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What supermarket shopping has in common with information overload?

Still in the middle of writing deadlines, so just something that came to my mind yesterday before falling asleep…

I love cheese. I also grew up in a country with planned economy, so while there was a variety of cheeses produced there, you wouldn’t find more than one or two types on a shop shelves at any given moment.

cheese shop, Flickr photo by loop_oh

cheese shop, Flickr photo by loop_oh

Now try to imagine how I felt during my first trip abroad in some regular British supermarket. Suddenly all kinds of cheeses were in front of me, ready to be picked up and enjoyed. I was overwhelmed and lost and didn’t know which one to choose. Also, it wasn’t only about cheese – there was great variety of other familiar products and lots of those that I didn’t know. There was abundance and lots of things to choose from…

That planned economy is part of the history now and I’m pretty used to the variety of cheese in supermarkets, only in well-to-do countries, but also in Russia. I still get overwhelmed getting into an unfamiliar supermarket once in a while, but I also know that there is some logic in there and it takes a couple of visits to find your way around. If I’m in a hurry I locate relevant parts and pick up things needed for dinner. If I have time I may look at new products, try to figure out how to use them and pick up a couple to try out. I don’t get stressed or think that it’s something extremely difficult to deal with.

The same with information overload. When you grew up in a world of information scarcity (or, at least, the world that felt that that way because accessing everything out there wasn’t easy), information abundance is overwhelming: you don’t know how to find your way around and to make choices. It’s even worse than my first supermarket experience – with internet it feels like you have to find stuff for your dinner with all supermarkets in the world.

But I guess it will pass: I’ve learnt to do shopping in a supermarkets, so with some learning we’ll figure out how to recognise patterns and make choices in the sea of information without feeling overloaded.

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Jack Vinson December 14, 2009, 18:07

    Lilia, this is exactly how I feel about shopping for unusual items. Go to the appliance store and get quickly overwhelmed by the options for the item I want to buy.

    One of the things I have to do to overcome this issue is to prepare. I need to get a general understanding of the options and the features I want. I think this applies to my “information overload” world too. I have to apply patterns and filters to the incoming materials in order to decide on priority, etc. Interesting.

  • Joshua Wold December 14, 2009, 18:46

    Good comparison.

    I believe this is one of the reasons for the explosion of Google. Remembering where you need to go to get what you need to find is overwhelming (even with resources Bookmarks, Yahoo, Wikipedia, etc). Google has tapped into the need for information structure and also in a sense, plays to our laziness. Who needs to remember if I can always search.

    Firefox’s smartbar has also started to change the way I navigate and ‘remember’ information in this sea of information.

  • Lilia Efimova December 14, 2009, 18:51

    Jack, didn’t want to bring other types of shopping, since it would make the parallels more complicated (and actually more true). For me supermarket shopping is more goal- rather than process-oriented, while in many other cases I enjoy the process to. For me reading blogs to see what’s going on feels similar to going to a shop in a foreign country just to see what do they sell there and how. Enjoying the process in relation to information could be really dangerous 🙂

  • Simon Bostock December 16, 2009, 08:06

    Good comparison.

    I had the opposite experience moving to Czechoslovakia in 1990. My first trip to the shop and all I could see were frozen tomatoes, flour, beer and meat in jelly – I remember thinking, “I’m never going to be able to cook a meal out of this. . .” The other thing that struck me was the lack of the one-stop-shop arrangement. In Britain, you could buy everything at the supermarket but there you had to go to one shop for vegetables, one shop for meat. The weirdest was going to the stationer’s to buy toilet paper.

    Is this information underload? Is this the same way feel when traditionalists see their first piece of abstract art?

    Anyway, I guess I’m trying to point out that it’s not just quantity but architecture when it comes to information overload. I’m in Tokyo at the moment and one of the things I’m really enjoying is the sensation of illiteracy and information overload. It’s great for the empathy muscles. I think all knowledge management/information architect types should spend some time here so they can underside what it’s like to be a user of their services.

  • John Tropea December 16, 2009, 08:18

    There’s a good TED presentation on “choice”


  • Elena Tikhomirova December 16, 2009, 11:32

    Good comparison!

    I had expirience like this on my first trip to Budapest where my mom took me to the pastry-shop. But I believe I was small enough to get used to variety of information and to find my out of information overload. At the same time my father still struggles through these jungles and I see here the generations problem. When working within organization we have not only work with general information overload but also with different ages and their habbits.

  • John Curran December 29, 2009, 13:56

    This is a really interesting analogy and is worth some extra exploration.

    Supermarket layout and design has become a heady mix of art and science these days. Where and how products are placed makes a big difference apparently on the sales of those products. At the entrance is the fresh produce section – enticing you in and making you feel like you just walked into the local farmers market. At the end of the aisles are the special promotions, all the key products are at eye level etc. Add to this the enormous amount of effort that food companies put into packaging design and suddenly you feel like a cog in a massive capitalist machine. I guess our economy may not be planned but as consumers we are heavily influenced according to our perceived needs and desires.

    So returning to the analogy maybe information and knowledge management has a lot to learn from ‘supermarket science’?

    Some questions to think about here:

    This one is good because of the ‘movement map’:

    Thanks again for a really interesting analogy – could maybe serve as a useful learning scaffold?

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