Real, lasting change can have many barriers. Audiences can have deep emotional barriers to change, even when they perceive that they will benefit from the change. Think about how hard it is to start a diet or quit smoking. And those emotional barriers can be even greater when the audience is resistant or uncertain about the change. Think about the last business reorganization you’ve been through. There is a lot of great advice about how to engage with emotional barriers to change. Some suggest engaging leadership, creating a “What’s In It For Me” view, or creating social proof.
Read, Overcoming Emotions to help consumers make the best decisions
But, emotions aren’t the only barrier to change. Another barrier for audiences can be comprehension. People can’t do what they can’t understand. If the audience is confused about how a new process works, the change will never stick. As we’ve written before, visual communication is important to change. And a well planned change communication plan is vital to success.
Overcoming a barrier to change: memory
But even when the audience is open and understanding of the change, there can still be a major barrier: remembering. Remembering the new process, procedure, or behavior can be really difficult, especially when the old behavior was ingrained. Process engineers will talk about making it “easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing.” This requires a systems-thinking mindset to carefully examine the environment (whether that’s physical or virtual). This mindset is key to understanding where a user might veer off the desired course.
I first met this idea working with a health care team who was redesigning patient exam rooms. They were trying to ensure that physicians recorded patient information in their new electronic health record (EHR) system. The system used built-in decision support tools to avoid prescribing incompatible drugs. The idea of designing a space to support the change isn’t a radical one, but it takes an enormous amount of care and rigorous thinking.
But, what if designing the space isn’t possible or applicable? What if you just need your audience to remember? Well, there are techniques for that. Studies have shown that repetition isn’t particularly effective for memorization. When our brains receive new information, it creates a new neural pathway. If that information gets retrieved over and over again, that pathway becomes stronger. If it doesn’t, the brain eventually trims it away and discards the information. This is great, because it ensures that you remember where you live, but aren’t burdened with knowing what you had for lunch on May 16, 2011.
Many learning scientists recommend that instead of spending time repeating content to audience (or re-reading), audiences instead should engage in testing almost immediately—and over a sustained period of time—to retain new information. In other words: use it or lose it. So, flash cards, pop quizzes, simulations, and even replaying learned information to someone else can all be used in change management to help learners remember vital information.
The memory palace
Another technique to help audiences remember is one used by competitive memorizers: the memory palace. This technique is based on a neuroscience theory that we store memories about physical locations differently from abstract information. This technique is similar to mnemonic devices you might have learned in school (anyone remember Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally from grade school math?).
In the memory palace technique, users think about a physical place that they are familiar with, like their childhood home. As they imagine themselves slowly and carefully walking through the home, they associate things that they want to remember with places or objects in the room. So, if they were trying to remember a sequence of numbers, they might visualize the first number hanging on the front door, and the next of couple numbers appearing on the stair treads, and the next nestled inside the front hall closet.
And finally, when the audience just can’t remember, there are prompts. Prompts provide just the right information at just the right time, ensuring that the audience doesn’t miss key steps or details. Prompts can be complex, such as the checklists that pilots use before takeoff. Or they can be simple, such as a sign reminding staff to shred sensitive documents. We wrote about creating prompts for a fast-food restaurant that was introducing a new line of coffee beverages. The product launch included new equipment as well as new workflow in the restaurants, new ingredients, and a lot of detailed new behaviors. Prompts were a great well to help the staff remember exactly what they were supposed to do and when.
Bringing it together
I find these techniques of retrieval, memory palaces, and prompts particularly interesting because of how they apply to our work at ThoughtForm. We often take abstract content and create tangible visual representations to help improve an audience’s comprehension and retention. In some senses, we create two-dimensional memory palaces that audiences can use to remember the components of an IT system, the steps of a business process, or the leadership qualities to develop in their employees. And, we create these visual explanations on single pages that are perfect for quick reference or display, like a prompt. We also encourage people to use our visual explanations not just to learn themselves, but to teach others, making them an aid in the retrieval process. Although we arrived at this approach through observation and trial and error, it’s great to see that science backs us up.
So, if you’re trying to help your audience remember complex changes in a process, system, or behavior, use visual explanations. It might be key to helping your audience comprehend and retain the crucial details needed.
Up next: Creating a user centered meeting agenda