Card Sorting Analysis: One size fits all approach

Just noticed a tutorial on card sorting at CHI.. Here is the description:

“This tutorial will provide researchers with practical guidance and hands-on experience in card sorting and cluster analysis methods and tools…

-What is a card sort and cluster analysis?
-How do I perform a card sort and cluster analysis (tools and methods)?

-What else do I need to know to be able to perform this method in practice?”

My question is – why on earth are they restricting themselves to cluster analysis. Although they do not say so explicitly, I suspect they are probably going to mostly talk about “Hierarchical Cluster Analysis”. This is such a restrictive use of Card-sorting which is capable of being a general purpose user mental modeling technique.

We have used Hierarchical Cluster Analysis, K-means cluster analysis and Multidimensional scaling with great success. Different types of problems require different analysis techniques. Architectural problems might require Hierarchical Cluster Analysis, but I often find such analysis too restrictive and prescriptive (it gives me a structure – take it or leave it). In contrast, I find the results of MultiDimensional Scaling helps more in understanding the domain for an exploratory project.

I really need to put together some examples of visual deliverables for different types of card sort analysis. If only my clients would let me get out of those NDA’s, and let me share some examples!

Malcolm Gladwell in a blink

Every book should eat its own dog-food. At least, thats my storyline for a “blink” reaction to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (I went to a reading by him, but have not read his book – so this is a quick reaction).

Gladwell’s book is about Rapid Cognition (or immediate reactions, instant decisions and first imprsessions) – how both science and culture do not appreciate the importance of rapid cognition as much as slower, more deliberate decision processes.

The material was not new (if you ever took a college level course in social psychology, then the content itself is old hat). Gladwell, however, has a knack for framing a powerful argument, weaving together dry, academic Social Psychology research, disguised as stories from popular culture. He is also a great storyteller.

Gladwell thinks that both science and society have traditionally paid more attention to the slower, more deliberate decision making processes as compared to the instant reastions, and rapid decisions that people make all the time. He focuses on rapid, emotional decisions (e.g., I like this chair, I don’t trust this person), and how such judgements are equally valid, synthesize a lot of information and are often deeply reflective of our innermost thoughts and feelings.

Gladwell’s theme can be summarized by the diagram below.


A: Slow, Cognitive: Human decision making is mostly understood in terms of this slow, deliberate model of decision making.

B: Slow, Emotional: When people think too much about their emotional reactions, they might change their minds. Gladwell cites an experiment asking people to choose painting with & without justification. Second group (that had to justify their emotional reactions) liked their paintings much less 6 months later.

C: Rapid, Cognitive: Rapid cognitive reactions often form the basis of expert decision making. For example an expert, who can immediately judge if a painting is a fake or not, is making a rapid, cognitive judgement.

D: Rapid, Emotional: This cell is the crux of Gladwells’ argument. Rapid, emotional decisions happen far more often than it is realized. People make up their minds to like/dislike something instanthly (for example, whether to trust someone or not) seemlessly synthsizing information from current situation and past experience and learning. Such decisions can be indicative of our true thoughts and feelings, but can also be problematic. For example, stereotyping a race, or group falls into the catgeory of such decisions.

At the Story, Metaphor, Vision conference

The brain is giving up its secrets and people from the arts and humanities are listening! I have been attending a few talks at the Story, Metaphor and Vision, organized by the Humanities Department at Stanford University. The conceit of the conference is that its time to make connections between literature, culture, art and what we understand about cognition and the brain. Some of the topics would be of special interest to information architects:
-Metaphor in semantic theory and innovation
-How metaphor works in the brain

There is also a lot of reference to the “digitization of culture”, interest and more than a little angst at the creeping influence of technology in everyday life. The most interesting talk I heard was by Mark Turner about conceptual blending, a topic that could of relevance to designers (in a manner similar to metaphors).

Memento, Movies and Memory

Recently I watched the movie Memento and it brought back memories of HM. HM, a famous neuropsychological patient (full name not revealed to preserve his privacy) suffered from amnesia, whose case heralded a whole new slew of findings on human memory.

In early 1950’s HM was treated for epilepsy by having both his hippocampi (a small part of the brain, named for the fact that it is shaped like a sea-horse) removed. Something strange happened. From that point onwards HM was unable to make new memories. He froze in time. He knew who he was (so it was not a case of forgetting his past). He simply could not form any new memories from that day onwards. A few psychologists discovered his case and so started a momentous period in memory research.

The movie Memento shows a somewhat similar case, that of Shelby who is unable to form new memories. His way of dealing with it (amnesia) is to take pictures and write notes in order to remind himself of events and people.

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The culprit behind limited working memory capacity

What does a snapshot of human cognitive architecture show- a sensory system allowing us to take in a lot of information from the world, a vast long-term memory store and a severely limited working memory store. The limited working memory store represents a bottleneck in human cognitive processing. Two recent studies published in Nature show that the brain area related to the capacity limitation of memory capacity has finally been located!

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