This is the second posting in a series of fifteen which examine Christopher Alexander’s “Fifteen Properties” of natural beauty and suggests how these properties might apply to user experience design.
2. “Strong centers” is probably one of the most overlooked properties of design in UX/HCI. Often, what exists for the user, from their perspective, is a “sprawl” of functions, tool bars, and icons with no obvious overall or subsidiary organization. A better design would allow the user to quickly find a “home base” from which, it would be obvious where to find subsidiary home bases. There is some sense in which hyperbolic trees, fisheye lenses, and home pages partly begin to address this issue.
Instead of “strong centers”, the impression I often get in looking at applications for word processing, organizing photos, searching, or dealing with settings is that the designers are given or generate a long list of functions to be supported. Which ones are related to which though? Which ones are central? In many cases, UX practitioners give users (or, more often, potential users), a set of cards with one function each and ask the users to sort these into piles. I am not against such studies, but they are unlikely to lead to a coherent design with a strong center. The users are not, in most cases, professional designers. In many cases, an application is supposed to support many different specific actions. For example, I use word processors to write essays, poems, and fiction. I also use a word processor to proofread something, to re-organize ideas, to “jot down” a bunch of ideas, or to write an outline. These are very different tasks, at least to me. If asked sort cards, I would do it differently depending on which type of task and which type of material I’m thinking about.
As I type this, I glance at the “Pages” tool bar which includes: Pages, File, Edit, Insert, Format, Arrange, View, Share, Window, and Help. None of these seems like “home” to the task of writing an essay. I know from experience that if I want to write any kind of material, I must go to the “File” menu even though, as best I can recall, my initial impression of this label was that it would be something to do after I was “done” with the tasks of composing and proofreading. The toolbar gives no impression of their being any “center” at all, let alone a “strong center.”
In my native language (English), I read from top to bottom, left to right. In that sense, the Apple Icon is first and the “Pages” item is next and it is in bold print. That could be considered a subtle clue that it’s the “most important.” In a way, the items on the “Pages” menu are “meta-items.” In that sense, I suppose you could argue that they are “important” — though as a writer, none of the items seem that important. In fact, if we get right down to it, nothing in Pages really seems designed to support the actual writing process. And, I’m not trying to single out Pages because it’s the only one or the worst one. Lack of a “strong center” seems true of nearly all applications.
Different people use different processes for writing — and I myself use different processes for different types of writing, so perhaps trying to organize the features and functions so that there is a “strong center”reflective of the “strong center” of the task of writing is just not feasible. I am certainly not advocating for resurrecting “Clippy.”
Ideally, it should be possible for users to “know where the action is” upon entering an application or a web page.
In another interpretation, “strong centers” refers more to underlying architecture and points to the need for a core of functionality that transcends a specific release or even a specific application. A good underlying architecture will communicate this essential center (related to central purpose or style) to the user.
All too often, the processes involved in developing an application or system themselves have no “strong center.” If the development process is itself a hodgepodge political process of accommodating to a portfolio of features and functions that are advocated for by diverse and uncoordinated stakeholders, then, what one has are a long, unorganized list artificially shoved into menus and sub-menus and toolbars. It should not be surprising then, that the user finds it difficult to know where to begin when first encountering an application — even if the user knows exactly what they want to accomplish.
Compare and contrast most menu structures and user interfaces with the “strong centers” that are extremely common in life forms. Here are some examples of butterflies.
The central axis includes the head, the thorax and the abdomen. These are in a line in the strong center. Typically, they are colored differently from the wings. The bilateral symmetry of the wings as well as the overall shape reinforces the strong center. Wing patterns, and even the antennae and legs lead the eye back to the strong center.
Most people think of butterflies as beautiful — and I agree. When asked, however, most people will say they are “brightly colored.” Some are; some are not. But “bright colors” don’t necessarily give rise to beauty!
Strong Centers doesn’t just apply to butterflies. Look at most birds, fish, mammals, insects and you will see how the symmetries and smaller centers reflect and strengthen the major center. Indeed, Strong Centers are not limited to the animal kingdom. The trunk of a tree provides a strong center. Each branch is itself a center and the connection of the branches to the trunk reinforces the strength of the central trunk.
Even single cells often exhibit strong centers (and many of the other 15 properties, by the way).
It would love to be able to provide you with a process or checklist or formula so you could design user experiences with “strong centers.” I cannot really do that. Nor can anyone else. If you keep it in mind, even at the back of your mind, you may see opportunities to help make that happen with regard to whatever you’re working on. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about “Strong Centers.”
Some useful links to more information, discussion, and examples relevant to “strong centers” or to the fifteen properties.
This is an introduction to a series of blog posts on the “Nature of Beauty.”
