Friday, August 31, 2007

The problem with knowledge, part deux

In keeping with the theme of maps started by the now extremely famous Miss Teen South Carolina (she should think about a book and movie deal given the amount of press her answer has seen), Isabel (over at God Plays Dice), wrote an interesting post on ways of drawing the US Interstate Highway system.

In particular, she references this map. This is a simplified version of the system.

When you go into a service station and try to find a map in the US, you can't buy this one. Yet, it strikes me as a MORE effective way of displaying interstate routes than a map with exacting coordinates and relationships.

You just don't need to store the level of detail found on a conventional map to understand or navigate your way through this system. This map is perhaps the best internal representation of what most people probably know - the general direction and position of these roads.

When we abstract away layers of knowledge to more efficiently store it for what we USE it for, the details become lost. Testing our knowledge of the details, no matter how simple the test, is ridiculous. When asked to recreate the US highway system, I am sure many people would try and curve roads around landmarks, lakes, mountains, farms fields etc. and scratch their head when they can't quite remember how this or that road curves. Not realizing that a straight grid and a few semi-circles is all they actually know, and need to know.

When you do research on product and brand attributes you see the same effect. While most marketers believe consumers are aware of every differentiating feature of their product/brand, most consumers have already abstracted away these differences into broader 'maps'. 'Maps' anchored by the things they care about the most.

The faster we realize that our heads aren't full of facts waiting to be regurgitated at a moments notice, the fewer stumped Miss Teen South Carolinas there will be.

That's a good thing, right?

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Isabel said...

There are a few problems with that particular map of the Interstate system, though:

- it doesn't indicate the distances between points, which are nice to know because you want to have some idea when you're going to get to the other end.

- there may be cases where the quickest path between two points on the Interstate system involves roads which are not part of the system. (I actually can't think of any offhand, but there must be.)

However, distances could easily be indicated. And the second problem could be fixed by drawing some of those roads in as well. (Boston tried a similar experiment with its public transit system once, indicating certain key bus routes on the subway map.)

Paul Soldera said...

Hi Isabel,

I agree, it's probably not perfect. Although I do find that driving between major cities in the NE is best done on the interstates unless traffic is an issue (which it usually is).

I guess my point was that this level of abstraction is all we really need to retain as knowledge to understand how the system works.

But ask anyone about the highway system and I bet they will think their knowledge is more detailed than it is.

Love your blog btw - the parts I can understand :)

Tarun Upadhyay said...

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