Architectural Skeuomorphism

Sarah Barrett, writing in Medium:

While there is a lot that IA can learn from actual architecture or city planning, websites aren’t buildings or cities, and they don’t have to work like them. Instead, they should be designed according to the same principles that people’s brains expect from physical experiences.

We have innate skills that allow us to navigate and understand the ‘real’ world. Like physical places, information environments (i.e., websites and apps) are contexts where we can do and learn things.

As a result, it’s natural to want to layer real-world affordances onto digital places. But it’s a naive mistake. Digital can do things physical can’t and vice-versa. Thoughtlessly mimicking real-world affordances in information environments can lead to what Sarah calls “architectural skeuomorphism” — a plague of early web and app UIs.

Conversely, digital’s flexibility makes it easy to inadvertently confound our expectations of things when we experience them in more than one ‘place.’ Sarah offers a great example: a Google Doc document object offers different capabilities depending on where you’re interacting with it within Google’s app ecosystem.

To design more usable systems, we must understand how humans make sense of being in and operating within environments. Sarah offers four specific areas for exploration, and promises a longer-form treatment of each. If you’ve read Living in Information, you’ll know why I’m so excited to see where she’s taking this.

Websites are not living rooms and other lessons for information architecture

Challenges in Designing for Emerging Technologies

Elizabeth Lopato, reporting in The Verge:

Neuralink, Elon Musk’s company focused on developing brain-machine interfaces, has posted a video to YouTube that appears to show a monkey navigating an on-screen cursor using only its mind.

The video is amazing:

As the article notes, it’s unusual for scientists to release such materials unaccompanied by peer-reviewed evidence. I take this as a cue to be skeptical. Still, if true, it’s an impressive demonstration — especially considering the implications for paralyzed people.

This video sparked two thoughts.

Continue reading

Don’t Subscribe; Follow

Per a report in Podnews (via The Loop), starting with iOS 14.5, Apple will remove the word ‘subscribe’ from its market-leading Podcasts app. In its stead, users will be invited to ‘follow’ podcasts. With this change, Apple joins Spotify, Audible, Stitcher, and Amazon Music, which already give users the option to ‘follow’.

Why the change? A researcher claims 47% of people who don’t listen to podcasts think ‘subscribing’ will cost money.

This is a great example of the sort of counter-intuitive insights one can glean from research. I’ve never been confused by the word ‘subscribe’ in this context. Given the choice between ‘subscribe’ and ‘follow’, I’d argue that ‘subscribe’ is a clearer description of what is happening.

But I understand how podcasts work. Many people don’t, and I can see how they’d understand subscriptions — an action they likely associate with newspapers and magazines — as something they must pay for. While less precise, ‘follow’ is a familiar enough term (especially online), and one that may be less intimidating.

‘Follow our podcast’: Apple Podcasts to stop using ‘subscribe’

Worth Your Attention

  • Citibank lost $500 million due to a bad user interface. But the primary issue isn’t just aesthetics or usability; it’s the lack of a clear user conceptual model.
  • Scott Berkun compiled a list of the most difficult UX concepts to explain. I especially loved this one: “Even the best UX design can’t fix messed up organizational structure or people problems.” Preach!
  • Boon Chew’s resources for designers who are into systems thinking. I was sad to miss Interaction21, but I’m happy to see systems thinking was a running theme in this year’s conference.
  • If you’re concerned (as I am) about the effects of internet culture on our body politic, I recommend Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public. This book reset my understanding of what’s happened to our societies over the last fifteen years or so. Amazon (affiliate link) and my book notes.
  • “So far, it appears that the American people have not yet developed the critical thinking skills to sort truth from nonsense online, plausible argument from baseless conspiracy theory, science from wishful thinking.” A long-view take on the digital publishing revolution. (H/t Cecily Sommers)
  • “People who can reach preposterous conclusions from a long chain of abstract reasoning, and feel confident in their truth, are the wrong people to be running a culture.” A hilarious reality check on the claims of AI superintelligence advocates. (H/t John Thackara)
  • Same Energy, an intriguing new visual search engine that uses deep learning to find images that ‘feel’ like other images. Useful for creating mood boards? (H/t Kevin Kelly)
  • A profile of graphic adventure pioneer Roberta Williams, who co-founded Sierra On-Line. Her work has been tremendously influential; it’s good to see her career celebrated by the Smithsonian. (Bonus: you can play Williams’s first graphic adventure, Mystery House, for free on the Internet Archive.)
  • I’m always thrilled to see other creative people’s thinking artifacts. If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan’s film INCEPTION, you’ll likely enjoy his hand-drawn map of the movie’s plot.
  • Enduring digital artifacts: on the origins of GPS triangle cursor, which – I was surprised to learn — comes from one of my favorite classic video games.