Christopher Alexander was an architect and city planner. In his MIT dissertation, Alexander took a very mathematical approach to design. In our studies at IBM Research on the “Psychology of Design” I first ran across that work (Notes on the Synthesis of Form). Later in his career, however, he took a quite different approach to design. With an international team, he visited many different parts of the world to see what “worked” in terms of architecture and city planning. The results were documented in the form of a “Pattern Language.” In this sense, a “Pattern” is the named solution to a recurring problem. A “Pattern Language” is a connected lattice of Patterns that together, “cover” a field.
Others (including me) have emulated his approach for other fields such as pedagogy, organizational change, object-oriented programming, software development processes, and human-computer interaction. A few years ago, I suggested such Patterns for collaboration and teamwork. Here’s a link to the introduction of that effort. Here’s a link to the index of those Patterns.
Still later in life, Christopher Alexander embarked on a project called The Nature of Order. This work is documented in a series of four books. In the first book, he proposes fifteen properties of good form in nature — and in beautiful artifacts. Explication and example will be needed to appreciate what these properties mean. In this post, I list the fifteen and will attempt to explain the first one with respect to UX and Human Computer Interaction.
First, you might be wondering what relevance these fifteen properties of nature might have to interface design. After all, can’t the designer just test out their ideas empirically until a UX design is shown to be usable, learnable, and perhaps enjoyable as well? Well, sure. Ideally, every possibility could be explored and tested empirically.
But how many possibilities are there? Without any guiding principles, there are not only more possibilities than can be tested by you. There are more possibilities than there are atoms in the universe. Imagine a very simple interface on a small mobile device. Let’s say there are only ten screens in your whole application. The iPhone 12, for instance, has nearly 3 million pixels. 24-bit color allows over 16 million colors per pixel. If you literally tested out every possible arrangement, this would mean 16 million to the 3 millionth power for each of the ten screens!! The number of atoms in the universe is estimated to be between 10**78 and 10**82. Obviously, this is far less than 16,000,000**3,000,000 !!
Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone would attempt a pixel by pixel test of an interface, but the general point remains: you need some way to limit testing to reasonable alternatives. The notion of using these fifteen properties is not that they dictate a particular design nor that you don’t need to do any empirical testing. Rather, the fifteen properties could be used to help guide design. The properties could be thought of as reducing the search space.
Here are the fifteen properties:
Levels of Scale
Deep Interlock and Ambiguity
Simplicity and Inner Calm
Perhaps the names themselves might resonate with your own sense of aesthetics for design and composition, but let’s review them one by one.
The first is “Levels of Scale.”
When it comes to natural beauty, a few moments reflection may provide you with many examples. Christopher Alexander claims this property is also present in traditional art and architecture across many cultures. As you see something such as, e.g., the Taj Mahal or the Parthenon in the distance, you see a beautiful shape. As you approach it, you will see more and more levels of scale. By contrast, many modern buildings are largely featureless between the overall shape and the texture of the building material.
If your design has multiple levels of scale, it will be easier for your user to orient themselves; to know “where they are” in the application and therefore easier to take appropriate action. It’s something to keep in mind with respect to your design — whether hardware, software, documentation, or a building.
How could you use or see “Levels of Scale” as a desirable property of what you are doing right now?
Some references to Pattern Languages in HCI.
Pan, Y., Roedl, D., Blevis, E. and Thomas, J. (2012), Re-conceptualizing Fashion in Sustainable HCI. Designing Interactive Systems conference. New Castle, UK, June 2012.
Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.
Thomas, J. (2012). Edging Toward Sustainability. CHI Workshop Position Paper for Simple Sustainable Living. CHI 2012, Austin, Texas.
Thomas, J. (2012), Enhancing Collective Intelligence by Enhancing Social Roles and Diversity. CSCW Workshop Position Paper for Collective Intelligence and Community Discourse and Action. CSCW 2012, Bellvue, WA.
Thomas, J. (2011), Toward a pattern language for socializing technology for seniors. Workshop position paper accepted for CSCW 2011 workshop: Socializing technology among seniors in China, Hangzhou, China, March 19-23.
Thomas, J. (2011). Toward a Socio-Technical Pattern Language for Social Systems in China and the World. Workshop position paper accepted for CSCW 2011 workshop: Designing social and collaborative systems for China. Hangzhou, China, March 19-23.
Thomas, J. (2011). Toward a Socio-Technical Pattern Language for Social Media and International Development. Workshop position paper accepted for CSCW 2011 workshop: Social media for development, Hangzhou, China, March 19-23.
Bonanni, L., Busse, D. Thomas, J., Bevis, E., Turpeinen, M. & Jardin, N. (2011). Visible, actionalble, sustainable: Sustainable interactin design in professional domains. Workshop accepted for CHI 2011. Vancouver, B.C., May 7-12.
Thomas, J. (2011). Focus on Ego as Universe and Everyday Sustainability. Workshop position paper accepted for CHI 2011 workshop: Everyday practice and sustainable HCI: Understanding and learning from cultures of (un)sustainability. Vancouver, B.C., May 7-12.
You must understand one thing about the current crop of voter restriction laws.
One thing is vital.
One thing is central.
