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An Understanding of Context Channels

Today, I talk about the think I brought up last week in my post about minimalism vs baroque text design: context channels.

A context channel is a collection of related information dictated in the same way. Rules are one context channel. Examples are another. Commentary sidebars are yet another. And fiction in games is one more context channel.

(There are other channels that cannot exist in a book, like in-person or video demonstrations, actual play podcasts, and, you know, actually playing the game. But I’m talking about text design here, so those are out of scope.)

Here’s a quick diagram I made to help illustrate this idea:


Click to Enlarge

This goes into one & two contexts, which is typically what you find in most games: games that are example sparse (and thus really only have rules) are one-channel, and games with a healthy amount of rules & examples intermixed are two-channel.

For examples of three-channel, look at the commentary on either The Dresden Files of the various Burning Wheel books.

If you have only one context channel in the book, that is the make-or-break point. If that doesn’t convey information that sticks with confidence in the reader’s mind, you’re fucked. If it does, then you’re awesome.

If you have more than one context channel, you increase the likelihood that you’ll created that confidence-rich understanding…in theory. However, if that second context channel is sloppy or discordant (like the examples don’t appear to quite mesh with the rules), then you can destroy confidence the first channel created. The chart above (attempts to) visually show the potential results of two context channels.

Note that in two of those three situations, the result is positive. That’s why I’m about multiple contexts. And since I want to support people with learning disabilities (a later post), that’s why I look at text design this way.

However, if you’re not careful, it can backfire. The multiple contexts have to be in sync, sympatico, in both content and page placement. Otherwise you’re created a murky environment, and very few people feel confident in a bog.

And it does generally increase the amount of text to read & process, though if it’s done well it’s visually distinct enough for people to skip it if they feel like their minds want to keep on the current context (or, in layman’s terms that most readers think, “I’ll read the examples later once I’ve finished with the rules”) and it’s appropriately adjacent to related information.

This is the intro post about the idea. I have a flight to catch, like, right now, and the wifi here is hell. So, more later! :)

Happy Boxing Day, y’all.

– Ryan

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3 Responses to An Understanding of Context Channels

  1. I’m not sure that I’d use the adjective “context” with “channels”.

    There are a lots of possible channels — there is the text, sidebars, and images as you state, but by that criteria I might add that tables and examples would also different be channels (in Myers Briggs terms, they serve the more analytical S ‘sensing’ rather then the N ‘intuitive’.). If you include the web media, there could be sounds, animations etc. Then there are quasi channels like layout which can convey a lot of information — in fact, I would probably call most of these to more “context” then “channel”.

    I do believe that there is some value to think about the streams of content — there is certainly a stream of content with the text and possibly a stream of sidebars, but rarely is there really a “stream” of images, tables, examples, layout etc. Instead they support the content rather then tell a story on their own. There are exceptions, but I don’t think Dresden is one, but I’ve seen some really good comic book-style illustrations used to tell a story parallel beside the text (Raph Koster’s book “Theory of Fun” is one of the best examples).

    Related, I think there are cognitive limits in working and short term memory. Some people say don’t put more then 5-7 ideas on a page, and that 5 is best allowing for some repetition of concepts with images (for visual thinkers), and lists/tables/instructions for the analytical thinkers.

    — Christopher Allen

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’m being intentional with my terms. “Context” is what I’m talking about. “Information” is too narrow a word, because not everything is about information. Emotional tones, like a humorous line or the writer insulting you, is part of the context of that channel.

      And yeah, there are many more channels, but the scope here is about text on a page. Gotta narrow the scope initially, or the topic gets unwieldy.

      I subscribe to David Allen’s “no more than 5 ideas” rules in life, so a lot of my thoughts on text design center around that. For Mythender, I’m trying to limit the overall ideas to one-per-page, with logical breakdowns for relation, no ideas spilling outside of that spread — treating pages & spreads as atomic units rather than flowing text spaces. (Which is, by the way, pretty challenging to do. I’m having to figure out cutting points where the idea is too large. But it’s a worthwhile challenge.)

      – Ryan

  2. I’ve been thinking about this area more lately because I’m working on a 21st-century, cognitive and social-science evidence-based, Pedagogy (or more properly Andragogy, i.e. adult learning).

    There are some interesting insights here: http://www.unm.edu/~moreno/PDFS/chi.pdf

    Summary points:

    * Multiple Representation Principle: Its is better to present an explanation in words and picturesthansolelyinwords.

    * Contiguity Principle: When giving a multimedia explanation, present corresponding words and pictures contiguously rather than separately

    * Split-Attention Principle: When giving a multimedia explanation, present words as auditory narration rather than as visual on-screen text.

    * Individual Differences Principle: The foregoing principles are more important for low- knowledge than high-knowledge learners, and for high-spatial rather than low-spatial learners.

    * Coherence Principle: When giving a multimedia explanation, use few rather than many extraneous words and pictures.

    Also in reference to the working memory cognitive limits, I found some references in wikipedia.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_memory#Capacity — I found the reference to “magic spell” to be particularly amusing:

    “Later research on short-term memory and working memory revealed that memory span is not a constant even when measured in a number of chunks. The number of chunks a human can recall immediately after presentation depends on the category of chunks used (e.g., span is around seven for digits, around six for letters, and around five for words), and even on features of the chunks within a category. For instance, span is lower for long words than it is for short words. In general, memory span for verbal contents (digits, letters, words, etc.) strongly depends on the time it takes to speak the contents aloud. Some researchers have therefore proposed that the limited capacity of short-term memory for verbal material is not a “magic number” but rather a “magic spell”.[6]Baddeley used this finding to postulate that one component of his model of working memory, the phonological loop, is capable of holding around 2 seconds of sound.[7][8] However, the limit of short-term memory cannot easily be characterized as a constant “magic spell” either, because memory span depends also on other factors besides speaking duration. For instance, span depends on the lexical status of the contents (i.e., whether the contents are words known to the person or not).[9] Several other factors also affect a person’s measured span, and therefore it is difficult to pin down the capacity of short-term or working memory to a number of chunks. Nonetheless, Cowan (2001)[10] has proposed that working memory has a capacity of about four chunks in young adults (and less in children and older adults).[citation needed]
    Tarnow (2010) finds that in a classic experiment typically argued as supporting a 4 item buffer by Murdock (1962).[citation needed] There is in fact no evidence for such and thus the “magical number”, at least in the Murdock experiment, is 1.[citation needed]”

    — Christopher Allen