Framing the Design of Digital Things

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff writes about the influence of framing on our behavior. Frames, he explains, are

mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome for our actions.

We experience framing in the language we use when we talk about things. When Lakoff introduces the concept to his students in Berkeley, he asks of them an impossible task: Don’t think of an elephant. (This is also the name of Lakoff’s book about the power of framing and language in politics.) The exercise is impossible because the instant the word “elephant” is uttered, the student has no choice to think about one. (You’re doing so now.)

The frames we use when we talk about things have an important influence on how we think about them. Critically, we can change the frames we use.

When we talk about digital things as products, services, publications, or interactions, we’re using frames that impose on them metaphors that influence how we design and use them. Product suggests a commodity that is meant to be bought, sold, and used; a good to be consumed. Services and interactions are transactional, ephemeral: an interaction happens; a service is rendered, and conditions are changed, yet the actors move on. A publication implies a distinction between an author and a reader, a subtle yet critical hierarchical distinction.

It’s not that any of these frames are right or wrong; they can all be used to describe aspects of digital things. Rather, we should be asking ourselves: what goals are these framings supporting? How do they affect what we understand to be good or bad outcomes? We have a choice in how we talk about things, and how we talk about them influences how we do them.