Managing expectations is the key to success in most areas of life, not just design.
When a design artefact is judged to be useless, it is often because it does not behave in the way the user is expecting. This is because there is a gap between what the designer intended and what the user is expecting, which in user interface design, Donald Norman calls the gulf of execution. Straddling this gulf, is the way to manage user expectations.
We all have models of how the world works (mental models), and of ourselves (self schemas) to explain and make sense of everything. In design, we have three models:
The designer’s model of how the artefact works.
The user’s model of how the artefact should work and how it actually works which changes with experience.
The artefact’s image of how it works which is the way it looks which should be supported by the documentation or user manual.
These models should line up in order to match user expectations, but to do so, the designer has to provide the correct cues.
First proposed by psychologist James Gibson, affordance describes how the physical properties of an artefact will influence its function. So, round wheels are much more suitable than square wheels on your bicycle. It is easy to see that the round wheels go round, square wheels might make you think the bicycle is an uncomfortable seat.
When similar looking parts of an artefact or system work in a similar way then users can easily transfer what they have learnt from one part to another and have similar experiences. Consistency can be aesthetic, for example, the windows on a graphical user interface windows have the same layout, or the logo is the same on each restaurant chain outlet so the customer know what to expect. Consistency can also be functional such as how traffic lights work in a certain expected order: red, amber, flashing amber, green.
Constraints are used to indicate what actions are possible. These can be physical such as when barriers are put up at sporting events to direct crowds and traffic. They may also be psychological in symbols such as a skull and cross bones for poison or danger, or conventional which we learn, such as we stop when the traffic lights are red. Or, they can be cultural such as what people wear during mourning, in some countries it is black, in others it is white.
Feedback is necessary to guide user behaviour. A dialog box can ask: Is this what you want to do? Less usefully it might say: No, you can’t do that. The box really needs to add: but you can do this or this.
We all need a link between what we do and what happens, so if you are driving your car and turn the steering wheel left you expect it to turn left.
In previous posts, we saw that the asethetically pleasing lemon squeezer known as Juicy Salif had sacrificed some of it functionality in order to look good, as did the Lockheed Lounger. In the same way, the more function you add to an artefact, particularly in the cues which are needed to guide and manage user expectations, the less usable it becomes. Complex gadgets may look cool but if they are not functional their value is more asthetic than usable and will only satisfy a tiny section of determined users.
Previously we saw that the design principle: Form follows function, can be fabulous but sometimes limiting, and in nature it does not necessarily apply, sometimes function follows form. However, if you take the form (or structure) outside of its natural context or situation, so that there are few clues as to what an artefact was designed for, users may find completely new functions for it. This is known as the no function in structure principle.
The post-it note originated because one 3M employee thought that the small pieces of paper for testing glue were actually a new type of bookmark. Thankfully, no one was around to explain that everyone else was focusing on the glue to keep this person from serendipitously finding a new tool.
On the World Wide Web, Pinterest is a great example of no function in structure. The user collects pictures, or looks at other peoples’ collections of pictures from across the WWW, and they just browse and click, and browse and click (actually, designer Jeffrey Zeldman had a different way, until Pinterest disabled the feature which stopped him from enjoying the app – which is a different approach altogether to not listening to the user). Either way, looking at, and saving pins is an alternative method to the standard way of navigating around a website and asking Steve Krug’s three questions: Where am I? Where have been? Where am I going? The users on Pinterest don’t necessarily care. They are there to experience the site by looking at all the lovely pins without any exact expectation of what order things need to happen in.
Treading the paths of desire
Instead of prescribing how someone should exactly use your website or artefact, sometimes it can be insightful to watch what a user does when presented with an artefact without clear instructions. During his TED talk, designer Tom Hume, showed an aerial shot of the centre of Brasilia which was designed for cars only. There are paths of desire trodden in by pedestrians across 15 lanes of motorways and roads, so that pedestrians can get to where they need to go in a city only designed for cars. Consequently, pedestrian road accidents are higher in Brasilia than anywhere else in the world. In contrast, a good use of the paths of desire is of the ones that are allowed to appear in newly built University Quads which are left without paths until people have trodden them in, then the designers come back and concrete them over.
Serendipity and discoverability
The world is constantly changing, especially in this our digital era, and it is necessary for the designer to have empathy for the users. Adopting a no function in structure approach and watching users discover new experiences and ways of using artefacts (or the infrastructure) is a truly empathetic way of providing the design solutions that people really want.
My juicer is not meant to squeeze lemons; it is meant to start conversations – Philippe Starck
A theory, which has been heavily debated in modern architecture and industrial design, is that form follows function, a concept attributed to an 18th century monk Carlo Lodoli, whose theories on architecture have influenced many designers.
Form follows function states that the purer the functionality of an artefact, the more beautiful it is. Or simply put: less is more.
I have written before how my coffee machine, the La Pavoni Professional is a good example of this. There is no confusing clutter, you simply put the coffee in the grupa and then pull the handle down to push the water through.
