I got the chance to speak about Psychomimicry at the TEDxUMEÅ event in January. Here is my first conference appearance captured on video.
The spoken language and the written language each has their advantages, however the spoken language is clearly a better tool for communication in a vast majority of cases. The written language lack many of the nuances that we are able to express when we communicate verbally. The written language is a fairly modern invention in the grand scheme of things. Maybe in a couple of hundred years we’ll have a written language that is closer to the dynamic and expressive spoken language. One can hope.
A huge advantage when talking face-to-face is that we can ‘read’ the reactions of the listener in real time. This helps us clarify terms and concepts when needed and adjust our communication according to how it is perceived. A written text is at a disadvantage because it does not adapt to the readers pre-knowledge in the same way (especially online where the reader is largely unknown) nor is it able to adjust in real time based on how the message is received.
A technique sometimes used today is the clickable word that brings up a small popup with an explanation of the term or concept. A drawback with this technique is that the explanations are phrased in a generic way, not adopted to relate to how the word is used in context. It also takes the reader out of the flow of reading. Another technique is to simply write the text in a simple enough way so that everyone understands. Although this seems like the ultimate solution, it also has its drawbacks. There is a risk of the text getting very long because one tend to need more simple words to explain a single complex word.
I’ve mocked up a short video of an in-line explanation technique that can help a reader who needs further explanations of certain terms and concepts without taking them out of the flow of reading. The explanation or clarification is worded in a way to fit into the context of the surrounding sentence.
This places additional burden on the writer who have to write the text with this functionality in mind. It is hardly a technique for the small-time blogger but it might be useful where more formal language is used for instance in financial or medical contexts.
A WORKPLACE ENERGY CONSUMPTION DISPLAY – THE ORIGINAL DESIGN
We installed an energy monitoring system from a company called Agilewaves in our office. This system stores data on our electricity, water, and natural gas usage. The system’s interface has been displayed frequently on our lobby TV. As part of a white space project, we decided to explore custom visualizations to see if we could reduce the studio energy use.
NONVERBAL INFORMATION AND EMPATHY
It has been claimed that as much as 95% of our communication is nonverbal. As the old saying goes, its not what you say its how you say it. Nonverbal communication includes among other things, body language, gestures, posture, facial expression and eye contact and also aspects of the voice such as pitch, volume, rhythm, intonation and stress (Note that verbal communication is not synonymous with oral communication.)
Inspired by our amazing ability to understand nonverbal information and the simple fact that nobody knows what the @#&$%! kWh really means, I ditched as much of the numbers and text as possible. Later, when showing the concepts around the office, most people did not even reflect on their absence. I wanted to communicate through other means but still preserve some of the utility of numbers that allows one to understand how much energy is being used and changes over time. There are some truly beautiful info-graphics out there that show our use of energy but they can be hard to ‘read’ and they are not the type of displays you find useful to look at day after day.
Nonverbal information is no stranger to the interaction designer, on the contrary, we use color, spacing, contrast, movement etc to communicate information. I wanted to take this concept a step further and use people’s ability for empathy towards others to encourage behavior change. The human ability to empathize involves not only understanding but also feeling with someone else.
THE NEW CONCEPT
The concept is simple. Every day a new layer is added in-front of the previous day. The layer is added over the course of 24 hours so that it starts form the left edge of the screen and goes to the right edge. In the two examples below you can see that the water consumption display is somewhere in the morning where as the electricity consumption display show the time of day being sometime in the evening. The height of the hill or wave indicate the level of consumption. As you can see, the consumption pattern for our electricity consumption is quite predictable. The water consumption is less so (and also less accurate since I’ve not done a proper to confirm how the real data looks). Each scene has a protagonist who takes the journey across the screen and is intended to be animated in place (see end of post). The biker would be peddling and the surfer would be riding the wave.
Depending on the trend of the data the protagonist would have a harder or easier time moving forward. If the energy consumption is on the way up, the biker and the surfer have to work hard uphill/upwave. If the consumption is trending downwards, the biker can coast downhill and the surfer can ride the wave. The idea being that you can imaging yourself in their shoes and empathize with the protagonists and want to help them out.