One thing is crucial to understand and it is not often mentioned in the press or on social media.
Voter suppression is not only about making it harder for people in the Armed Services to vote.
Voter suppression is not only about making it harder for people of color to vote.
These restrictions are not only about making it harder for the elderly or disabled to vote.
These restrictions are not only aimed at making it harder for Native Americans to vote or people who *must* go to work every day to vote.
These voter suppression tactics may look right now as though they are basically aimed at Democrats so that Republicans can win more easily despite being the minority party. If you’re a Democrat, you think that’s unfair. If you’re a Republican, you might think it doesn’t matter if it’s unfair so long as Republicans get voted in.
There is something else more fundamental even than being fair or reinforcing the big lie.
Voting restriction laws are aimed at allowing crooks to hold public office.
Voting restriction laws are aimed at allowing incompetent people to hold public office.
Voting restriction laws are aimed at allowing unpopular a$$holes to hold public office.
Let’s say you live in a city with a crooked mayor who takes your tax dollars and uses it to line his or her own pockets. What is your recourse? Vote him or her out of office?
All the crooked politician has to do, to stay in power under the new laws in Georgia, say, is to use some of their graft money to pay off key state legislators. Even if 90% of the people voted to get this person out of office, the crooked state legislators can set aside those election results and keep the crooked politician in power. Such as that will continue to stay in power and continue to steal your tax dollars and continue to pay off state legislators to keep themselves in power.
What peaceful recourse do you have to get rid of crooked or completely incompetent public officials if you cannot vote them out?
There is another crucial reason that is a bit more subtle than the way voting restrictions encourage bad government. They also encourage unpopular government programs. That, in and of itself, causes strife and ineptitude.
Let’s say for instance, that you live in a small town with a beautiful public park on the river. Ninety per cent of the people love the public park. But the mayor of your small town is paid a bribe to replace the public park with a condo development project. Ninety per cent of the people in your small town are against the project. They would rather keep the public park. The mayor, however, doesn’t get a big kickback from the public park. The major doesn’t give a damn how unpopular the new proposal is. They know they can’t be voted out so they will go ahead with the project.
As a result, ninety per cent of the people in the town are pissed off. Because of the draconian voter suppression laws, they feel they have no recourse at the ballot box. All the energy that went into healthy outdoor recreational activity can no longer be released in the public park and instead is redirected to other pursuits, some of it petty crime. Some of it is vandalism aimed at the offending condos or the residents. Sure, the mayor may react by putting more cops on the job or raising the penalties for petty crimes. It won’t help. The town has been put on a downward spiral. Having 90% of the population being pissed off will put everyone on edge. Bad moods and nastiness begets nastiness and more bad moods. Having people arrested won’t help that. It will simply make people even more negative. Over time, more people will leave town. Property values will decline. Even the condos may eventually be a money sink.
Voter suppression is not about simply disenfranchising a group of voters you don’t happen to agree with.
Voter suppression is about enabling and encouraging inept government, crooked government, and unpopular government. It’s an express train straight to destruction, decay, and decadence.
Eventually, voter suppression may lead to even more outrageous outcomes. Dictators know they can’t win free and fair elections so they are always paranoid about being ousted by force. As a result, they wage wars, divide their citizenry, lie about their actions, and focus on preventing violence against their crooked, inept, and unpopular decisions by using more force. Citizens end up being taxed more for police and the military and the surveillance of citizens.
In a nutshell, it’s horrible to live under a dictatorship. That is why people risk their lives every single day to leave dictatorships for the opportunity to live in a democracy. People who leave dictatorships are not deluded into thinking that everything will be easy in a democracy or that they will always get their own way. No-one always gets their own way. But in a democracy, they will have a chance to make their ideas heard. They will have a chance to convince others that they have a good idea. There is a chance to succeed wildly. And there’s a very good chance to succeed a little.
In a dictatorship, everything is stacked against you. Is it worth it? What is the record for dictatorships?
Mao is responsible for the deaths of 40-80 million of his own countrymen.
Stalin killed 6 to 9 million of his own countrymen.
Hitler killed 6 million Jews as well as many additional of his own non-Jewish countrymen. His absurd ambitions caused the death of many American, Russian, allied and German soldiers as well. All told, about 40 million soldiers were killed in World War Two and 75 million people total.
Massive death and destruction are the predictable results of having a government with no accountability for their actions at the ballot box.
How could it be otherwise?
Dictatorships are sought by cruel, paranoid, inept people who care only about themselves. And, it isn’t only the person with the most power in the country who becomes inept and crooked. Every governor, mayor, city official, dog catcher is free to do be crooked and capricious so long as they pay off the people in power. You won’t be able to hire a competent plumber, teacher, or doctor based on their price and effectiveness. All these people will be appointed for you by those in power.
Voter suppression is the suppression of competence.
Voter suppression is the suppression of honesty.
Voter suppression is the suppression of life itself.
