HCI VISTAS, VOLUME-III, 2007-2008
Sensing of Meaning and Introvert Products
Guest Author: Pankaj Sapkal
Article INS-26./Aug 2007
Sensing of Meaning
For the one that yearns to hear
Even a pebble can sing a song
The human mind is geared to derive meaning out of what it perceives.
And this attribute is so fundamental to it, that it may even be the most basic building block of human cognition. In our zest to dig out some meaning from everything, we even go to extreme lengths. There have been diviners, oracles, and witch-doctors who try to read meaning from chicken entrails, yarrow sticks, tea leaves, bird flights, etc, with the same seriousness that a doctor reads an x-ray, or a hot-air balloonist reads weather patterns. The famous metaphysical saying "there is no such thing as a coincidence" is something which rides on the underlying philosophy that says - there is always a meaning in everything - if you can find it. Understandably, this philosophy can be a highly devious tool in the hands of occultist quacks, and yet the motive behind it is a fundamental driving force of human cognition.
Internal Maps of Reality
Meaning is, in a way, an identifiable pattern in the sea of one's own cognition. It is a known and established fact that those who find such meaning are happier - regardless of whether the meaning is correct and verifiable, or not. The grandmother who believes that her loved ones will live longer by the grace of God finds peace rather easily. But the scientist who does not know what to believe in, and who is aware of the randomness of life could be unhappy. Being able to find meaning gives one a sense of satisfaction, solace and contentment.
All of us have an internal map of reality which never matches reality fully - we only match it to a certain extent and then dynamically fill in the blanks by interpolation, as per the meaning that we like to see in it. This filling in the blanks is the finding of a pattern - the creating of neural relationships between different perceptions/memories/beliefs, an act that is akin to a join-the-dots game. Its all about how we stitch things together into a pattern. And so also, understanding something new (or someone new) is the act of stitching our perceptions about this new entity into a pattern that we can identify, which matches with previously known patterns.
Hence, the most instantaneous way of having someone understand something new, a concept, is to introduce the person to a cognitive-map of the concept which matches some cognitive-map which is already known to the person. For example, when Bill Gates tells you that the windows UI is based on the desktop metaphor of files and folders, then you don't really need to read a complicated manual to know the basics of how to operate this UI. Or, to consider similar communication in another field-
When a prophet declares himself as 'a shepherd taking care of sheep', then every follower knows how to regard the prophet.
When an avatar says, "As all rivers join the ocean, so all souls finally converge in me", we are left in no doubt on how the whole thing works.
The imagery gets into your head faster and sticks there longer - much more than any complex spiritual or philosophical explanation can.
Thus, a metaphor is something which gives you a cognitive map of something, allows you to superimpose the entire map in one go over your own cognitive map. A metaphor is instantaneous understanding - a rapid transmission of a cognitive map.
The Act of Understanding
It is interesting to note that even our own minds communicate within themselves by means of such cognitive maps - manifested as metaphors. Even some complex sciences have been germinated, or formed as a simple-to-understand metaphorical image in the minds of their inventors. We have examples of the famous Benzene ring discovery by Kekule, which came to him as a metaphor in a dream. Or the foundation of the modern binary system by Leibnitz- said to be directly inspired by his interest in the Yin-Yang symbolism, where every element in the world is a combination of yin and yang. The metaphor just stitched their research together, and they had a sense of finally having understood things.
Mind you, it is not that they have acquired some new completing data after their research. All that has happened is - a known pattern has been "seen" in the complexity. It may be conjectured that till the mind does not see a pattern within complexity, one doesn't get a feeling of really having "understood" the subject. And like complex sciences, lots of new products/interfaces are difficult to understand - they are not forthcoming about their natures. You just don't get them easily. One has to interact with them to a great extent, to elicit (or form) a pattern or an understanding in your mind about them.
Such entities are typically called introverts, in our society. You have to talk a lot to an introvert in order to understand what he/she wants, to make sense of the person. And even then, one is left uncertain about whether what you said has been really understood by the person, in the way that you understand it.
Just as there are introvert humans,
there are introvert products,
or introvert interfaces.
They are difficult to understand - they don't talk to you, they do not tell you what they are all about and they do not tell you how to interact with them. And by virtue of them not being easily understandable, they just make the average user feel stupid. Indeed, every badly designed UI or interface is likely to make the user feel less-intelligent. In fact, this is an important reason why a lot of people are hesitant to deploy new devices or products. They feel unintelligent in the face of a complexity that is unfathomable - at least in those 3 minutes that the product is accessed. And for some reason the layman who buys a top-end camera does not believe that the company is obliged to make the product more understandable.
This must be taken into consideration by manufacturers who have conveniently slotted some demographics into the categories of late adopters. Perhaps, one of the reasons of this culture of late-adoption is also because people instinctively get a reaction that says- whoa, that's probably too high-end for me to operate. (Why are populations with low techno-literacy not so eager to rush to buy hi-tech products even if they can afford them? Maybe also because it is not really a high self-esteem scenario to imagine splurging all that money and then have your friends snicker at how you buy costly stuff that you are too stupid to use. No, they'd rather wait to see if someone they know can use it easily, before they even begin to think of it). And how exactly does this happen, that a sophisticated state-of-art and costly product is introverted, and can't talk to the user?
Plenty of reasons.
The simplest one is, of course, the preoccupation with making just a technologically advanced product or a better looking product. Like some cell phones which are highly advanced, but you need a PhD to figure out how to retrieve a number. And also, one of the biggest banes of creating an understandable product is - the essence of communicating 'meaning' being a commonality. However, all designers are totally preoccupied with making a "different" product. This obsession of making something different from everything else has created this enormous tower of Babel, where, if I buy 10 different products of the same type, they all speak different languages. And frankly, I do not know how this problem can be addressed, because I think it will be a lot easier to build a tower that reaches the sky rather than to convince a designer that being different is not something that defines good design. Besides, there are some product genres that are rapidly shifting in nature. Too rapidly, in fact, for a coherent philosophy to emerge in their design.
Even then, there are products that are easy to understand and operate - products which have somehow, whether by design or default, have inbuilt maps that are very close to how we would like it to operate. It is important to note here that a product, which is outgoing (or extroverted) is not something that merely clamors for attention (even if it is obvious that an extroverted product will have much more chances of circulating better). Rather it would be a friendly product that seeks to understand and allows itself to be understood easily. If you have encountered a product that you did not have to struggle to understand, then you will know what I mean.
Product Cognition Maps as per Corporate Lineage
However, it still may be possible for manufacturers to translate their design philosophies into a consistent cognitive map for their products and declare the generic cognitive map as a common key to understanding their products. What exactly does this mean? What this translates to is that while a product's form may change, its interface may change, the nature of how it can be operates, and how it can be understood, still remains common across all of a manufacturers products. There may be evolution, of course, which applies to all creatures.
Such a corporate cognitive map can work very well for manufacturers - and it already happens to a certain extent. If I buy a cell phone from a specific company all the time, I find that I can sometimes understand the product faster than I understand a cell phone from another company. This can make someone a loyal customer - if someone wants a rapid ramp-up in accessing full product functionality. The actual extent to which this can be done, of course, depends on the product genre. And naturally, some space would still be left to allow for the fruitful deviation from norm.
If at all, in the future, products are meant to become more intelligent without becoming more complicated to understand, then it is imperative that such basic cognitive spines are created. And these may not necessarily be manufacturer-restricted, but can also be specific to user-profiles, which may amalgamate with the product genre to create a more fine-tuned product. For example, a cognitive map of a rustic farmer that meshes with the cognitive map of a kitchen appliance will produce a certain mode of understanding that will not only be useful in designing the product itself, but also in how it makes itself understood to the target segment.
What remains to be seen is whether products and interfaces will really become more intelligent or remain dumb while becoming even more snazzy looking. When we speak of user-experience design, the creation of the feeling of having "understood" the product is of paramount importance, in getting people to adopt the product. Every feature must be added around the creation of this central experience. Creating such an experience of "understanding and knowing" will be necessary for making people feel comfortable around any new technology.
Especially, manufacturers who seek penetration into developing economies (with a lower techno-literacy) need to keep this in mind - does your product make the new users feel fearful of bungling things up, or does it make them feel comfortable enough to show off the usage of their new product to friends who are potential buyers?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
Pankaj Sapkal is a Strategist, and Industrial Designer educated at the IDC, IIT-Mumbai.
He is based in Pune and acts in the capacity of a consultant to several companies.
His interests include Ancient History, mythology/Sacred Lore, Digital Art, Psychology, Symbolology, cognition, etc.
Most of all, he likes experimenting with anything that seems interesting enough.
Pankaj Sapkal is reachable at pankaj.sapkal(at)gmail.com
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