I first shared these links a week ago in my newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter if you’d like to receive links like these in your inbox every other Sunday. Join us!

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Citibank’s $500m ‘UI’ Problem

Timothy B. Lee reporting for Ars Technica:

A federal judge has ruled that Citibank isn’t entitled to the return of $500 million it sent to various creditors last August. Kludgey software and a poorly designed user interface contributed to the massive screwup.

Citibank was acting as an agent for Revlon, which owed hundreds of millions of dollars to various creditors. On August 11, Citibank was supposed to send out interest payments totaling $7.8 million to these creditors.

However, Revlon was in the process of refinancing its debt—paying off a few creditors while rolling the rest of its debt into a new loan. And this, combined with the confusing interface of financial software called Flexcube, led the bank to accidentally pay back the principal on the entire loan—most of which wasn’t due until 2023.

My initial reaction on reading this was: wow, $500m is a lot of money — I wonder how bad the UI is? The article provides a screenshot, which it credits to Judge Jesse Furman:

Continue reading

Worth Your Attention

  • When designing a system, we want to understand how its users think about the subject domain, what the system needs to show them, and how it will be implemented. That is why we must consider three separate models.
  • “… when software becomes part of society, all of society’s problems get expressed in software.” Benedict Evans on regulating tech.
  • Complex maladaptive systems. (h/t Tim O’Reilly)
  • Mark Hurst is losing faith in UX; Scott Berkun offers suggestions on how to restore it.
  • Browser maker Vivaldi introduced a new tab stacking feature. (Would you use this?)
  • “Microsoft Viva isn’t an app or even a service but more of a platform for improving remote work and helping businesses adjust to it.” Does Microsoft’s new work platform herald a revival of the intranet?
  • When I sit to watch something on one of the streaming video services, I often find myself unable to choose. There’s so much there! Later this year, Netflix will release a shuffle play feature that should help those of us paralyzed by choice. (Maybe this is also a way of restoring serendipity to television?)
  • Birdwatch, an intriguing initiative from Twitter to combat misinformation on the platform through community participation.
  • Interactive Principles: “a deck of learning science principles for designing educational games.” Applicable to other domains as well. (h/t Christina Wodtke, via Stephen P. Anderson)
  • A team of volunteers is building a virtual theme park featuring defunct real-world attractions. The first to be finished: Walt Disney World’s long-departed (and much missed) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage. (This might be the nudge I needed to buy a VR headset.)

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday. Sign up here.

Worth Your Attention

  • “In a time of climate crisis, a pandemic, and predatory capitalism, is optimism about humanity’s future still justified?” Steven Levy covers a recently-settled 25-year bet about whether tech has destroyed society. (Spoiler: no, but it was close, and the loser is refusing to concede defeat by changing the parameters of the contest.)
  • “Fundamentally, the only measure of design quality that matters is how it contributes to (or detracts from) whatever has been agreed upon as a measure of success.” Peter Merholz’s approach to establishing design quality in organizations.
  • Speaking of Peter, I was thrilled to be invited to be a guest in his and Jesse James Garret’s podcast, Finding Our Way. Our conversation touched on architecture, design education, and why I’m of two minds about certifying designers. Have a listen.
  • Speaking of managing design quality in organizations, I like Jasmine Friedl’s heuristics for measuring design quality.
  • Two new OpenAI neural networks. One of them, DALL-E, generates images from text descriptions; the results are incredibly intriguing.
  • There are different ways of thinking; the mind is a crucial component in the process but not the only element in play. A short post on various ways of thinking, including sketching.
  • My favorite reads of 2020.
  • “Jootsing” – how understanding systems can help us think more creatively.
  • Looking to Buddhism for ethical approaches to artificial intelligence.
  • I’ve been considering introducing cellular automata to my systems students for the last couple of years. The time might be right. Conway’s Game of Life at 50.

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday. Sign up here.

Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday. Sign up here.

Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday. Sign up here.