August 2007 Archives

Implicit Use

In personal relationships and social settings, there are numerous unspoken rules of conduct. Sociologists know that making certain rules explicit can actually reduce their effectiveness. It seems that in many cases, we know that we are following rules, but don't like to be reminded of that fact. Imagine a third party standing by, narrating your conversation with an acquaintance a couple seconds before it happens (this is possible because your greetings are so predictable: "Hey Peter, what's up?" "Not much, you?" etc...). This would greatly annoy most of us for highlighting the rule-based nature of our actions.

Another example: you've just said something perhaps slightly more callous than you should have, and the charming lady sitting across from you is no longer smiling. In fact, she's holding back tears. As she begins to cry, you offer sincere apologies for having said what you did. But what if, just before the tears began, she had said, "That wasn't a very nice thing to say--I'm going to cry now so that you apologize to me"? The outcome would likely be somewhat different. Even though both parties involved are aware of the rules of engagement, so to speak, having those rules made explicit can seriously detract from their effectiveness.

Designing systems to be clear and explicit is a truism of modern engineering. But as technology becomes more social--from today's IM and social networking sites, to tomorrow's agent-based systems and AI--how might this affect the design and use of devices and services? And if you think that this is irrelevant because computers are explicit by nature, why is it that we should adapt to the (lack of) social graces of our tools, rather than vice-versa? I think there is most likely a whole level of design thinking beyond our current horizon, because we're bound within software and hardware habits that were never very human to begin with. If we define "usability" only in terms of mouse clicks and monitor resolution, we're still designing for engineers rather than humans.

Who are the Gods of Information Architecture?

For much of humanity's history, polytheism was the norm. The nature of the multiple gods, and their relationships with each other, was deeply intertwined with how people constructed the world around them. Their mental models of how the world worked had to be consistent with these personalities.

I wonder if anyone has ever studied the many pantheons used by different societies, with an eye toward Information Architecture. After all, what more straightforward record of externalized concepts exists for an entire culture? Comparing Greek, Norse, Mesopotamian, Egyptian (etc.) pantheons might reveal interesting patterns in both similarities and differences between times, places and people.

The seemingly disparate qualities which certain gods embodied has always piqued my interest. Athena, for example, was the goddess of both hunting and virginity. Odd, that--though it must have made sense to the Greeks. Even the division of the 9 Muses is revealing.

Now, the fact that the modern world has more or less embraced the "one God" belief is not necessarily to be lamented. In fact, it probably says something about mankind's current information architecture. An anthropologist would probably point out that while we may have formally renounced polytheism, we have modern-day pantheons of our own: near-deified Hollywood celebrities, politicians and the like. Unfortunately, getting the IA out of that much messier web might well be impossible.

Are there other, culture- (or even subculture-) wide IA indicators today? Something implicitly designed and tacitly agreed upon by very large groups? If it hasn't been already, how can the value of such indicators be extracted and applied to explicit design?

Aspirational value considered

in a recent post, Jan Chipchase makes a worthwhile point about the "aspirational" value that items can have--value created through the interaction of appearance and certain social dynamics. This quality is not much discussed in design circles, but from a sociological perspective it is nearly omnipresent. One reason for this relative lack of design consideration may be that it is considered the proper realm of marketing. Apple, for instance, knows how to play off that aspirational need and the success of the iPod and iPhone may well owe more to PR prowess than to their renowned design aesthetic.

But should aspirational value be left to marketing, while designers focus on 'real' use? It may seem obvious to point out that aspirational use is real use, but the designer should consider further, as it has some unique qualities. Some aspirational value can be had in private (buying that gym outfit to convince yourself that you really do intend to get in shape), but much of it is public, and social. In these cases ease of use and quick response may be paramount, as complex interaction and even small delays can create social awkwardness and reduce the perception of mastery. Functionality can be nearly zero so long as the right technical and social cues are hit.

Microsoft has often tried to sell new products (or versions) almost purely on a functional basis. This may be acceptable in some established markets such as productivity software, but for novel products like the Surface table, aspirational value needs to be considered for a probably significant percentage of first-generation adopters. That means that not only should the table be "easy to use" (of course), but also that it should be easy to appear to use. If a user (restaurant owner, patron, home owner, client, student, etc.) can easily complete certain satisfying tasks in front of themselves and others, then some bumps in other functions will be tolerated with a smile.

Exactly which tasks fulfill this aspirational value is the real trick to discern. It will be different for different demographics, but will have a likely unifying thread. Creations 'wizards' won't cut it, but being able to view realtime utilities data for your home might. A moderately ostentatious display of social (or business) connections might likewise fit the bill. There are signs that MS has significantly improved its approach to design in recent years, and that bodes well. The things that the Surface can do may not be terribly new, but the way in which it does them make this a truly novel device. (Note to MS: the one thing that we should never, ever, ever see on the Surface table is a BSOD.)