Tweaking Users’ Mental Models

Allison Johnson, writing in The Verge:

… the original Apple II version [of the video game Karateka] included a delightful little easter egg from the early days of PC gaming — putting in the floppy disk upside down would boot up the game upside down.

According to [Karateka’s creator Jordan] Mechner, the game’s developers hoped that a few people would discover it by accident, and think their game was defective. “When that person called tech support, that tech support rep would once in a blue moon have the sublime joy of saying, ‘Well sir, you put the disk in upside-down,’” Mechner was quoted as saying in a recent profile, “and that person would think for the rest of their life that’s how software works.”

It may seem disingenuous to suggest users would expect that flipping the software media would cause the software itself to flip. But I’ve been surprised at the many ways people misunderstand how computers work.

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Book Notes: “Simple Rules”

Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World
By Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt
Mariner Books, 2015

Many people assume that complex situations call for complex solutions. The authors of Simple Rules argue that you can’t fight complexity with complexity. Instead, defining (and abiding by) simple rules can help us act skillfully in complex, fast-moving situations.

The authors offer many examples, but a memorable one is treating injured soldiers in a battlefield. In the past, injured soldiers were helped on a first come, first served basis. However, some need treatment more urgently than others. Prioritizing under pressure calls for triage based on a simple set of memorable rules.

The authors define simple rules as “shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information.” Such shortcuts allow us to act skillfully in a bottom-up manner when dealing with dynamic situations where we lack information. (I.e., always.)

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The Informed Life with Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan

Episode 65 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan. UKP, as he is known to his friends and family, is a Global Strategic Design Director at Designit, an international strategic design consultancy. He is based in Bangalore, and in this conversation we talk about challenges and opportunities inherent in designing information systems for the Indian market.

As you’ll hear in the interview, I was especially interested in learning more about the diversity of languages spoken in India, which present interesting challenges to stewards of information environments. UKP explained:

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Back to the Bad Old Days of the Web

Much to my chagrin, the browser wars are back. In case you weren’t around the web in the late 1990s, Microsoft sought to dominate the web browser market, then led by Netscape’s Navigator. (The forerunner of today’s Firefox.)

Microsoft achieved dominance through a strategy called “embrace and extend”: their Internet Explorer browser rendered standards-compliant HTML but extended it with “innovative” non-compliant HTML that could only be experienced using IE.

Due to MS’s market dominance (and legally questionable tactics), the Windows version of IE became the dominant browser. This fractured the web. While some sites remained standards-compliant, many others could only be properly rendered with IE.

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Deciding Between Cloud-based & Local Apps

For a long time, when given a choice between using a cloud-based SAAS app vs. running one on my computer, I opted for the latter. (E.g., although I use Gmail for my email, I read it with Apple’s Mail app.)

There are two reasons for this. 1) I like to “own” my data — i.e., have local copies to backup, etc., and 2) I like to “own” my apps — i.e., buy a license for a specific app version I can use in perpetuity. I guess I’m old-fashioned in this.

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Shipping the Org Chart

While reorganizing my library a few weeks ago, I came across a handout from a 2003 workshop by my friend Lou Rosenfeld titled Enterprise Information Architecture: Because Users Don’t Care About Your Org Chart.

Lots of ideas quickly become obsolete in tech. But after 18 years, the idea that users don’t care about your org chart is still relevant. Teams still ship systems that reflect their internal structures. IA is still crucial to addressing the issue.

Few teams set out to design inwardly-focused systems. Instead, they inadvertently arrive at solutions that feel “natural” — i.e., that mirror their structures. Subtly, the systems they design come to reflect distinctions inherent in their orgs.

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Book Notes: “Wanting”

Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life
By Luke Burgis
St. Martin’s Press, 2021

In the Buddhist tradition, the source of suffering is desire — attachment to things, people, ways of being, etc. Understanding how attachment and wanting leads to suffering is the second of Four Noble Truths: axioms that lead toward liberation. The West is rediscovering what the East has long known: that most of us stumble through life unaware of the desires that drive us. Understanding our wants and attachments leads to a healthier relationship with reality.

Wanting is a new book about desire based on the work of French academic René Girard (1923-2015), who focused on how desires affect human relations. Girard came to my attention via Peter Thiel, who cites him as an important influence. Hearing Thiel discuss Girard in an interview made me want to read a primer on his work, which is what brought me to Wanting.

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Celebratory Settings

The architecture of information:

June is LGBTQ Pride Month in the U.S., and organizations are expressing support in various ways. Some have overlaid rainbow Pride flags on their logos. Others have created dedicated marketing campaigns. Microsoft is celebrating by adding a new option to its Office app preference panels.

Some preference panels are more complex than others, depending on the complexity of the app. Apps with more features usually have richer preference panels. Still, most are utilitarian: they offer options simply and without fuss.

Also, preference panels tend to change infrequently. UI redesigns usually focus on headlining features. Preference panels are a necessity, not a differentiator, so you don’t often see them trumpeted in app marketing materials.

Which is why I was surprised a few days ago when I opened OneNote’s preferences and saw a new option.

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Design as an Effective Agent of Change

As software continues to eat the world, digital systems’ conceptual structures matter more than ever. It’s easy to nudge users towards particular choices by making them more prominent. We can use this power for good or bad.

For example, are we helping people eat healthier? Or addicting them to unnecessary services? Alas, choices aren’t always as clear. And even in “clear” cases, we may not be the best arbiters of “good.” Often, the lines between good and bad are blurry.

For example, some retailers tweak search results towards commercial goals. Is that wrong? It depends. Are customers still seeing relevant results? Will they benefit? Same with navigation: It’s easy to bury “undesirable” choices deep in menus.

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