I realize that the whole idea can seem a bit whimsical but considering the context of an office lobby, I wanted to create something that had an element of storytelling. Something to delight and something to start a conversation that would hopefully contribute to behavior change.
In the next post I’ll discuss the same project but in relationship to one of the most influential biases, the fundamental attribution error and why it causes problems when we compare ourselves with others.
Long-term memory (LTM) is the storage of items in memory for a few days and longer. Items are committed to the LTM “through a process of rehearsal and meaningful associations” (Wikipedia). There are a couple of good memory storing services out there like Evernote, Delicious and Pinboard. All of which let you somehow indicate/save interesting content or links you come across while surfing in order to have easily accessible later on. This is great for information you know you want to revisit. But what about all the other stuff? Weird things that you don’t know you want to re-find later but a future version of yourself really feel a strong need to share with a friend a couple of days later. Its very hard to predict what will be important in the future and saving everything to Evernote is simply too tedious.
In a previous post I wrote briefly about the history function and and purple hyperlinks and my attitude towards them. Imaging instead if we could simply have a re-find button to complement the search button. Would this be possible? It would bring up all links you have previously clicked on (a.k.a. purple hyperlinks) as well as other pages and content you have stumbled across as you jumped from blog to news article to social network. If you were searching for an image, it would bring up all images that you have seen in on the aforementioned sites, and only those images. Put those cookies to use!
Search results could be ordered based on recency so that the latest visited result ends up on top. The strength of the memory could also be indicated. Below, the level of saturated yellow along with the amount of dots indicates the strength (how often the content has been viewed) to the user.
The solution seems almost too simple. And from a technical standpoint, perhaps it isn’t feasibility, at least for the time being. But who knows? I don’t have the technical expertise to answer that question. However, I do feel comfortable speaking to the user’s perspective. I think something along these lines would work fabulously.
Working memory refers to the “ability to actively hold information in the mind needed to do complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning” (Wikipedia). The working memory is closely connected to, but not the same as the short-term memory. We are said to be able to hold about seven plus-or-minus two items in the working memory at a time. Below are seven number. If you are reasonably average, you should be able to memorized them and recite them back.
One way the brain tries to exceed this storage capability is by chunking. By chunking items together into new compound items, we are able to remember more information while still sticking to the general magic number seven. Below are the same seven numbers chunked into three more information heavy items.
It has struck me that the multiple tabs structure offered by most browsers, to some extent already work as our online working memory. With no scientific evidence backing the following claim, I would still venture to guess that the average person keeps maybe around seven tabs open at once. Tab junkies, like myself, like to work with many more tabs, spread across multiple windows. At some point, even at seven tabs it becomes tricky to deal with them all. We struggle to navigate between them as we forget where certain tabs are located. Below, a normal tab structure.
Applying our knowledge about how our mind deals in this situation, we can try to chunk the tabs into groups. The groups of tabs could be grouped based on content/topic e.g. “recipes” and “cars” or they could be based on type e.g. all youtube tabs together and all blogs together. They could also be based on behavior. For instance, the browser could remember if the user previously had grouped sites together and mimic that organization. An other approach would be to group sites that linked from one another and start a new group if the user initiated a new tab from scratch (⌘T or CtrlT). Which approach would feel most natural is hard to predict without user testing. Below are the same number of tabs as above but chunked into four distinct groups.
Although the definition of re-finding doesn’t generally include this type of activity, I do think tabs has a place in the discussion around how our memory can be better supported online. Re-finding is normally discussed in the context of search engines not browsers but in cases like Google, the boundaries are blurring. Re-finding, as mentioned in a previous post is the activity to find previously viewed search results. Tabs might deal with a very short-term form of re-finding but it is arguably the most important memory-supporting-online-feature out there right now. It is certainly the most frequently used.
Google remembers pretty much everything we do online and we are all more or less freaked out about it. But if Google remembers, if Google has a memory, why aren’t we benefitting more from it? Re-finding is defined as the activity to find previously viewed search results and has been estimated to constitute as much as 40% of all online searches.
