitions) are relics from paper-based systems. It is past time to reinvent the procedure.

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