How to Forget Very Important Information

As Gregg put it earlier this week, “learning is based on the ability to remember our experiences and recall them in similar circumstances.” So, for an episode of learning to make a difference in what you’re doing here and now, two conditions need to be in place.

The first condition is that you need to have had some relevant experience—where relevance is marked by what we call expectation failure, or surprise. Thinking about how we can design experiences that deliver fruitful surprises is great fun, because the desired effect becomes especially vivid in cases that have a certain dark humor about them. This is why Gregg writes a lot about aviation disasters and imagined Paleolithic tiger encounters. When you discover, contrary to your expectation, that there is an angry tiger right behind you, or that you really, really shouldn’t have pushed that button in the cockpit, there’s a lesson in the experience that you will never forget. It might be—ha ha—the last thing you ever learn!

Artist’s rendering of a commercial airline pilot experiencing an abundantly instructive expectation failure.

The second condition is that you have to be able to recall your experience and what’s relevant about it. (Something that the prehistoric hunter-gatherer newly acquainted with tigers might never get the opportunity to do.)

We could call the first condition the experiential condition. You need to have experienced the situation before, so that you can recognize it and respond to it effectively when you experience it again. The second condition could be called the recall condition. You need to have access to the information that matters, whether it lives in your memory or in your notes. In pilot training, the experiential condition is why we have flight simulators. The recall condition is why we have pre-flight checklists.

Recall is the rub

In practice, we and our clients devote a lot of intellectual energy to the experiential condition. How can we make the learning experience exciting, engaging, dramatic, memorable, authentic? How can we generate real game-time pressure? These are fun questions with cinematic answers. Can we make the tiger bigger? When she’s eating the caveman, can it sound, I don’t know, crunchier?

But often it’s the recall condition that’s the rub. You can’t apply information that you can’t recall. And we forget everything: even things we like, even the names of people we care about, even how to do things we enjoy doing.

Ebbinghaus’s famous “forgetting curve” projects that the amount of information retained from an experience will fall by half each day. One way to blunt the forgetting curve—probably the one most relevant for designers of corporate education—is to repeat the experience. Another way is to be scared half to death by it the first time. (Image credit: Wikipedia.)

Remembering just enough to be dangerous

There can be major practical costs to forgetfulness even when it feels like our memory is good enough. Suppose I’m performing a task that I’ve performed more or less successfully several times before: adjusting a cantilever brake on my bicycle. I’ve just installed a new brake cable, and I don’t know what comes next. Should I set the height of the straddle carrier or the link wire—and does it matter whether it’s a straddle carrier rather than a link wire?—before I dial in the setscrews on the caliper arms? Should I align the pads before I do either of those things?

Here I’ve run up against a variety of embarrassment familiar to many amateur bike mechanics. I thought I knew how to perform a common repair, but it turns out that I didn’t, because obtaining the best overall adjustment depends on performing many ancillary adjustments in the right order. I’ve experienced it all before, but I don’t know what to do next. I can remember a lot of the steps. But I can’t remember the most efficient sequence in which to apply them.

In other words: I remembered enough to start confidently, and soon discovered that I’d forgotten everything that really matters. It’s a good thing I’m not flying a plane!

Now what?

They can remember it for you wholesale

Well, now we go to Park Tool’s YouTube channel, where we can watch a good mechanic calmly accomplish in minutes what I’ve been failing to do for an hour:


The assistance of digital technology—and for that matter, writing—gives us artificial means of meeting the recall condition. We don’t have to remember the details of complex procedures when those details are well-documented and accessible. And in the case of super-high-stakes procedures like heart surgery or (again) flying planes, it’s best not to even try: the wise behavior, the behavior that we’ve learned is safest and most effective, in many cases the behavior that we require practitioners to observe under penalty of law, is to follow written instructions—that is, checklists—every time, rather than to try to remember every detail.

Lessons from a forgetful bike mechanic

Let me observe a few points about how I just managed to get my brake fixed.

  1. I’m going to forget it all again.
    Having watched the Park Tool YouTube video and followed along, cursing under my breath in the best bike mechanic style, am I going to remember the procedure for adjusting a cantilever brake? No. But why would I need to?
  2. The YouTube user experience feels good, because it’s ready for the moment I forget.
    Another factor that gives me permission to forget, so to speak, is that I’ll happily use YouTube again. I tell it what I want to know, and it brings back exactly what I want. Once I get that information, I’m free to go.
  3. A typical eLearning course is the last place I would ever look.
    YouTube is flat, transparent, and expansive. It allows me to go directly to the specific piece of information that I already know I want. A typical eLearning course is narrow, linear, and obscure. It forces me to trudge through a succession of locked doors in the hope that maybe the desired information will be behind the next one. Given the choice between an award-winning eLearning course called “Bikes 101” and a YouTube search, I’ll take YouTube every time.

Mobile performance support: letting learners forget

Which brings me to something I’ve been working on lately:

This is an early sketch of a performance support system for engineers who service equipment in large warehouses, distribution centers, and other critical nodes of the retail supply chain. The idea here is to make a system that’s more like YouTube, where information availability is governed directly by my immediate interests and goals, and less like a typical LMS, where information availability is governed by what someone else has decided I should be required to click on, and who needs to be notified once I click on it. That means, among other things, a search-forward interface that foregrounds the question “what do you need help with?”

It means a content architecture organized around multiple asset types, and the ability to filter search results to find the asset I want:

It means detailed step-by-step checklists, accompanied by expert demonstrations, of specific tasks that people need to perform on the job:

And of course it means putting it on a device that people will actually be able to use while performing their jobs, instead of “the computer in the back.”

Will users forget this information? Yes. And that’s fine. They’ll remember the important thing, which is where and when to find it.

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