(This is the fourth post in a series of 15 which aim to examine the fifteen properties of natural order postulated by Christopher Alexander. I wonder whether the property of “Alternating Repetition” could be more frequently incorporated into User Experience and what the pros and cons might be).
4. Alternating Repetition
In nature, whether we look at clouds, waves, mountain ranges, forests, plants, the leaves of plants, or almost any animal, we see alternating repetition. Such natural repetition is almost never precise and complete replication. Just as every reproductive act of life introduces an element of recombination as well as the possibility of mutation, so too the repetitions we see in life are not mathematical. We indeed see patterns repeated in a line or in a circle, but the instances in living things show variation. Similarly, human artifacts made with the hands; e.g., weaving or poetry or rock walls or tennis strokes show repetition but with slight and subtle variations.
If you look at modern industrial society, you see many examples of exact repetition. It’s true that if you looked at 10,000 examples of the same brand and model pen, or notebook, or scissors, or streak knives under a microscope, you could likely find small differences. To the naked eye, however, they would appear identical. Seeing 10,000 pebbles, leaves, or waves you would always see slight to moderate differences. To me, it makes a difference in terms of beauty. Handmade items and human actions naturally show more variation than things produced by machines.
The various “elements” of a User Interface generally have the feel of something made by machine. The size of all the application icons on the tool bar for instance are the same. They are all almost the same exact shape and size. On my tool bar the icons for Finder, Launchpad, Mail, Safari, Chrome, FaceTime, Messenger, Maps, Photos, Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, Notes, System Preferences, Keynote, Pages, Preview, and News are the same. However, the Kindle icon is slightly larger and more square. The Zoom icon is very slightly rounder and the icon for Facebook is circular. In other words, there is some slight variation, but mainly the icons are the same in outline, but different inside. But the set of icons on the tool bar has no sense of “harmony.”
Instead, each icon seems to scream out its individuality without regard to its neighbors. (Which reminds me of things like masking, vaccinations, telling the truth, etc.). Anyway, the layout of the toolbar, to me, it’s reminiscent of driving down the highway and seeing a sequence of billboards, each advertising some random product or service in no particular order. Often, each billboard is the same size but they are independent of each other. The one exception I can think of were the “Burma Shave” signs along the highway. Each sign was a small rectangle with several words on it. About a quarter mile down the road, another sign would appear. They were meant to be seen in a specific order and together, they made a kind of “story” which usually rhymed. Typically, the signs touted the joys of the product — “Burma Shave” — or, provided public service announcements about safe driving.
In the early days of computing, putting in “variation” would have been insanely wasteful of space and processing time. This is no longer true. Yet, the “look and feel” of User Interfaces remains, for the most part, quite “mechanical” or “mechanistic” rather than “natural.” Sometimes modern computer games include naturalistic looking variations in how repeated plants, rocks, clouds, etc. are represented. Look at the palm trees and you will see variations among the trees that are reminiscent of the real palm trees I see every day. In addition, each tree contains a number of fronds that repeat a generic theme; yet, each front is somewhat different. The fronds themselves each contain alternating repetition, just as do real palm tree fronds.
We might consider whether it would make sense to put more natural looking alternating repetition into the more utilitarian aspects of user experience. For example, could it be both more beautiful and more useful to allow more variation in the way files are represented visually? Will Hill, James Hollan, Dave Wrobleski, & Tim McCandless suggested (in a CHI ’92 paper) that physical documents such as manuals naturally show wear in places where they are most used. They suggested that the visual representation of computer documents might be altered slightly to show which documents have been used or edited more and also that such cues within a document might also be useful.
Hill, William; Hollan, James; Wrobleski, Dave; McCandless, Tim; “Edit Wear and Read Wear,” Human factors in computing systems: Striking a balance. Proceedings of the 9th annual conference. SIGCHI ’92 Proceedings (Monterey, CA), Addison-Wesley, 1992, pp. 3-9.
One of the few cookbooks I use with some regularity is entitled, Fat Free and Flavor Full. The recipe I’ve used many times is the black bean salad. If I open the physical book, it naturally falls open to that particular recipe. “Open Recent” I find a very useful features of the Pages application, but I don’t see a way to look at files based on overall frequency of use. It could be the case that there are some applications for which you would want specific files to be easily found depending on the season or the date. The authors of “Edit Wear and Read Wear” were mainly talking about the utility of encoding information about a file into its visual representation. There might well be aesthetic reasons to do so as well.
The wooden blinds shown below exhibit alternating repetition in several ways. First, there is the matter of perspective. Some variation almost always presents itself simply by virtue of the fact that I typically view the blinds at an angle and some are closer to me than others. This means that the size, and the retinal shape are slightly different. Second, there is variation caused by slight changes in the angle of the slats relative to vertical. Third, each slat is made of wood. The wood itself shows rings (or more commonly a planar projection of the concentric cylinders.
The wooden blinds, because they are illuminated from the outside by tree-filtered sunlight also show further variation; however I don’t think that is typically “alternating repetition.” Perhaps not coincidentally, although I find it a little interesting, I can’t say I find that source of variation to be beautiful to me. The other three all add to the aesthetics, at least to me.
Is it feasible to introduce alternating repetition with slight variation into User Interfaces? Would it be desirable? What negative side-effects might arise? Do you even agree with Christopher Alexander that Alternating Repetition is an aspect of natural beauty and beautiful design? One thing that occurs to me is that if some element of the UI is more variable in outline etc., it may mean that the actions upon that object must deal with that variability. If designed greenfield, that might not be too difficult. But if, for example, the code for dragging and dropping was written under a presumption of zero variability, that might be problematic. What do you think?
Discussion of Alternating Repetition with additional visual examples can be found here: