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Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Galactic Babel

What would you do if I didn’t smile at you? I mean, not me in particular, but me as the stranger that you passed yesterday morning while checking the mail.

You said, “hello,” because you’re a nice person — everyone knows that. But I didn’t respond. I grimaced. And I’m not even sorry. I do not apologize.

Okay, so I’m being a jerk. I bring this up, however, because my guess is that this unfriendly exchange would result in a bit of dissonance for you. It would raise all kinds of questions, like:

What’s that dude’s problem? Why is he so angry? Why can’t people be friendly? Should I hit that guy over the head with my rake, which I weirdly brought with me to check the mail?

Here’s the point.

The insult in this unfriendly exchange is to more than just you. It’s to what Umberto Eco called a “cultural unit,” which is “anything that is culturally defined and distinguished as an entity.”

So what’s the cultural unit in this case? Though it could be many things, let’s say it’s the abstract, cultural concept of “hospitality.”

Imagine that culture, defined as the norms of a given society, were all written down and housed in a library. How fantastic would it be to visit the cultural libraries of France, Iran, or Guyana and establish exactly how you should act at dinner, in the restroom, or when shaking hands in one of these countries?

You could avoid all kinds of uncomfortable and silly situations if you only had access to the infinite libraries of culture. You could walk up to the front desk, request the book on Guyanese cars or architecture or hospitality, and understand how the Guyanese signify each entity.

Let me be clear: this isn’t history or etymology. It is the infinity of meaning that a particular thing or concept has in the social or cultural consciousness of a people group.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

In America, for instance, you could look up “dog” in the imaginary library and read chapters on K-9s, terms of masculine indearment, and Californian rappers. “Dog,” in other words, doesn’t only mean the cute and friendly puppy that you just bought. In the cultural and collective mind of American society, it signifies all manner of things.

And if “dog” can mean something other than what you think it means, then just imagine the books written on abstract concepts like justice, freedom, or hospitality. Meaning proliferates so quickly that the library metaphor breaks down. How could any culture store all of the books necessary to understand itself?

This is why Eco wrote in terms of a cultural encyclopedia rather than a cultural library. Though it’s probably better, in our day and age, to imagine a cultural Wikipedia, an ever-expanding labyrinth of cultural meaning.

So what is a cultural unit then? What was offended in my opening scenario? It wasn’t only you, but it was also the cultural unit — the entry in the cultural Wikipedia — titled, “Hospitality. ”

What’s fascinating about culture units written in cultural Wikipedias is that they do not record only “truths,” but everything.

What has been said about the truth or what has been believed to be true as well as what has been believed to be false or imaginary or legendary, provided that a given culture had elaborated some discourse about some subject matter.

Within a cultural Wikipedia is both “unicorn” and “gravity,” the former of which exists and is true not as a brute fact arising from experience but as a cultural unit within Western culture. A cultural Wikipedia can never be exhausted because humans have the unique ability to conceive of imaginary things.

The Wikipedia is obviously a fantasy. It’s a model to understand the way in which cultures make, organize, and represent both meaning and knowledge. But it’s a damn good fantasy, one that contains “the sum total of everything ever said by humankind.” A cultural Wikipedia has it all — Plato and the Kardashians — just like Jorge Luis Borges’ La biblioteca de Babel or Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica.

The Wikipedia of culture is never fixed. It is flexible, fluid, and nimble. It exists as a vast, ever-changing network.

Photo by Fausto García on Unsplash

The Heuristics of Design

While there is much more that can be said about the Wikipedia of Galactic Babel, I want to consider the conceptual world of any given culture alongside Jakob Nielsen’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design.”

I don’t, alas, have time to consider all ten. And, let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t want me to, but I am really interested in number two, the “Match Between the System and the Real World.”

So, first, what’s a heuristic?

It’s a rule of thumb, what we used to call in school a “guesstimate.” It’s a kind of approximation that allows someone to make a decision or complete a task without perfect information. Heuristics are broad guidelines for approaching a problem rather than a specific list of hard-and-fast rules.

Heuristics are important in the practice of design because they provide any designer with a few, rough guidelines to conduct his or her business. Heuristics are the fences within which any designer can go creatively nuts — just don’t stray outside the boundaries.

While there are ten heuristics that designers should know, I want to focus on number two, creating matches between a system and the real world.

The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases, and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

While the definition of heuristic number two is clear enough, it does raise two questions. What exactly is a “system?” And how does one identify “real-world conventions?”

Photo by Ashley Whitlatch on Unsplash

By “system,” heuristic number two is referring to the integrated whole of any given design. Creatives have a tendency, as does anyone within a specific industry, to use language specific to that industry. This is a good thing. It speeds up communication within the industry but drastically slows it down without.

Heuristic number two is a reminder that when our designs step outside the walls of our studio or company, we’d better have stripped them of any insider language or significations. Designers have to take account of how people move, think, and talk in the world outside of design.

This leads me to my second question: how do we identify real-world conventions? If a convention is a way in which something is usually done — like a tradition, but less explicit — then how does any designer go about pinpointing the conventions of a given culture?

You might be thinking that this is easy enough. Conduct some interviews, do some contextual inquiries, and have done with it. But is it that easy?

Self-reporting has significant disadvantages, which potentially create problems for any designer relying solely upon interviews or contextual inquiries. People are weird and they do strange things when being watched. The object is always changed by the observer.

As Anna Kaley writes:

We should never assume that our own interpretations and understanding of words or objects match those of our users . . . How we interpret the world around us depends on a variety of circumstantial and personal factors. Experiences we’ve had, items we’re familiar with, our beliefs, ideas, and values all contribute to how we infer meaning, and nuances in interpretation will often vary from individual to individual.

If interpretations change from person to person, then how can a designer aggregate such disparate data into one, compelling persona or case study? To ask it another way, where should one turn in order to tap into real-world conventions?

The Wikipedia of Galactic Babel, obviously!

If Eco was right about the way in which cultures organize and represent their knowledge, and I think he was, then the task of any designer is more than just the process of empathy, definition, iteration, prototyping, and testing.

The designer should also be a student of culture.

Designers, for any design work, need to tap into the cultural units stored in the Wikipedia of Galactic Babel so that they can better understand the way in which their users are signifying the layout and language of any design.

How does one do this? Well, at the risk of sounding stuffy, research and critique.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Design, as I’ve come to think about it, is professional problem-solving. And part of solving any problem is understanding fully just what that problem is. This can potentially require more than the iterative process. If a designer is working on an interface, then perhaps it means that the designer might dive deeply into the Wikipedia’s entry on “interface,” which would take her to the entry on “interaction” or “relationship” or “technology.”

To be a student of culture, a designer not only has to participate in it but also seek to understand it.

The funny thing about design is that it tries to create something in line with a cultural unit — within the bounds of appropriate and known signification — all the while knowing that the design itself will add to, change, or expand the Wikipedia of Galactic Babel.

Designers, in other words, must know the culture into which they’re creating, for their creations are not just comments on culture but also additions to it.


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