Recently I finished reading “Whiplash – how to survive our faster future” by Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab and Jeff Howe – who coined the phrase crowd-sourcing. Media Lab has a reputation for innovative, highly experimental projects that push at the boundaries between art, technology, learning and society. “Whiplash” discusses 9 core principles that operate at Media Lab – and why they might be relevant more broadly where innovation is found.
In “It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens”, Danah Boyd considers the four affordances of online networks (the first of which I’ve discussed here). An affordance is a term that originates from the field of design, and recently I’ve been reading “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman, where he starts by explaining 7 fundamental design ideas. Here I consider how each can be applied to online spaces.
Usually when the word discoverability is used about the Internet it refers to how easy content is to find – either due to SEO or the intrinsic properties of the site hosting the content. Discoverability when referring to design is something different – it’s whether it’s possible to figure out how to use an object by interacting with it.
Online, many of the sites that we interact with use at least some features in common that guide us in how to use them. These might include navigation bars in the top and/or the sidebar of pages, dropdown menus and possibly even hover text with additional explanatory information. However, as we all know from experience, some sites are better than others at indicating how exactly to move between desired pages, or where particular features are located. For example, Facebook has been criticised many times over the years for not making its privacy settings easier to find and apply.
The affordance of an object is the possible use for that object once a user interacts with it. The key to the definition is that interaction is needed – an affordance depends on the qualities of the object and the capabilities of the person using it. A website might use a specific type of video player, but if users with certain browsers or smartphones cannot view the videos then the affordance of watching video is not available to them.
In terms of content shared in online spaces, Boyd lists persistence, visibility, searchability and spreadability as the four key affordances. However, if we go by the definition above, others such as the ability to participate in a conversation via a comment thread might also be included.
How do we discover what affordances are possible? Signifiers act as signs to indicate affordances. Online these could be a call-to-action button within an email, descriptive images in a carousel that invite you to read a particular news story, or a coloured section of a page indicating where you should look. They could also be a particular icon – such as the Facebook “thumbs-up” showing when you too can “like” a piece of content. Or they could be social sharing buttons, encouraging the reader to spread the content more widely.
Another good example is the “slide to unlock” text on the iPhone lock screen. Not only does it tell you what you need to do to operate the device, there is also an arrow indicating which direction you need to swipe in, and the text illuminates repeatedly letter by letter in that direction.
Signifiers don’t necessarily have to be deliberate to give away information about their environment. For example, as Norman points out, a bookmark doesn’t just indicate where in a book to resume reading; it also indicates how far through the book you are. Similarly, online, the number of likes or votes that an item of content has received may indicate how enjoyable the content is likely to be, but can also act as a signifier of how likely the content is to have been shared – and therefore how often it might have been seen.
Mapping is used to indicate the relationship between two sets of things – such as switches and the corresponding lights that they control. It’s often used when designing controls and displays.
Natural mapping is particularly useful in online design because it takes advantage of actions that we’re already familiar with – such as swiping through something to delete it and swiping down to refresh a smartphone page and pull more content into the window.
Another example of mapping is social network timelines, which typically show older content at the bottom and more recent activity at the top. One of the complaints about Facebook tweaking newsfeed settings is not just that it changes which content appears in your newsfeed, but that Facebook’s algorithm violates their instinctive mapping. The content no longer follows a strictly chronological sequence – older, more popular content may sit above an update made 5 minutes ago by a different friend.
Providing constrains on what is possible with an object can help to clarify how to use it and what it’s for. For example, the handles on scissors constrain the user to only be able to fit one digit into the top hole, while she can fit all the remaining fingers into the larger, lower hole.
Tweets are an obvious example of an online constraint – only 140 characters are permitted for each tweet – and this is clearly signified by a counter that displays how many characters are still available to the user. A tweet therefore affords the user the ability to share small pieces or text including links to other media.
Feedback is important to help us understand how to interact with objects and what effect our actions have had on the object or system. Too much or too noisy feedback, however, can be distracting and impair the ability to use the item smoothly. Online feedback might be in the form of additional information appearing on a page. Or it could be a pop up window indicating that an action has successfully occurred or that there has been an error that the user needs to know about.
One of the challenges with feedback online is that it can also be used to encourage engagement and that can make for a frequently interrupted experience. For example, a popup window may not only be used to tell you about something that you did, it might also be used to point you towards content that may be of interest, such as a promotion, a survey, or even an online chat bot to help you with your purchase.
Another interesting issue about feedback is that new users typically need more than experienced ones do – and what is initially helpful can quickly become annoying as a user becomes more comfortable with a product. A human teacher will tailor their feedback to the needs of a learner, but we need to make sites sensitive to how much a user already knows.
vii) Conceptual model
A conceptual model is how the user understands a system to work and is important for giving the user a sense of control (think how frustrated you get when you can’t figure out how to setup the new TV!). With a clear conceptual model, discoverability is enhanced – the user can figure out how to do new things or try variations on existing things. She can also evaluate the results of the actions that she takes.
An example of a conceptual model online is the idea that content spreads on Twitter by being re-tweeted and that this provides a good mechanism of attracting new followers. This model may suggest to the user that she should experiment with what time of day to tweet, how often to tweet and what types of content to share in order to be retweeted more frequently.