The dictator wants you to behave like a machine, not like a living being with free choice. How can a dictator have the desired complete control if people are free to choose? They can’t.
If you support voter suppression, please understand what exactly you are encouraging: incompetence, dishonesty, cruelty, and the destruction of your own freedom — along with, quite possibly, your own life.
That’s what history shows has happened. That’s what logic shows must happen.
But if you’re not convinced, try it out! Move to Cuba, North Korea, Russia, and see how you like it. Perhaps you’ll thrive once your freedom is throttled. Come back in a few years and tell us all how it went!
Oh, there is one teeny little sticking point. They may not let you come back to America. Dictators don’t want people to leave their country and report on how bad life actually is there.
Across the utter and unspeakable vastness of space
Across the everywhere of place.
Take a glance.
I know we buzz as busily as a bee
With little time to contemplate eternity.
But take a glimpse every now and then,
You might be shocked at what you see.
Look beyond the daily grind
And you will find
Millions of kinds of minds
Of creatures large and small
And that’s not all!
They are dancing each and every one!
In that great and magic dance of life!
On and on the music goes.
On and on the rhythm flows.
On and on the mystery grows.
Just because our own brief turn will end at last.
That doesn’t end that endless dance divine!
No matter how you moan; no matter how you whine,
The earth will sing and spin even when your life has passed
Just take a little peek and you at last will see
You change, you morph, you flash.
But, regardless of your stash of cash
You won’t outlast infinity;
You won’t outwit eternity.
Don’t plot & scheme to check & slay and fight & clash.
No, help our cousins on this great green spaceship earth.
Help make this dance more graceful, fine, & filled with mirth.
You can dance your dance without destroying;
You can do your thing without annoying.
You have a million ways to thrill
Why pick out one instead to kill?
The sun is sinking red and low
The wind begins to blow and flow
Into the pines who dance with love
Inviting air and water, dirt and sun,
To join her in her laughing life-long dance
“You too can join in all the fun!
Become a part of me and you’ll have won!”
Take the time to take a glance.
The ordinary world we live in is
Extraordinary in every single way!
Every molecule of it sings.
Every moment has its million miracles!
Take the hands on either side.
Across the world, the world is wide.
We’re divided just as far as we’ve decided we can be.
This division shows a silly decision;
Not an ever-fixed reality.
When we see the truth,
We will have won.
Is that we’re one.
Essays on America try to make sense of current politics in America though many of the issues extend beyond American borders.
Here’s a link, e.g., to an essay about how it can be hard to change your mind.
The Myths of the Veritas is a fictional series that explores leadership, ethics, and empathy in another time and place. Our tale begins as the leader/shaman of the Veritas tribe seeks an eventual successor so she devises a series of increasingly difficult trials that mainly test empathy.
When Cat Eyes had finished reading aloud the story of The Wobby Man, she put aside what the ancients called a “book” and looked expectantly at Tu-Swift. He seemed lost in thought — tortured thoughts filled with thorns — by his visage. Cat Eyes stood and grabbed a nearby water pouch. Reading made her thirsty. She sat back down across from him. She smiled. She was happy to see him again; happy to be reunited with her parents; happy at all the things that the tribe had learned from their discovery; happy that it had taken both of them working together, with their mutual friend Suze, in order to discover how to read. The joy of Cat Eyes felt a sharp edge though because Tu-Swift seemed anything but happy.
“But, I don’t — .” Tu-Swift didn’t finish what he said to Cat Eyes because he didn’t know what he himself meant to say. Instead, he shook his head from side to side. “Why?”
Cat Eyes took his hands into her own and looked at him with love in her eyes, a love that he did not see because his head bowed down and his eyes were only upon the ground. After a few moments she put one of her hands under his chin and lifted it up. They looked into each other’s eyes and she could see that his eyes were tearing up. “It’s okay. It’s to learn from, like all the stories here.”
Tu-Swift shook his head from side to side and bit his lips. “But why?” His voice was plaintive as though he had a thorn stuck painfully under his fingernail and pled for her to remove it.
Cat Eyes sighed and asked gently, “Why what? What are you struggling with? Maybe we can work it out together. Often, life is a fight, but it doesn’t mean you have to be alone in every fight.”
Tu-Swift nodded. After a pause he said, “Why did The Wobbly Man do all that evil? And why did they let him?! Why couldn’t they see what he was up to?”
Cat Eyes nodded. “There are people who do things — evil things — such as steal children. Perhaps there always will be. But I don’t think they think of it as evil. To them, it’s their way of … living … or of having fun. They like destroying life and love in others … I guess because they cannot experience it themselves. I don’t know.”
Tu-Swift sighed. “You are right of course. Within the Veritas where I grew up, there was one such. The Wobbly Man sounds much like him. He manipulated others. He was cruel. Yet, he was such a good liar that he almost fooled our leader, the wise She Who Saves Many Lives. He actually betrayed the tribe to NUT-PI. And here’s the worst part. He got several other braves to go along with his schemes. Without ALT-R, I don’t think POND MUD or KAVANUT would have even been evil.”
“Yes.” After a pause, Cat Eyes added, “It’s much like that Red Spotted Death. It can spread from person to person. And, just as there are evil people even in societies based on truth and trust and love, so too there are people who act in good ways even among the Z-LOTZ and the ROI. It’s much like the story about the two wolves inside someone and which one you feed. The customs of the tribe can make it easy to feed the good wolf — or easy to feed the bad wolf.”
Tu-Swift let out a long sigh. He stood up and held out his hand. Cat Eyes took it and, for a time, they walked in silence. Without intending to do so, they ended up at the entrance to the now dysfunctional tunnel. They stood for a time, holding hands in silence staring at the tunnel. At last, Tu-Swift voiced what both were thinking.
“How could a people know so much as to build a tunnel through a mountain — and yet be so ignorant as to let a liar destroy their village?”
Another long silence ensued until Cat Eyes sighed and spoke again. “We still have many books to read and understand. Many books are filled with words whose meanings we have yet to understand. It appears that it wasn’t just a village here and there. The plague of evil lies destroyed everything. I know you have struggled with whether to use the fire sticks….”
Tu-Swift wondered why Cat Eyes stopped speaking. He looked at her and saw that silent tears were streaming down her cheeks. He squeezed her hand and asked gently, “What is it, Cat Eyes? Why are you so sad?”
“Actually, I was just thinking a little while ago how happy I am about so many things. Yet … we had so much. We knew so much. But we destroyed it. If the books are true, and if our understanding is correct, weapons were developed that … weapons were created that were far worse than fire sticks. Far worse. Yet, there were also treatments for every disease. But the people forgot that they were part of the Tree of Life. People forgot that they were all one. People — not everyone — but enough — just began to grab everything they could for themselves. Lying became commonplace. Once the truth meant nothing, decisions were made by power alone. That is bad enough in the Z-Lotz or, from what you told me, among the Cupiditas. But imagine that they had — not just fire sticks — but horrible weapons that could destroy many villages and all the people in them. Of course, in doing so, these weapons killed birds and butterflies and trees and no-one even seems to have noticed! Maybe … perhaps, we are not really understanding. Maybe they are just stories to prevent people from becoming what the books say that they became. Maybe.”
Tu-Swift bent down and plucked up a small flower that had grown in the cranny of the wall that held the now defunct controls for the tunnel door. He gently braided the stem into the silky hair of Cat Eyes. When he was done, he said, “Well, the tunnel is real. Yet, no-one really knows how it works. How could that be? I mean, unless there was some great loss of learning. I don’t know. Perhaps, we can learn from these stories, whether real or not, how to … how to ensure that we do not fall so far again. From what you said, it sounds…it sounds as though the people became sightless and witless. How can the people not see that they are a part of the Great Tree of Life? How can they not hear the song of the bird or the murmur of the stream? How can they not see the beauty of the trees and flowers all around them? How can they not taste the sweetness of honey?”
Cat Eyes nodded. “That is one of the main question that we — those of us who are studying the books — keep asking ourselves. But when this question is asked, none of us answers. Not yet. Each of us is hoping someone else will explain. But what comes to our ears is only the silence and the cedars sighing in the wind.”
“Tu-Swift, we are learning so much from the library we uncovered. Just as you came, I was putting the final touches on a translation of a story about Stoned Soup, Would you like to hear it?”
“Yes! What’s it about, Cat Eyes?”
Cat Eyes smiled. “Well, I’ll tell you the story and you tell me what you think it means. Here. Come sit beside me.” She patted the rough-hewn bench she sat upon. “You can watch the words as I tell them. How would that be?”
“That,” replied Tu-Swift, “would be wonderful. I love hearing your voice.” He sat beside her and took her hand in his and peered at the runes that he had helped decode. This is the story she read him:
Once upon a time, long ago, there was a village blessed with enough for everyone. The village, named Acirema, was located near ancient beautiful forests of beech and oak. The forests abounded with plentiful game. Long ago, the people of Acirema had cut down part of the forests and turned it into rich farmland capable of producing abundant food. Beyond the forests lay snow-capped mountains. From the mountains, several clear beautiful rivers ran to the plains near the village of the Acirema.
These villagers, like most villagers, had developed many customs. Among them were their shared evening feasts. Except when the weather was exceptionally bad, the villagers gathered in the evening to share a feast. They built a huge fire beneath a large cauldron. When the water finally began to boil, villagers began to contribute what they had to the community soup. Some brought potatoes and turnips; others brought large yellow squash, Jerusalem artichokes, and bright orange carrots; still others brought nettles, blackberry leaves, and hickory nuts. Others, who had been lucky at hunting or fishing or gathering eggs brought those contributions and added them to the soup. Each time the villagers made this soup, the first ingredient that they added was invariably a clean stone, though no-one knew exactly why. Many simply accepted that this was the proper way to make soup. Some theorized that the stone made it tastier. Others believed it helped the flavors circulate. Some thought it was a sacrifice to the god of the fresh mountain water, the sun, or the spirits of the forests.
When the soup was ready, everyone partook and everyone was satisfied. After the meal, they would take turns telling stories or reflecting on the events of the day. Sometimes, they would dialogue about why they began their recipe with a stone.
On occasion, strangers would wander by and they would join in the evening meal. Some of these strangers taught the Acirema new dances or songs or showed them new ways to make things. Some were strangely silent. All of them thanked them for the soup and most continued on their way after a day or two but some liked the village so much that they joined with the Acirema. Those who joined soon found a way to make their own contribution to the village and its soup. Although some harvests were sparse and some flush, the Acirema always had enough to feed everyone in the village. They worked in harmony and enjoyed life.
One hot summer day, it so happened that a fat old man wobbled unsteadily into their village. Despite his obvious extra folds of fat, he demanded a very large portion of soup. His appetite seemed nearly insatiable. He didn’t say much at his first few evening meals, but he observed carefully.
The Wobbly Man noticed that some people ate more than others. The Wobbly Man noticed that some people were taller than others; that some had blue eyes and some had brown eyes. The Wobbly Man noticed that some villagers put a large quantity of carrots in the soup and others only put in a few nuts. The Wobbly Man noticed that some people were old and some were young.
Although the Wobbly Man said little during the evening meal for the whole village, he spoke throughout the entire day, at first, only to one at a time. The Wobbly Man spoke to a strong young man thus:
“Well met, my strong young lad! You must be the strongest man I have ever seen! Surely, you are the strongest in the village! Am I right?”
The strong man answered modestly, “I may be.” He shrugged.
“Of course you are. And, yet, I know that you could be much stronger still. You are not really getting your fair share of the evening soup. Your grandfather eats as much as you do! How is that fair? I’m sure you’re a much better hunter.”
“Grandfather? My grandfather no longer walks this earth. Perhaps you saw my father? He often sits next to me.”
The Wobbly Man acted surprised. “Oh, that old man is your father. I wonder…he doesn’t seem nearly so strong as you do. Well…who knows? But anyway, he certainly eats a lot for his size. And, yet, he isn’t half the hunter you are, I imagine. I don’t really know. I’m just guessing from how little he adds to the soup.” The Wobbly Man smiled.
After a few moments of awkward silence, the strong young man said, “I’m going hunting. Do you know how to hunt? Do you wish to come too?”
The Wobbly Man replied, “Oh, no. I don’t hunt. You go ahead. And don’t pay any attention to what I said. It’s none of my concern. I like to joke a lot. That’s all. It means nothing. Sometimes a maple tree springs from an acorn, you know?”
The strong man shook his head. “No, that never happens. What are you talking about?”
The Wobbly Man replied, “No. Perhaps you are right. I’ve never actually seen that either. Well, you go hunting. Happy hunting!”
Next, the Wobbly Man spied one of the beautiful young maidens of the tribe. Long silky blond hair framed her smooth skin and her bright blue eyes. He followed her down to a nearby stream where she bathed herself. He watched with pleasure from behind some bushes. At last, she emerged, quite refreshed; she lay on a warm slab of shale to allow the sun to dry her front and back. When he judged she was about to re-robe herself, the Wobbly Man walked by casually placing himself between the young maiden and her robe.
“Oh! Well met, young maiden. I didn’t realize anyone was here. Nor did I realize it was your custom to go naked in public. I shall join you then and learn more about your ways.” In a flash, he dropped his own clothes in a pile at his feet.
The young maiden blushed and this excited the Wobbly Man even more; so much so, that his excitement was nearly visible. He strode up to her wondering whether his great weight would be sufficient to force her to do what he wanted regardless of her wishes.
“Sir, put your own clothes back on and hand me mine! You are a guest here and it will not do well for people to see you naked. They may misunderstand your intentions.”
“Oh, me, oh, my,” said the Wobbly Man. “I’m just having a little fun. Is that such a bad thing? It’s of no concern to me if you prefer other women instead of a handsome guy like me. I’m sure another young lady will be along shortly. Maybe this is where you congregate? Ah, but I’m a stranger. What do I know?”
As he spoke, the Wobbly Man reclothed himself and sauntered back toward the nearby village. Here, he spied a group of youth having a spear-throwing contest. After he spied a particularly long throw, he spoke up again.
“Nice throw! Back in my village a throw like that would earn you the right to a maiden such as the one lying naked by yon stream.” The Wobbly Man pointed in the direction he had just come. “Even now, she is quite — what is the right word? She is quite desirous of having pleasure with someone. She even begged me to have sex with her. She complained that none of the young men hereabouts were interested in wooing women. A shame really. But what do I know of your customs? But if I were younger and stronger, I wouldn’t wait so long to make my own desires known.”
The young men looked at each other and left off their spear throwing contest and ran down the path toward the river, each hoping to win the young lady’s heart.
