How Content Companies Can Fight Users' Information Overload

Jan 24, 2014


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Article ImageThe amount of data produced each day is staggering. In fact, the Harvard Business Review points out that "more data cross the internet every second than were stored in the entire internet just 20 years ago." Because of this, internet users experience "information overload," where they become overwhelmed with the bevy of information available -- even pushed on them -- through multiple technologies.

"The problem today is that people have developed a Pavlovian response to information; they run to it," says Jonathan Spira, industry analyst and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization. "Typically, when a user hears a ding indicating new mail, he drops what he is doing, and then attempts to return to the original task."

Spira says these interruptions quickly add up, resulting in what he's called "recovery time," which is the amount of time it takes a person to get back to where they were before they were interrupted.

On average, Spira says this can take 10-20 times longer than the original interruption, so just a 30-second pause can result in five minutes of recuperation. This phenomenon negatively impacts businesses, workers, and profits. Spira's book estimates that a minimum of 28 billion hours is lost each year to information overload in the U.S., and that one major Fortune 500 company loses $1 billion per year to overload.

Recovery time and information overload are serious threats to professionals. Being able to identify relevant, reputable information can be the determining factor between employees getting tasks done accurately in both a timely and fiscally-conscious manner.

 "Even though there are answers that didn't exist previously, navigating that ocean of data is becoming harder and harder," says Ella Balagula, senior vice president of engineering and technology at Knovel, a company whose application enables engineers a way to find and analyze relevant content for their projects.

Balagula says, "Finding the right answer at the right time, and being able to use that answer to accomplish your task is exactly what will distinguish an information-literate person from a non-literate."

Spira believes the problem starts with the user. "We are our own worst enemy. We do a terrible job focusing." He says that oftentimes, most people have no idea about the cost of information overload, and "if you just start to educate people that that the problem exists and comes with a high cost, you will begin to see a decrease in the problem."

Balagula believes that content companies can take this a step further by creating smart, information-literate products. She suggests they do this by thinking in the native language of their users.

"Chemists don't necessarily think in terms of sentences and text," she says. "They think in terms of chemical compounds and chemical reactions, and the way they ask a question, they want to ask it in their native language. They may not want to write ‘how do I such and such,' they want to draw maybe a compound."

She also says that users want to see actionable, interactive answers, as well. For example, she says Knovel doesn't just take information available and make it digital, they also allow engineers to go into their results, download them, import directives, or conduct working scenarios to see how the values change.

"If you can manipulate it, you can make an analysis of it and use it for your model," Balagula says. This results in higher accuracy for a company's employees and its product's users.

In the end, companies aware of information overload waste who also work hard to produce information-literate products will gain a competitive advantage. "If you can find information that your competitor cannot, more often than not that's what leads faster, safer products to market," Balagula says.

"Today, the ability to get your hands on the answer faster and with a higher degree of precision than your competition is going to define the winners."

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)