Better by design
Next time you’re struggling to figure out the settings on your favourite social network, or enjoying an app or website, consider how each of the above principles has been applied (or not). I’d love to hear in the comments about any great or ghastly experiences you might have had!
I recently read Danah Boyd’s “It’s complicated” which I enthusiastically recommend as a great dissection of many common concerns about the Internet. Boyd devotes chapters to topics such as identity, privacy, danger and addiction, discussing them in relation to the behaviour of teens online. In addressing the fears that adults have – many of which are seeded by media scare stories, she argues – Boyd is clearly flying a flag that proclaims “The kids are alright”. However, many of the ideas that she presents apply well beyond teens, and provide great starting points for conversations about our collective online behaviour and the assumptions we may have made about it.
One of the sections of the book that particularly caught my attention was the conclusion of the chapter on danger. The majority of the chapter refutes the media-inflated idea that kids who use the internet are at risk from strangers lurking in chat rooms or on social networks. Boyd argues the dangers to teens on the internet are not as scary as news stories might have us believe.
But she also acknowledges that teens do occasionally end up in destructive situations online. She explains that this is usually the product of troubles in their offline lives, ones that give them reasons to engage in risky or damaging behaviour online. In one example, a teenage girl detailed her struggles with abuse and suicidal thoughts via a public YouTube video, which tragically failed to get her the support that she clearly needed.
Why are cries for help and other warning signs of underlying misery often ignored online, or fail to attract the attention of adults who could intervene to help? One of the reasons Boyd provides is that adults are turning a blind eye to the struggles of others in an effort to protect their own children. By banning their kids from hanging out in online spaces (where they fear their kids may encounter others with problems) adults remove the eyes – and the support networks they could attract – that those in trouble really need.
Community – the digital eyes have it
In concluding the chapter, Boyd urges us to stop turning our backs so that we face away from the “scary” interactions we might find online. And to stop hoping that turning inwards will mean that the bad things will no longer be a threat to us or our loved ones. As she explains, “When parents create cocoons to protect their children from potential harms, their decision to separate themselves and their children from what’s happening outside their household can have serious consequences for other youth, especially those who lack strong support systems. Communities aren’t safe when everyone turns inward; they are only safe when people work collectively to help one another and those around them.”
Just as on a street, removing our adult eyes from the digital street leaves it an unwatched space, one where neither we (nor anyone else) will notice when it’s important to intervene. “People may appear to ignore a child biking down the street,” says Boyd, “but in a healthy community, if the child falls off the bike, concerned individuals will come out to help because they are all paying attention. Young people need the freedom to explore and express themselves, but we all benefit from living in an environment in which there’s a social safety net where people come together to make sure that everyone’s doing ok.”
Boyd notes that her call for eyes on the digital street to create a safe atmosphere is an extension of an idea that urban theorist, Jane Jacobs presents in her book “The death and life of Great American Cities”. Intrigued, I decided to take a closer look.
Urban planning theory – and the digital street
Jacobs’ book is a strong criticism of urban planning in large cities in the US. It’s also surprisingly readable, and a fascinating consideration of the social dynamics of how and why people use spaces in cities. The more I read, the more I saw parallels with online interactions – not just among teens, but more generally among anyone using shared online spaces.
Cities, unlike small villages, are places where we expect that the majority of residents will be complete strangers. And yet these strangers can create dynamics that ensure that there’s an environment that feels safe. Jacobs argues that one of the functions of streets is to create that safety, which is achieved via the following 3 conditions (quoted directly from Jacobs’ book):
- There must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space.
- There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on the street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both the residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
- The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Large numbers of people entertain themselves off and on by watching street activity.
Sharing our online sidewalk stories
Doesn’t this also describe the way things might work in some places online? Many of us are strangers to each other on the Internet. Our feeds on social networks such as Twitter are full of people we haven’t necessarily met in person, despite reading their musings for years. And yet Twitter probably fulfils the three conditions Jacobs defines:
- There is a clear demarcation between public and private – we share what we want people to know, and there is an unspoken etiquettes that usually results in everyone respecting the context in which the information is shared. So, for example, you might live tweet the talks at a public event, but the private conversations you have in the bar afterwards don’t end up online
- There are plenty of eyes on the Twitter stream (although what those eyes are engaged with i.e. who they choose to follow, is a matter of personal choice much as you might choose which neighbourhood you live in)
- There are “people on the street” at all times of day as users around the world interact with each others.
So in light of this, how many of us feel that the eyes that we put on our digital streets are not just looking for information or entertainment, but are actually looking out for each other? How feasible is this and does it differ from street to street, platform to platform?
In considering some of the factors that might affect a willingness to look out for one another, how big is your digital street, your community? And what determines whether you’d offer to help if you saw someone in trouble, either because they were being publicly harassed or because a change in their behaviour indicated that they might need a hand? Perhaps you feel more comfortable reaching out via a back channel, rather than in public. Or do the ties to a semi-stranger feel too weak so that it would be awkward to get involved at all?
Does this kind of helpfulness also extend to keeping your digital street in good order in other ways such as reporting spam, blocking bots and encouraging good behaviour by upvoting liking or resharing content that you’d like to see more of?
I’d love to hear your feedback and ideas in the comments!