About Face (Part 5): Using Idioms to Re-envision How We Understand and Interact with Texts

This is part four of a series of blog posts in response to About Face, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reinmann, and David Cronin. This is certainly the logest of the five-post series. Apparently I felt strongly about the topic!

What is the balance between meeting user’s mental models and creating new idioms?

There seems to be a slight (but necessary) conflict between two key principles mentioned throughout About Face.  The first half of the text strongly reinforces the idea that programmers and designers must work together with users to understand users’ mental models.  Software should match how users think—even if this contradicts the “logic” within the code.

Chapter 13 on Metaphors, Idioms, and Affordances adds a new twist to the idea of mental models by asking us to question how information is presented to users.  The authors claim that designers might create better products if they didn’t force designs into constraining metaphors and models after the metaphors stop working. Instead of taking a literal approach to helping users understand new concepts, designers should work to construct “idioms” which rely “on the natural ability of humans to learn easily and quickly as long as we don’t force them to understand how and why”

(Kindle Locations 3595-3596).

At first, I thought the differences between mental models and the invention of idioms that help “control” user experience by recreating their thought process presented an inconsistent message from the authors.  But after more thought, I began to realize that this tension between mental models and idioms actually brings about a balance. Too many options would, of course, be overwhelming for users.  And, often, users don’t always know what they want and they trust the designers to make those decisions for them.

Steve Jobs made a career that boldly flew in the face of the commonly accepted practice of conducting market research.  He was confident that users don’t really know what they want until someone tells them what they want. While this might be taking things to the extreme, his strategy has proven rather successful for Apple—despite its products’ inabilities to be easily hacked or modified.

How does a person even begin to create these new idioms?

This is, in my opinion, the million dollar question—and what becomes the mark of a truly innovative designer—because the answer is what sets really good products apart from products that change society.  Take, for example, modes of preserving and disseminating information: we moved from a solely oral tradition to written; from transcribing the written word by hand to mass production through the printing press; from the printing press to the typewriter to the personal computer (and all the steps in between).

Since reading Selfe and Selfe’s “The Politics of the Interface” several years ago (which questions the cultural and political meanings inscribed into computer interface design), I’ve tried to envision an adequate metaphor for the computer interface other than the desktop—and have failed miserably.  Although I agree that the desktop metaphor does break down and causes problems for many users, I simply can’t imagine any other way of doing it.

I think this has a lot to do with the fact that our natural learning process is to make connections back to what we already know and build new knowledge upon previously formed foundations.  Going back to the example I mentioned above about communication mediums: each new major advancement had a huge impact on people and their social behavior; yet, each new invention still had some kernel of the previous medium that transferred with it. (And, of course, we can barely discuss any of this without mentioning Bolter’s concept of remediation.)

Many of us come to understand new devices by recalling how we used their predecessors. But, as anyone who’s ever tried to learn a new piece of technology, this transfer of understanding only takes us so far, and eventually we hit a point where we have to learn new functions and processes.  The cell phone doesn’t function like the rotary telephone; the word processor doesn’t function like the typewriter; the computer desktop and electronic filing system doesn’t function like our physical desk, paper, and filing cabinets; the e-book doesn’t function like the printed and bound book.  Just as About Face claims, the metaphors breaks down.

In the case of the e-book, the metaphor breaks down rather quickly. Like a traditional book, the interface of reading apps, such as the Kindle, have the same word/sentence/paragraph/page-focused content and readers can move through the text by “turning” digital “pages.”  The apps have features that allow for highlighting and annotating, but these features are very limited.

Granted, there definitely are some advantages to using e-Readers instead of printed books that keep drawing people in. The two most significant ones are cost and convenience. Yes, the initial purchase of an e-reader is rather steep, but the texts themselves are usually cheaper. And a person could conceivably carry their entire library with them on one device.  In addition, the texts can be searched for key-words and quotes can be quickly copied and pasted into other applications or shared via email.

But for most people, these few “cool” feature aren’t enough reason to abandon their old ways of doing things.  Though key-word searches are useful, they are rather clunky.  Often, people rely on an internal a “sense” of where a particular piece of content might be in a book and can easily find it by quickly flipping of fanning through the pages of a print book. This hasn’t been effectively replicated by an e-book. In addition, many people are extremely interactive with their texts and have a meaningful annotation system—highlighting with multiple colors, underlining, circling, boxing, drawing arrows and making connections between paragraphs. Again, these are all things that haven’t transferred well to the e-reading experience.

The metaphor of the book simply doesn’t meet users’ mental models of how reading and interacting with e-texts should be. I certainly don’t think this means the death of the “book”—just an opportunity to rethink how we envision a book.  If we have exhausted the book metaphor when it comes to digital texts, perhaps it’s time to come up with a new idiom and a new process entirely for experiencing texts.

I cannot claim to have the answers to the question of what that might look like. But as someone who spends most of the day interacting with texts (either in my roles as a scholar, instructor, or journal editor), I know what my goals are and I know when my mental models are not being met. I suppose coming up with the ideas for applications that can help me complete tasks to meet those goals is the really challenging part and the part that About Face is trying to equip people to work toward.

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2 thoughts on “About Face (Part 5): Using Idioms to Re-envision How We Understand and Interact with Texts

  1. Pingback: About Face (Part 1): Personal Connections | Laurissa Wolfram

  2. Pingback: Book Apps: Why are we still calling them books? | Laurissa Wolfram

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