Search engines are designed first and for-most to help us find new information but they offer a couple features that aid re-finding. Perhaps the most helpful is the color change of previously clicked hyperlinks. The history function is arguably the most useless. Even though many people are aware of it, most people will rather use the normal search function instead of pouring over a chronological list of links. “I remember a rather nice article I happened upon a couple of weeks ago. Now, lets see. It must have been on Tuesday the 14th at 3.28PM.” Not many people’s minds operate in this way, mine certainly doesn’t.
We are already starting to treat the web as an extension of our memory and this tendency is likely to increase as we develop and define cloud computing. Our demands and expectations on search engine capabilities are going to grow. Can we look to our own memory structures for inspiration to improve re-finding (i.e our online memory)? What can we learn from our Long-Term-Memory, Short-Term-Memory, and our episodic memory to create a better experience? A few short design exercises will follow where I explore some of these possibilities.
User-centered design is often based on a qualitative research approach in order to gain an in-depth understanding of behaviors, motivations and emotions. Sample sizes are often small and not randomly selected. In fact far from it. Looking to the extreme parts of a distribution (within a topic of interest) is a technique that can yield both inspiring and insightful findings. Even though we often design for the average user, more extreme users offer an opportunity to examine average behavior amplified. This same behavior in the average person might be very subtle, making it hard to learn much from it. In addition to more extreme behavior, there is also often workarounds, strategies and solutions that can inspire the design team.
The reason looking at extreme users work so well in this capacity is that behavior is almost always a matter of degree and not a categorial difference. If we are designing a new medical service we might look at someone who goes to the doctor a lot and someone who is afraid of hospitals and never goes. Form the first, we might learn about how to manage many visits and the accompanying information, scheduling, medication and hospital staff the interface with. From the second, we could learn about what makes them nervous about the experience and maybe how they cope with medical issues in alternative ways and why those ways are less stressful. Both these people could highlight different aspects of the hospital experience that we all have to deal with to some degree but might not be consciously aware of and let alone be able to verbalize.
For several years, I worked with people suffering from mental illness. As with so many human phenomena, mental illness is a question of degree and we as a society determines where the line is drawn between normal and ill. Where that line is drawn differs between cultures and has changed over time. After finding my way to interaction design, a thought has been lingering in my mind about wether we can find inspiration and insight from these people’s experiences. The reason I find this proposition so exciting is that the people suffering from bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia (not to be confused with dissociative identity disorder, better known as multiple personality disorder) or psychosis are extreme is some of the fundamental ways of being human. Design research often seek out people with extreme behaviors e.g. they drive eight hours every day or people with an extreme passion or hobby around a certain topic. Mental illness can effect the basics of our human mind such as our sense of self, how we relate to others, how we perceive and how we communicate.
Is there something to this? I’m not sure. But the idea definitely intrigues me.
As the internet continues to play a significant role in most facets of out lives, how are we equipped to handle our increasingly complex digital world? Information overload is a term often used when talking about the internet. Yet one could argue that the amount of information online is probably a mere fraction of what we are exposed to on a daily basis in the physical world. Online we are largely relying on a single sense to input information, namely our vision. In the physical world however, we seem to have little problem processing information form five senses. Could the answer to the overload problem lie in the inadequate digital tools at our disposal rather than in the amount of information? Should we even consider the possibility that the lack of information is what puts a stress on our minds rather than the opposite? Might we be suffering from information underload?
If I really reflect on my online experience, it is more Helen-Keller-ish than ‘being bombarded by information’. In fact, tunnel vision is a word that comes readily to mind. I’m presented with a single webpage, then I move on to the next one. It is not my intention here to downplay the importance of focus and the need to get away from distractions but the ability to perceive the periphery serves an important function. One we would do well not to trivialize. It is no coincidence that our ears perk up when we hear our name even across the room while mingling at a cocktail party or that we notice a car approaching from the corner of out eye, even if we are looking straight ahead at the traffic lights. It helps us catch important information even though we are focusing on something else. And it can help us make decisions about what to do next. How do you decide where to go once you are done with a website? Today, its a pretty uninformed decision whether you should go to Twitter or your favorite online newspaper.
What tools are available to us when we go online to search for something new, find something we have already seen before or engage in social activities? Is it possible to rethink the way we interact with the web on a fundamental level? I’m talking about how we perceive online, how we move around, how we remember and how we create a sense of self in a digital context. Is it possible, I think so.