Attractive Things, Unconscious Things

Posted on Sep 22, 2013 in Applications, Physical Computing
Attractive Things, Unconscious Things

Unfortunately, I tend to fall pretty quickly into agreement with Don Norman, so I’ve less to say this week.

“Psychopathology of Everyday Things”

His “Psychopathology of Everyday Things” is great. I do wonder how much effort or energy goes into conceptual models vs. visible interfaces these days, ie. trying to resculpt how we think things work vs. actually manipulating their mapped surfaces. Maybe part of this question arises facing the narrow, but ubiquitous ‘images behind glass model’ where almost anything is anticipate to give us a whole operating system full of typical choices. It is interesting that Norman’s worst cases are the telephone…. which isn’t exactly the phone but rather the office network of voicemail services that have their only (barely intelligible, barely visible) interface at the phone. From what my office experience, his critiques ring true. But, I also wonder whether part of the ‘settling’ we’ve done with office phone design is because its one in a constellation of objects. Like, in my old office, the principal basically tried to cut the ‘office phone network’ off before anyone had to interact with it: all calls were to be intercepted, voice-messages taken by the marketing director or junior staff and sent in duplicate emails to a) our server ‘archive’ and b) the intended recipient. Conference calling was similar- maybe group skype, maybe but anything involving more than just pdfs (on screen) and chatting was rerouted via replacement internet services. Like the ‘R’ button on Norman’s phone network, the phone-as-network-object, at least within small firm environments- has become oddly redundant and it seems like our anticipations (and mythification) of it actually give Norman’s descriptions more resonance.

[Sorry, not quite the right photo for the rant- imagine strange crops and overlapped buttons!]

As Victor’s rant last week suggests, we have in part also mythologized the mobile/smart phone interface, seeing that as the ‘touch’ option for almost every possible surface.  But, I do think that it’s not just a tactile problem but interferes with our conceptual models. Two days ago, I watch someone try to navigate their new iphone OS 7, which seems to oddly crop programs in older phones. To this person’s dismay, it made ‘instagram’ editing virtually impossible, as various icons overlapped and thus responses were a dice-roll between OS options and instagram functions. In part, this suggests a new problem within Norman’s instructions to ‘make it visible’ and to give things ‘natural’ positions. We’ve more or less been trained, by both graphic design hierarchies and visual operating interfaces, to anticipate top ‘docks’ and side ‘bars.’ This battle between instagram/OSwhatever is not particularly unique- I find almost all responsive ‘readers’ on to have overlaid, impossible to tap, or ‘aletory’ buttons. But there is something funny and sad in that we so heartly accept these standards and placements that when things don’t work within that framework we abandon them. This person flippantly decided they’d just have to give up ‘instagram.’  Not roll back and wait for bug fixes or better responsive settings, not edit in 90 rotations, not see if there were css options available, etc. etc. So at what point is a framework of interaction so ‘Natural’ that we give up features, opportunities, objects or conceptual frameworks that don’t fit it? (His example is voice control of various cameras.) Is this more acute in the push for evermore miniaturized devices? Or is the problem (beyond finger size and incorrectly nested interfaces) that we’ve come to expect all objects to have a single OS-like array of options and responses?

Aside: Beyond using “How Things Work” (with mammoths and angels!), it does make me want to find a copy of “What’s What” to think though all the lost interfaces and old object interactions we’ve lost or forgotten. [Full disclosure, I’m the sort of person who is at least 5 generations behind on any particular electronic convenience and kinda like that being ‘obsolete’ opts me out of certain cultural and social obligations-i.e. the selfie, video chat, etc. etc. If consumer upgrades let me do video rendering at 5x speed or gave me programs to parse big-data more efficiently, I’d change my tune, but I just don’t have a ‘conceptual model’ that sees the products or connections of smart phones as ‘real’ improvements or production tools. It’s a generational bias that also has to do with inherited telephony ideas, being production staff and not free-wandering field management, etc. etc.]

“Emotion & Design: Attractive things work better”

This too will be a bit of an aside:

So Bret Victor spoke in applications last week and showed some rather insipient, really flat interactions. His point was that you must teach readers anew, from basic bar charts, how to read and ‘finger’ interactive infographics to slowly reveal information. Complexity, as complexity, confuses the poor humans.

[One of Victor’s infographics from Gore’s “Our Choice”]

Don’t get me wrong, clearly Victor has thought about this more than I- but it makes me wonder to what degree the push from static graphics to interactive interfaces has people aiming for a singular type of attention that is utterly acontextual and inappropriate. Norman’s description of the different types of concentration for pleasing/displeasing aesthetic interaction maps almost directly onto ease-distracted-unconscious utilization vs. displeasing-narrow focus-conscious concentration. I think the industrial design goal, traditionally, was to make an object that is the perfect fit for distraction that also implies or gives birth to a whole new constellation of goods or orientations. Like, say, smoking. A cigarette turns cups into ash trays, it (today) forces you outside or into special zones, requires accessories or social contact (bumming a light, etc.), and so on. It re-maps everything unconsciously. And drugs and computers tend to be easy examples because they are the closest prosthetic fit for altering physiology and thought… things that, to be effective, should occur without our conscious attention.


This brings me to the displeasing-narrow focus-conscious concentration category. This is the traditional, ‘absorptive’ space of reading, art, etc. And, is this not the space of Tufte’s infographics? The train-schedule posters, the Minard Napoleonic trajectories, the double columns of accounting. Part of me loves the ‘labyrinthine’ structure that certain infographics insist upon- you become captured in their difficult spaces. They are games of Where’s Waldo? . (With all the meta-physics that implies!)

Clearly, graphics in a textual environment need to consider issues of redundancy, but the way you navigate them should compliment the linearity of text, not duplicate it, and not, to my mind, attempt to blend seamlessly into a background of habitual and unconscious navigation. Contra Victor’s assumptions complexity doesn’t necessarily scare users away when they are seeking conscious, reading engagement– I think an appropriately arrayed hierarchy or network of information draws readers in. Not random chaos, not scattered crap, but seeing/knowing that there is a system and structure being visualized can draw them into exploring its components interactively. So for Gore’ publisher, the single narrative timeline was adequate. But that’s such a 19th century notion of cause. What about trees, networks of agents, the more complex social model (and visual forms) we have available today? There’s also something so utterly problematic with conceptualizing ‘books’ as linear, single-read objects with directionality (I’ll save you the rant), but needless to say, adopting that for your interactive infographics means they’re so vacant no one is motivated to return and seek out more info. I could go on, but I won’t.

[Keiran Healy’s analysis of Paul Revere’s Metadata (or what NSA theoretically knows about us all)]

Needless to say, I wonder whether in popular publishing, in Victor’s examples, we’ve started to confuse and conflate different types of concentration, different genres of conscious and unconscious utilization. I don’t want this to be just another distraction rant, but I think, perhaps, as reading objects, surfaces, and interfaces bleed together, we need an update to the binaries of Norman’s text in order to articulate how we aesthetically engage. Admittedly, I’ve been surrounded by history Phd’s that find Minard too absorbing (only text is allowed to use that sort of attention) and I can absolutely see why train schedules should, in fact, work more amidst unconscious or distracted states. But I don’t understand why a visual argument, even amidst a popularist polemic, should assume such distracted and meager attention from its audience.

Lab video/shots…

(no major questions at this time)

Sharon and I tag-teamed this series, so I think we answered each others questions and are fairly oriented (minus a mouse roller). I do have some joysticks from the early 90s that I’m sure are a shaft w/ roller and a few buttons, maybe a toggle or two. This make me want to re-wire them to a breadboard- one roller, three buttons, a left/right, up/down toggle- fairly simple input. Wonder where they are…

Some initial shots: (I’ll clean and re-order later tonight, correctly upload video)…








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