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.
Brian Balke said:
In thinking about composition of components, my father proposed an “Affinitive Genealogist” to support self-organizing menus. Each component would ask “Is there a ‘File’ sub-menu? If so, place my items in the sub-menu.” I think that this could be extensible to a “strong center” organized around user intention (as you indicate). The user declares “I intend to add a table to this document.” The application monitors their activities from that point forward, and deduces which features are most commonly accessed. Eventually, a purpose-specific control surface (menu, toolbars, context menus) is constructed whenever the user declares that intention.
John Thomas said:
Hey! That’s a cool idea. One of the folks in the NYNEX AI lab — I can’t remember who — had a somewhat related but different idea. The designers of the SW would predict that after you did A, B and C you would next do D, or possibly E or F…and if instead, the user did Z, a message would pop up saying something like, “We designers really thought after you did ABC you would do D, E, or F. You did Z. Can you please reply and tell us why.” Probably expects a lot of the user. But the idea was to give FB to the designers so in the next version — if Z really was a good choice — to understand why.