Apparently Lodoli was inspired by nature, and the beauty that inspires purity of function: When you look at something, you can say straight away what it does. But, in nature things are not created with an intention. If anything, function follows form, and when we adapt this opposite approach, accidently or otherwise, we often use the word organic to describe how something has unfolded and works well without our interference.
When life gives you lemons
If we look at Phillips Starck’s lemon squeezer, it is absolutely fabulous, and I thoroughly enjoyed having it in my kitchen. However, when I used it I needed to put a big cup underneath it as the juice dribbled everywhere, and a tea strainer on top of the cup, to catch the pulp and the pips, otherwise I got all that too. Ultimately, I needed more than one tool to do the job – Starck’s squeezer, a tea strainer – and since neither tool the squeezer or the tea strainer was fit for purpose (it took ages to get the pulp back out of the tea strainer and off Starck’s squeezer), it was super irritating to squeeze lemons. Finally, I recycled Starck’s squeezer.
It is a wonderful looking artefact, even today when I look at the picture above, I am as thrilled by its form, as the very first day I had one in my kitchen – it is truly a thing of beauty – but then I remember again how I frustrated I felt by its limited functionality, and know for sure that the design principle form follows function is limited too.
The design process exists because the world does not always accommodate us humans, so we employ designers to create things or artefacts, to get the world to adapt to us. In this way, we can see that design is the science of the artificial.
One way of thinking about design is to categorise information into three groups: function-structure-behaviour, as follows:
The first step is for designers decide on the sorts of functions they want the new artefacts to be able to do and then they write descriptions that could potentially do that. However, until the artefact exists in its physical form, i.e., it has a structure, it is impossible to predict if the artefact will function in the way the designer anticipates, especially when choosing materials – plastic behaves very differently to wood and so on. Or, in the case of designing a website, a blog behaves very differently to an online store.
So, instead of going straight to the second step of trying to describe the structure of an artefact directly from a set of required functions, the designer will first try to describe the expected behaviour of an artefact, and probably do some sort of simulation (by building a prototype, or performing computational analysis) in order to see how the thing behaves and if it is different to the expected behaviour, and this even works with software.
So, I am currently redesigning my website as it’s looking a bit old, so if I think of it in terms of function, behaviour, and structure, what might happen?
Function: What is the purpose of your website? (Currently, it is just my blog, but I would like it to showcase what I do.)
Behaviour: What will your website do? (Describe what I do, potentially offer what I do?)
Structure: What structure will your website take? (I should have an about-me page, a courses page, a books page, links to what I do, or a membership area so people can access what I do directly.)
In this way we can see that once I divide how I want my site to behave and how I want it to be structured, it becomes easier to open up to new ideas. Had I just thought that I have a blog, which looks like a blog, it would have been harder to arrive at the idea of creating a membership area. I might never have even thought about it.
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy… But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.
– Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)
In Saturday’s Guardian, author Jonathan Franzen describes social media as a protection racket and says: Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations… Why would I want to feed that machine?
In contrast, Deepak Chopra defines social media as the extension of our brains, and believes that we are all creating and contributing to the collective unconsciousness, or global brain, every time we Tweet, Facebook, and share online. He says that our brains restructure themselves according to the information we gain, the habits we have, and our skills.
As an embodied human in a social media world, I believe that both realities are true.
The tip of the iceberg is our everyday awareness and the ‘self’ with which we identify.
The bit just below the water is our gut feeling.
And below that in the unfathomable depths, is the deep body of our subconscious. We only tap into this part with meditation or ritual.
This narrow focus on ‘self’ heightens our subjectivity and because our brain interprets new experiences in light of our past experiences including the context in which they occurred known as embodiment (situatedness, or social situatedness), we never have a raw experience. All our experiences are subjective.
This realisation has fascinated humans in the domain of phenomenology for at least a century now. Phenomenology is the study of the structure of experience. Literally, the study of how we make sense of phenomena.
We live in our minds and with the advent of social media, sociologist Sherry Turkle believes that it is changing us. Best-selling author and influencer, Jennifer Weiner in the New York Times, says technology leads to bad behaviour and the dumbing-down of America. And, so is in agreement with Franzen, her nemesis. Myself, I am not so sure, I think social media is reflecting us. Although I have wondered if computers are making us stupid because when we rely on them, we don’t use our minds so much. Whereas social media removes us from where we are and as Weiner points out we behave badly – e.g., ignoring others is rude – because all our attention is given to the communication online.
The social human behind social media
Ultimately, we are social animals, so, it is no surprise that we have adopted social media in order to share our thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the things right in front of us with as many people as we can. However, in the midst of all this sharing, we are hardwired to fight for our survival and protect ourselves from harm. This is part of our brain is called the amagydala, or our inner lizard.
Maslow sums up this social, yet scared, human being brilliantly in his hierarchy of needs with a pyramid. At the bottom are the inner lizard concerns: survival and our physiological needs. The next level is safety. And then comes the need to belong to a community or a family because it gives meaning to our lives. After that comes our esteem need. Humans need to respect themselves and have others respect them in their communities. And lastly comes self-actualization: humans need to realise their potential, and feel fulfilled.
