Harry: “I am not seeing the value in it. Can you explain it clearly? Is there any other solution?”
Tom: “This is not making much sense. You can try doing this instead. This is much simpler”
Percy: “Next time when you are presenting, I would suggest you put more thoughts into it”
Ron was trembling with anxiety. He was trying to make a point but ended up rambling badly. That was his second botched attempt of dodging those bullets. Ron is a victim of “Cognitive Offloading”
What is Cognitive Offloading?
Cognitive offloading refers to our reliance on the external environment in order to reduce cognitive demand
From “A role for metamemory in cognitive offloading”
Internet has changed the way our memory works in a significant manner. There is almost an answer for everything and it is just a click away. And smartphones made it so much easier. We rely on the internet for everything, even for trivial tasks. It has considerably affected our learning, recall and problem-solving skills. Is that bad for designers? .Yes, it is.
In an experiment conducted by Benjamin Storm and others, when a group of participants was asked to answer some challenging questions, a significant percentage of members from the group with internet option failed to attempt even simple questions from their memory. They primarily relied on google to answer all the questions.
There is so much information out there but whether we absorb it properly, internalize it and convert into knowledge is of question. Of course, the internet is needed for gaining new information. We cannot store every single fact and detail in our memory and the internet is a source for inspiration too. But, we are so much used to the internet and we are now trying to use it for problem-solving and decision making.
We find a solution and try to fit it into our problems. It is basically like taking other’s opinions and making them our own.
This is what French Renaissance polymath Michel de Montaigne had to say
“We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him, who having need of fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home… What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat, if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us?”
What are the side effects of cognitive offloading?
Doing a very bad job at defending design decisions
Articulating your design decisions and defending them is one of the important skills of designers if we need to make our point clear across the team. This gets affected badly if we haven’t done a proper work of problem-solving. We lookout for online inspirations but in the process try to adapt them and use them to solve our own problems. That restricts our critical thinking ability and not able to fend ourselves from the questions from our stakeholders
Fixing the symptoms instead of the root cause
We don’t give enough consideration into the real problem, rather we look at the symptom superficially and provide sub-optimal treatment. So the problems start creeping up again and we don’t know how to fix it
Illusion of competence
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”
This is one of the quotes that come to our mind when thinking about knowledge and competence. Even this quote has citation issues and internet attributes to different persons. It is not clear whether it is said by physicist Stephen Hawking or the Librarian of the U.S. Congress Daniel J. Boorstin.
As noble physicist Richard Feynman says “ there is a difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something”
Not able to make proper decision
Too much use of internet for problem solving can restrict our ability to think of our own, from our memory, to provide solutions or make proper decision
How to combat these issues?
Switch off internet for a while
If you are doing problem solving exercises with the available data, don’t look out for information and try to solve the problem on your own. Give yourselves 30mins time and if you are not able to come with a solution within the timeframe then look out for solutions or inspirations online
Use the famous Feynman technique :
- Choose a concept
- Pretend you are teaching it to a school kid
- Go back and understand more if you find any gaps
- Simplify your language or use analogy
This also helps majorly when you are presenting your design and explaining your design process to others.
Critical thinking exercises
There are different critical thinking exercises out there like questioning the assumptions, first principles logic and so on. You can use any one of the exercises to improve the problem solving ability.
Doing these exercises on a regular basis will slowly reduce our reliance on internet for solving any kind of problems and give us an edge over others in the team in getting our ideas through.
Some more interesting reads if you want to solve other issues as Designers
Cognitive Offloading: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027719301854
Benjamin Storm experiment: