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3. Boundaries

Here are a few thoughts about “Boundaries” and how they apply in User Experience. 

I decided to gift a copy of of Volume One on The Nature of Order to my daughter earlier today. I logged on to Amazon and looked at my address book. I am aware that she moved fairly recently. So, I was scrolling through my earlier text conversations with her to see whether she had told me of her new address. I couldn’t find a text about her new address so I texted her to get the new address. 

Suddenly, a popup window appeared from SIRI. It had her new address. I hadn’t said anything aloud. I thought of SIRI as a voice-activated service on my iPhone. It was disconcerting to have it “notice” my text message and then suggest an answer (which turned out to be correct). 

Last week, after physical therapy, my therapist & I began to discuss the time for my next appointment. I pulled up the calendar application on my iPhone and went to a particular day and began to type in her name. After the first two characters were typed in, the “type-ahead” function suggested three possible “completions” the first of which was the time we had been orally discussing (which was not a common time nor the time of any of my recent appointments with her). It also filled in her complete name and the purpose of the appointment, but that was more understandable. 

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One sense of “Boundaries” in User Experience connects with a notion of “boundaries” that is much discussed in contemporary mental health. We are advised to “establish boundaries” with co-workers, family, friends, and strangers. We don’t necessarily want to share personal information with everyone or let everyone touch us in any way they choose to. If intimate details are shared in a recovery group or group therapy, it is generally agreed that such details will not be shared with others. 

We sometimes extend the idea of informational boundaries to written materials as well. If, for instance, we keep a personal diary, we do not expect other people to “search for it” or to read it. In this story, I relied on the expectation that someone would read a paper I “accidentally” dropped on the sidewalk. But she was so protective of my privacy that she wouldn’t even glance at my paper. 

On the other hand, if we write and publish an autobiography, then we can expect that other people will feel justified in discussing the contents. To me, it would seem odd for an author to feel “violated” if people start talking about the contents of their autobiography (or their blog).

When it comes to modern interactions with computer software however, the boundaries are invisible — and sometimes non-existent. It can feel as though I write a private diary on paper; lock it up in a safe immediately; and then — without any sign that the safe has been broken into, I suddenly find details of my personal life revealed! 

There appear to be boundaries between applications, and certainly between devices but these boundaries may be illusory. I find that troubling and confusing. I think the first application of “Boundaries” as a property of UX is that apparent boundaries should be real. There may be exceptions for exceptional circumstances; e.g., the police may get a search warrant to search your house if there is reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime. 

When a social media site analyzes your reactions, relationships, and word usage to determine what to try to sell you and what type of approach is most likely to succeed, that does not strike me as a reasonable response to an “emergency.” As most readers know by now, such information is not only used to try to sell you more stuff; it was also used to manipulate public opinion; for example, to convince some US voters to stay away from the polls on election day in 2016; to convince voters in the UK to vote for Brexit; to convince people not to get vaccinated. 

Living things do have boundaries. Breaching those boundaries is typically something to be avoided. We call such breaches by names like “bites”, “wounds”, “diseases”, “gunshots”, “parasites.” Living cells typically have a cell wall. Within the cell are tinier organelles such as the mitochondria. The mitochondria have boundaries. The nucleus of a cell has a boundary. Within the nucleus, the nucleolus has a boundary. Larger structures often have boundaries. Motor neurons have a myelin sheath which allows neural impulses to travel faster. Almost our entire body is covered in layers of skin which for a boundary.


The formation of boundaries does not stop with our physical body. Organizations of humans — nuclear families, clans, nation-states, counties, cities, townships, teams, corporations — they have boundaries. A bank, for instance, might have a safe for the money, but the building itself also functions as a boundary — not an impermeable boundary — customers are allowed to come in during banking hours. There are also legal boundaries. If you have “an account” at a bank, you will be allowed to do things that non-customers cannot. Similarly, if you are an employee of a company or a member of a sports team, you will be allowed to do things and go places that you couldn’t if you were outside that boundary. 

All boundaries are semi-permeable. Boundaries change over time. A thorn tears your skin. Your boundary is broken. If you’re not careful, bacteria can get in and cause an infection. Your white blood cells destroy the invading bacteria. Your body heals. If the cut was bad enough, you may get a scar and the scar is now part of your “boundary.” It isn’t only at the level of the body that changes occur. Your social boundaries change too.

You get married. You get divorced. You are born. You join a team. You quit the team. You sell your house and other people buy it. Now, you are no longer allowed to come into the house without an invitation. Meanwhile, you buy another house. You have acquired new boundaries. Or, perhaps, you have no home. You are homeless and your boundaries are not so secure. 