The types of information we share on social media fit exactly into Maslow’s hierarchy, (Maslow’s hierarchy of social media), and savvy content media marketing types know that the lower down the pyramid their product taps a human need, the more likely they are to make a sale.
This kind of thinking and selling horrifies Franzen which is why he says that he would not want to feed that machine. And he has a point. As much as I like Chopra’s idea that we are contributing to the collective unconsciousness, or a big body of knowledge, as originally defined by Jung, a lot of information that gets posted on line is done not deeply after meditative thought, or after being in touch with the deeply submerged depths of our subconscious. Often, posting occurs self-consciously or purposefully like the marketers in order to achieve an end result with other people jumping on board. Franzen’s view then is more mob rule. When people come together and the individual gets submerged beneath crowd or mob psychology, it can be murder.
The human need to please
As humans we are inherently social animals – we need to belong – but also we are trained from birth to give people the behaviour they want or the information they prefer. Dr Caspar Addyman, is researching why we laugh and only uses babies because: Adults are far too complex. They either tell you what you want to hear or try to second-guess you. But if a baby does something it’s bound to be a genuine response.
It is hard though to second guess someone and give someone what they want without the social cues you receive in specific situations in society, when you are just reading text on a screen. Much communication research has tried to remedy communication with or via a computer: facial recognition, speech recognition, and even the invention of the emoticon. We need cues online because our brains contains mirror neurons which enable us to simulate the intentions and feeling behind someone else’s actions in the real world. Is this even possible online when we lack context? Even robots need bodies to be embodied and situated to have a context within which they can navigate the world. Indeed context can get you far even if humans don’t speak a language. As Professor of Sociology Lucy Suchman realised, most interactions in restaurants or supermarkets are scripted and familar because of the context and situation humans find themselves in. We all know the scripts.
Similarly, social computing recreates the social systems we have at work, in teams, and local communities. By accessing the information these organisations generate, the online world becomes familiar and more reliable. One simple example is the review system of products on Amazon or Argos. We are social so we take on board other people’s opinions and feedback, especially those people who are influential, and we may make different decisions based on their recommendation.
But how do influencers become influential? @RStarDinoPirate set herself a goal to blog once a week until one day she wrote a funny, brilliant blog about sexual consent. It went viral and led her to feel that she had to be a voice because she had a crowd of people listening to her. This responsibility made her feel fatigued and put her off blogging until she remembered why she began blogging in the first place. Hurrah that @RStarDinoPirate did, otherwise we may have lost her distinct voice and interesting thoughts.
Learning to listen to yourself in the midst of the social media clamour can be difficult for even the most social media savvy people amongst us. Personal growth expert Steve Pavlina gave up social media altogether because he had become aware of how he would take pictures to share, rather than take the pictures that he wanted to take. It was only then, that he realised, he too, rather like @RStarDinoPirate, was blogging about things he felt he should blog about rather than what was closest to his heart or bubbling up from his subconscious.
The human being not the human doing
We refer to ourselves as human beings not human doings, but in society, our worth has always been measured by what we do and what we have. Online it is the same. How many followers do we have? How many people can we influence? The world is busier and crazier because digital advances have compressed time and space, and we can be online 24/7. This was summed up beautifully by the advice I got last year at the content marketing show: You have 15 minutes to create momentum on Twitter, 1 hour on Facebook, latch onto a world event. Aaargh! Now we have to choose to consciously unplug. But how do we do that?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine and Mindfulness advises us to: Find your own way, listen to your own heart, longing, yearning. He says that thinking only takes us so far because this new digital landscape overloads us with facts, not wisdom. Instead we must paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. We must be mindful instead of taking life for granted.
Yogis believe that we hold pain and suppressed emotion in our bodies because we have often not paid attention to ourselves in a mindful way. I know this to be true, for when I first began yin yoga, I found that each time I sat in Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend (Upavistha Konasana) I would become overwhelmed with anger and irritation. The hardest thing for me to do was to stay in that position and accept those feelings. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to run away. In my less enlightened moments I have checked my Facebook whilst in various poses on my yoga mat because let me tell you, three minutes in Upavistha Konasana can feel like an eternity. With practice, I learnt to accept those feelings until they dissipated and I was left with peace and relief.
We all crave and yearn for a moment of peace and relief outside of time where we allow ourselves to be – a human being not a human doing. Many, like me, turn to social media to find inspiration because meditation and mindful are hard things to do, and hard to sustain. Kabat-Zinn is very practical and says: Instead of trying to sustain it over a day capture it moment by moment many times, be 100% when you pick up your child, cut the carrots, stir the pot, teach yourself to come back to who you actually are… until life becomes the meditation teacher.
Then and only then should we reach out from that place of peace if we want our social media to be an extension of us – or the wiser deeper parts of us – as Chopra believes. Otherwise we may just experience a Franzen-frenzy fear of feeding that machine.