“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

UI POV: Actor or Augmentation

Today I was doing a bit of moonlighting of a fun project a former colleague has graciously asked me to work on with him. I love these opportunities and I welcome them (hint, hint). It helps me stay connected to practice.

During the design phase a conversation ensued about the use of a label. It was a simple label at that. It brought up for me a knee jerk response that was so strong, I couldn’t explain it at first. I had to do some looking around the intertubes for similar labels with similar intents to communicate similar functionality and not a single site used that label. I understood the concept from the visual designer and the subject matter expert, but for the life of me, it felt like a needle in my side.

Then a few hours later I finally understood the issue I was having and it had to do with my mental model of computer systems in general and my philosophy about designing technology.

Here’s the dealio: A technological system can either be a cybernetic augmentation of our humanity or a servant that acts in our best interest. My predisposition towards story and performance has always prejudiced me (I think correctly) towards the later. The systems we create are actors as we are in a constrained & guided improvisational dialog. The former option is that technology in all its forms is a metaphorical appendage, meant to augment our very own physicality.

I will say that I lean heavily towards the “actor” but that is also because I’ve been mostly designing desktop-based systems through my career (web-based included). The ways we use desktop computers is almost always from this position of dialog.

But something is changing. What’s changing is the intrusion of mobile devices into our world. Smartphones which are in hand, and mobile, do behave by their very nature as an appendage, or more accurately an augmentation of an appendage (our hand).

So how does this play out in UI Design?

For me it all comes down to the semantics and syntax of language, but also to the type of controls we use. When designing for an appendage system. Everything should be “mine”. The computer shares the same central point of view as the owner, so of course everything that it displays is from the point of view of its owner. The list of groceries it is displaying is “mine”. Obviously, you can see the contrasting use of “your …” when the system is an actor playing the role of concierge. It is speaking to you in dialog and thus the voice of second person or other makes complete sense.

That is probably the first time I have understood from a mental model perspective how to decide when to use what terminology. But is it so clear. Can I have “your list” on the web version of an application but then have “my list” on its iPhone app? I’m not so sure that makes sense. I don’t have a clear answer but part of me feels comfortable saying that they should be different, but I’m not sure if the confusion would be noticed, ignored, or repulsive?

But this mental model can be explored further. The general tone of language is at stake here. Do the buttons I press have the POV of “self” or are the buttons an invitation from another? Am I “looking for …” something, or do I ask the system to “show me” something?

This notion of personal vs. collaborator can be added to the list of design principles that make up your project and hopeful put in a place that allows you to be reminded of that decision so that the system remains consistant. The POV of view of the voice is almost as important as the tone.

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  • John Brennan

    Thanks for the desktop vs. handheld POV post. As a content strategist who sometimes delves into IA, I often have to explain POV decisions to stakeholders. The \concierge\ vs. \appendage\ model will be helpful.


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