The Wobbly Man smiled and chuckled to himself. He closed his eyes and imagined all of them forcing themselves on her. At least, he hoped that’s what would happen. If she were broken and exhausted, he would try his own luck again.
Now, a new opportunity presented itself and required his attention. The father of the young man he had spoken to earlier was sitting alone and cleaning fish. The Wobbly Man walked over and sat down on a nearby log. “Good afternoon, dear sir. I believe I spoke earlier today with your son. I’m still learning the names of the people here. What is your son’s name again?”
“Rigel! Rigel! That’s a fine name. And your son seems healthy and strong as well. I must tell you that my own son, named Junior, is every bit as ungrateful. More so. I’m sure they’ll grow out of it. That’s just the way youth are. I wouldn’t worry about it. Speaking of Rigel, where is he? Why isn’t he helping you clean the fish? That seems the least — I mean, it’s none of my business, of course, but it seems as though if he’s going to complain about you getting more of the soup than he gets, he would have a stronger argument if he did more to prepare the soup.”
The man stopped cleaning the fish and looked at the Wobbly Man. “What? Rigel said I eat more than my share?”
“What? Oh, no! No, no, no, not at all. Not in so many words.” Here, the Wobbly Man paused, tilted his head, and pretended to be thoughtful. He clicked his tongue, leaned closer to the slender old man and whispered in a conspiratorial tone.
“If you ask me, he should be very grateful that you agreed — you know — to act as his father. Not everyone I know is man enough to do that. Right?”
The fish cleaner stopped his work again and looked at the Wobbly Man with a frown. “What do you mean, ‘to act as his father.’? I am his father.”
The Wobbly Man nodded his head up and down vigorously. “Of course you are. Of course you are! You are the man who raised him. I’m sure beneath all that resentment, he has great respect for you. I’m sure he does. Right? You are sure too, right? All that resentment in his tone and so on — that’s just — he’s probably angry at his mother, really.”
Every day, the villagers of Acirema hunted, fished, gathered food, or worked their farmland. Every day, the villagers made things, observed things, added to the general well-being, the food stores, or the knowledge of the Acirema. Everyone, that is, except for The Wobby Man, who never hunted, never fished, never built or crafted anything with his own two hands.
That is not to say that The Wobbly Man was not busy. He was very busy each and every day. He told the tall people that they should received more soup because their tall bodies needed it more than short people did. He told short people that they were short because they had not received enough soup. He told blue-eyed people that the brown-eyed people thought blue eyes were a deformity and he told brown-eyed people that the blue-eyed people thought brown eyes was a deformity. The Wobbly Man set husband against wife; he set father against son; he set men against women; he set the elderly against youngsters and he set youngsters against the elderly.
At first, the Acirema remained peaceful and kept to their own ways. But gradually, just as the sand in a river bank eventually becomes sandstone or shale, the people began to mistrust each other. As the elderly began to mistrust the young people, that made the young people suspicious of the old people.
Day after day, week upon week, month upon month, the Acirema tribe grew ever more suspicious of each other. When the autumn harvest came, many kept back a good proportion of their food for their private consumption. The community soup grew thinner in consistency and lesser in quantity. The fire needed not to be so large. People often ate in silence. Instead of sitting around the fire sharing songs and stories, the people retired to their own dwellings. When the cold winds of autumn turned icy, they stopped bothering to make soup at all, at least as a group.
The Wobbly Man had left. No-one seemed to have noticed exactly when he left. He did not tell them that he was going, nor did he share why he was going, nor where. No-one noticed him walk away from the Acirema, turn back and look from afar upon the village of Acirema and smile a broad grin. His last words to the Acirema, he muttered far out of earshot of the Acirema.
I worked at IBM, all told, about 28 years. During that time, management put more and more pressure on us to make our work “relevant” to the business. In fact, the pressure was always there, even from the beginning. Over the years, however, we were “encouraged” to shorten evermore the time gap between doing the research and having the results of that research impact the bottom line. This was not an IBM-only phenomenon.
I was a researcher, not a politician, but it seemed to me that at the same time researchers in industrial labs were put under pressure to produce results that could be seen in terms of share price (and therefore payouts to executives in terms of stock options), academia was also experiencing more and more pressure to publish more studies more quickly — and to make sure “intellectual property” was protected to make sure the university could monetize your work. This was about the same time that, at least in America, increasing productivity and the wealth that sprung from that increased productivity stopped being shared with the workers.
In the late 1970’s, the “Behavioral Sciences” group began to study the “psychology of design.” For the first few months, this was an extremely pleasurable & productive group, due mainly to my colleagues. Over the next few blogs, I’ll focus on some specific techniques and methods that you may find useful in your own work.
In this short story though, I want to focus instead on some broader issues relevant to “technology transfer”, “leadership” and “management.” Even if you are or aspire to be an expert in UX or HCI or design, I assure you that these broader issues will impact you, your work and your career. I wouldn’t suggest becoming obsessed with them, but being aware of their potential impact could help you in your own work and career.