Most of our possessions have clearly defined boundaries. Your hammer is separate from your saw which is separate from your drill. They come from an earlier time and the “boundary” of such objects are determined by their shape. More recently, such tools (and nearly everything else!) Is packaged in bubble wrap which forms an additional boundary. This makes it harder for people to hide one under their clothes and walk out without paying. Such packaging has the added advantage that it will require time and energy on your part before you can actually start using the tool for its intended purpose. Not only that — such packaging helps pollute our world beyond the pollution required by “old style” tools.

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Once you have separated your new tool purchase from its packaging, if you have any energy left, you can saw a board, or drill a hole, or hammer a nail. But you do not expect (not yet, at least), the saw to “communicate” behind the scenes with your drill. Or with you. You’d be surprised if it piped up and said, “Gee, Gene, you just sawed a board. Now, you have taken up the drill. Would you like suggestions on how to build a dog house?” (That’s what Clippy would do). 

(Link to Wikipedia article on “Clippy” and how it was parodied). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_Assistant

Clippy tried to be helpful. But it didn’t really have enough information about my tasks, goals, and context to actually be helpful. But today’s behind-the-scenes information sharing with dark forces is not trying to be helpful. It’s trying to get you to change your behavior for someone else’s benefit — and you don’t even know who those someones are. 

Notice that if you buy a house (which typically comes with doors and keys), you can lock the house and the default is that it keeps everyone else out — except those you’ve given a key to or those who have rung your doorbell or otherwise asked for permission to come in. Typically, if a rare visitor comes to your house, you make arrangements for a time and a place. The piano tuner comes to tune your piano. You might let them use your bathroom or even offer them something to drink. But you don’t expect the piano tuner to redecorate your study or to spend the night uninvited. 

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That’s kind of what does happen in the electronic world though. In many cases, you cannot visit a website or use an application unless you give permission for the “guest” to rifle through the choices you make. Just to be clear, these “choices” are not only explicit choices; your “choices” can include how long you linger over a particular message or video clip. In many cases, you have not just given a key to a specific vendor, application, or website — in many cases, you have also given them rights, essentially, to make as many copies of your front door key as they care to make and hand them out to whomever they like. 

These are missing boundaries, not so much in the user interface design, but in the socio-technical context in which we use our technology. 

In the physical world in which we evolved, invasion of privacy typically involved symmetry. If I can see your eyes, you can see mine. Conversely, if I can’t see anyone, chances are that they can’t see me. Of course, this isn’t literally true. A tiger’s camouflaging stripes may mean that they can see the gazelles even though the gazelles cannot see them. The astounding eyesight of the eagle allows them to see a mouse on the ground and start their deadly dive before the mouse can see the eagle. 

In the electronic world, it isn’t genetically coded asymmetries of information that allows other people to invade your boundaries — in many cases without your permission or even knowledge. It is an asymmetry that comes from money and time. You don’t have anything like the fortune that rich companies have. They can hire experts at subverting your boundaries. They can hire an entirely different set of experts to convince you that it’s all okay. They can afford to hire still other experts to defend themselves in a court of law should you seek redress for any particularly unethical behavior. They can afford to hire politicians as well in order to make laws to protect their unfettered access to your data. You typically cannot afford to hire politicians to protect your right to privacy. 

You probably don’t have 10,000 to 100,000 people working for you. Companies not only have the money to spy on you. They also have to time to collect and analyze your behavior & make sense of it. You don’t. Perhaps, every once in a while, you take the time to wade through a “privacy policy.” In most cases, since experts were hired to make the text as incomprehensible as possible, you likely didn’t see much value in reading the document. 

The Nature of Order is about aesthetics, not ethics. And, this post was meant to be about aesthetics, not ethics. 

The poem by Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 


ends thusly: 

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Life includes differences in sensory capability. And life includes camouflage. Generally, however, when you get to the end a cliff and step off, you have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen. The boundary is visible to you, to a bison, to a mouse, to a lemming, to an eagle. 

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When we walk through the woods in northeastern USA where I lived for many years, we run the risk of being attacked by a deer tick. The dear tick makes a hole in you and starts sucking your blood (oh, while they’re at it, they may inject a large does of Lyme disease bacteria into your blood stream). You don’t notice it, because the deer tick is “kind enough” to administer a local anesthetic so you don’t feel any pain from this invasion of your person; this breaking of boundaries. It’s a one-sided breach. The deer tick is well aware of the invasion. It’s the whole point! But you do not perceive the breach. At least, I didn’t. Twice. Thankfully, I don’t seem to have any long-lasting effects though I have several friends who do. 

A one-sided boundary breach, doesn’t seem “aesthetic” to me. Nor does it seem “truthful.” The little orange deer tick, is, in a very real sense, lying to me. It uses its narcotic to tell me, “No worries! There’s no wound here! There’s no deer tick sucking your blood. There’s no deer tick injecting a serious disease into your blood. No, no. All is well!” It seems the opposite of beauty and the opposite of truth.

I suppose if I had been born a deer tick, I might view things differently. 


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