Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Using Cognitive Load

It is well documented in a number of studies that there is a correlation between cognitive load and committing errors or performing complex tasks inefficiently. This has a number of implications for the work place.

Firstly at the point of recruitment could we have a standard cognitive load test (The Sternberg Memory Task, tapping task, or the NASA TLX) to measure cognitive load of candidates This would be particularly important for recruits that may have to deal with a crisis involving complex information and decisions. For these type of positions you could weigh the candidates cognitive load as factor in the hiring decision, the higher the load capability, perhaps the more resilient they are to making errors. It is more complicated than that but you get the picture.

You could take it a step further and grade a vacant position as likely to involve tasks where cognitive load, as well as empathy, time management, risk taking etc are important requirements. This is a whole separate area but is a bug bear of mine. In many job adverts (particularly in the technical world) we rate the skills required as knowledge of systems, languages, standards, interfaces etc,  when these skills are what is required to do the job, but not to be most effective candidate (eg knowledge of a system is not much use if you are prone to panic or denial in a crisis). That train of thought is a diversion and is a discussion for another day.

Back on point. Secondly, if you have a new recruit and they are doing work which you know will be cognitively demanding and may be prone to error, you may need to provide them with a work environment where they are not asked to multitask or where error checking can mitigate against the increased risk of errors. Again, you could rate jobs or tasks as requiring multitasking, likelihood of cognitive load being reached and then provide appropriate test and quality control support.

Thirdly,  you could use the correlation between cognitive load and errors as a basis for testing the usability of systems or software. For example,  The Tapping Task developed by Mike Albers has been used to test websites . The idea is that a person navigates through a website while performing a task like tapping or drumming, as the person gets into more complex areas of the website navigation and needs to think more, the tapping slows or stalls. This could be used to rate the usability of a website payment system, product search etc. This same rationale could also be applied to processes other than websites such as operating a till or reading spreadsheets.

This type of testing is used in aviation and other mission critical situations. Given the relatively inexpensive nature of the testing involved, the relatively benign ethical consequences and straightforward interpretation of results, it may be a type of test most organisations could consider.

All this is pretty mainstream in that the cognitive load/error link is a factor behind the banning of mobile phones while driving and there are many other applications to the work place and occupational health and safety (e.g. is it wise to ask your sales person very complex questions while driving as they make give a wrong answer or crash or both). Again these are thoughts and discussions for another day. Hopefully my cognitive load was not too stretched in wiring this, if so, blame the typos on that :-)

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