It is telling that, almost invariably, whenever I told someone inside IBM (or, for that matter, outside IBM) that I was studying the “psychology of design,” people responded by asking, “the design of what?” So, I would explain that we were interested in the generic processes of design and how to improve them. I would explain that we were interested in understanding, predicting, and controlling these processes to enable them to be more effective. I would explain that we could apply these findings to any kind of design: software design, hardware design, organizational design, and (see last post about IBM) communication design. I would explain that design was a quintessentially human activity. I would also explain that design was an incredibly leveraged activity to improve.
Looking back on it, I still think all these things are true. I also see that I missed the “signal” people were giving me that, while I thought of design as something that could be studied as a process, that most people did not think of it that way. To them, it was never the “psychology of design,” but only the design of something.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree that somewhat different skills are involved in designing a great advertising campaign, a great building, and a great application. I agree that different communities of practice treat various common issues differently. I still think it’s worth studying commonalities across domains. For one thing, we may find an excellent way of generating ideas, say, that the advertising community of practice uses that neither architects nor applications developers had ever tried. Or, vice versa.
My own academic background was in “Experimental Psychology.” We were forever doing experiments that we believed were about psychological processes that were thought to be invariant regardless of the domain. It was an axiom of our whole enterprise that studying memory for any one thing shed light on how we remember every other thing. Similar studies looked at decision making or problem solving or multi-tasking. We came to understand that there were some interesting exceptions to being able to separate content from process. For instance, it is much easier to multi-task a spatial task and a verbal task than it is to multi-task two independent spatial tasks or two independent verbal tasks.
We used a spectrum of techniques to study “design” from laboratory studies of toy problems, to observing people doing real-world design problems while thinking aloud. After about 3-4 months of very productive work, we were told that we had to make our work relevant to software development. That should be the focus of our work. We were told that this command came from higher-ups in IBM. That might have been true, or perhaps partly true.
It might also be relevant that someone in our management chain might have been the recipient of a grant from ONR which was specifically focused on software development. So far as I can tell, nothing had been done on that grant. So, our past, present, and future work could have been co-opted to be “results” done under the auspices of the ONR grant.
In any case, regardless of the “reasons,” the group began to focus specifically on software design. In one study, we used IBM software experts as subjects. Each person was given information that was geared toward a specific transformation that occurred in software development. One person was presented with the description of a “situation” that included a number of “issues” and they were asked to write a requirements document. In real life, I would hope that this would be done in a dialogue (and, indeed, in other studies, we recorded such dialogues). Absent such dialogues, what we found was that different software experts — all from IBM research — and all given the same documentation about a set of problems generated vastly different problem statements and overall approaches.
In other parts of the study, other experts were variously given requirements documents and asked to do an overall, high level system design, or given a high level design and asked to design an algorithm, or given an algorithm and asked to code a section. There was always diversity but the initial showed the greatest diversity. The initial stage is also the one that can cause the most expensive errors. If you begin with a faulty set of requirements — a misreading about how to even go about the problem — then, the overall project is almost certain to incur schedule slip, cost overruns, or outright failure.
While the vital importance of the initial stages of design is true in software development, I would argue that it is likely also true for advertising campaigns, building designs — and even true for the design of research programs. We designed our research agenda under the assumption that we had a long time; that we were studying design processes independently of specific communities of practice or the nature of the problems people were attempting to address. We assumed that there was no “hidden agenda.” Although we believed we would eventually need to show some relevance to IBM business, we had no idea, when we began, that only relevance to software design would be “counted.”
Some of our studies on the “Psychology of Design.”
Carroll, J. and Thomas, J.C. (1982). Metaphor and the cognitive representation of computer systems. IEEE Transactions on Man, Systems, and Cybernetics., SMC-12 (2), pp. 107-116.
Thomas, J.C. and Carroll, J. (1981). Human factors in communication. IBM Systems Journal, 20 (2), pp. 237-263.
Thomas, J.C. (1980). The computer as an active communication medium. Invited paper, Association for Computational Linguistics, Philadelphia, June 1980. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics., pp. 83-86.
Malhotra, A., Thomas, J.C. and Miller, L. (1980). Cognitive processes in design. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 12, pp. 119-140.
Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1980). Presentation and representation in design problem solving. British Journal of Psychology/,71 (1), pp. 143-155.
Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1979). A clinical-experimental analysis of design problem solving. Design Studies, 1 (2), pp. 84-92.
Thomas, J.C. (1978). A design-interpretation analysis of natural English. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 10, pp. 651-668.
Thomas, J.C. and Carroll, J. (1978). The psychological study of design. Design Studies,1 (1), pp. 5-11.
Miller, L.A. and Thomas, J.C. (1977). Behavioral issues in the use of interactive systems: Part I. General issues. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 9 (5), pp. 509-536.
Blog posts about the importance of solving the “right” problem.