Thursday, 11 October 2012

Aesthetic Acrobat

A response to Paul Robert Lloyd's post The Web Aesthetic  

The visual aesthetic of design receives less attention in the race to innovate than technical developments.  Here, I agree with Lloyd.  And I see enormous potential to re-imagine the visual interface, to respond to cognitive cues and communication norms from the cultures crowding into the digital space.... Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, China.... but also considerable political and economic pressure to maintain the design control.

Lloyd opens by quoting John Allsopp, The Dao of Web Design
It is the nature of the web to be flexible, and it should be our role as designers and developers to embrace this flexibility, and produce pages which, by being flexible, are accessible to all.

I don't think we've gone much further than touching our toes. The ICT that I research is particularly neglected when it comes to visual design aesthetics.  ICT applications for conflict resolution aim for a type of pragmatic design that feels so intuitive it must have the blessing of the tech gods.  If the technology can be simplified into stepwise, logical, linear, reproducible elements... 'enter your location in this box,' 'select category of human rights abuse you would like to report' ... then perhaps the conflict where it is employed can also be chipped away at and fractured and dissolved with the ease of information management.

Through a few examples, I will contrast the visual sense-making of the culture of design (defined as: the west, the US and Europe, design teams educated in these regions) with that of the new cultures of use (defined as those outside of US and Europe).  In other words, the aesthetics of an application shape information management and communication as much as the language of the text. The culture of design sets the aesthetic norms, some intentional some not, for communication in the digital space.  While the design is initially appropriate, away from the culture of design, a bias becomes apparent which limits full participation and use. This is called an emergent bias.

Example #1: The social media app called Ponderoo is a great baseline for the culture of design's norms. I saw it advertised as a way to follow and curate US election media. The directions in this excerpt from their 'How-To' FAQ page exemplify the cultural assumptions behind their pond interface. 
So, I can build my own Pond? Yes, you can! First, decide what the Pond should be called, and create an event name. Next you need to select the category that best describes the event. The categories are: TV, radio, web, music, sports, performance, or leisure (you can choose more than one). Now, enter the start & end date, and start & end time. Then write a brief description of the event. You can allow the event to be open to the public, to let other Ponderoo users jump into your Pond, or make it private and limit it to Ponderoo friends that you invite. You’re now ready to invite friends. You can do this now, or touch Create Pond and invite friends later.
The instructions assume an individual will be the user.  It addresses a singular 'you,' and mentions 'private' contrasted with 'public' as a concern.  This is derived from the western conception of person.  In contrast, consider how John Mbiti explains the African concept by rephrasing the western formula:
I am because we are, we are therefore I am.
The west focuses on the individual, while many other cultures are considered collectivist or communal.  When designing applications for non-individualistic cultures, don't assume one user per login.

Another point of difference is when the directions ask you to assign a name and category to your pond.  Naming and categorizing are associated with a small percentages of cultures. (Those cultures just happen to dominate the internet.) A quick note about text-based or chirographic vs. oral cultures: among the ~6800 languages, only ~100 developed a literature, so most remain oral to some extent. Orality in a culture does not imply underdevelopment or opposition to literacy.  Due to globalized media, most individuals in oral cultures operate in chirographic cultures. A better analogy might be eating with hands, chopsticks or a fork.  While our globalized world gives us the opportunity to do all of these, we all still have a preference or an idea of what feels most natural.  Our preference for our cultural communication style takes place on a cognitive level so we are often not aware of it. (The cognitive level= thinking, remembering, inferring, categorizing, reasoning, and using language.) A feature of predominately oral cultures is the lack of categories for organizing information.  Categories are not used in the scientific manner (such as 'private' distinct from 'public' 'open/closed'), but might be episodic (such as 'things that happen when the locusts arrive'), emotional (things that forebode), or are linked to a place or person as in a genealogy.  In terms of interface design, consider how often websites and applications rely on categories for organizational structure.  What if this way of thinking was unnatural, forced, foreign?  Is there an alternative to categories?

Finally, the Ponderoo directions ask for start/end date and time.  These are relevant only for a linear conception of time.  Most applications and websites are guided by a 'timeline' in one way or another.  Whether it's a scrolling list of temporally sequenced comments or placement of the 'newest' or 'unknown/future' elements of the interface on the right side of the screen (ex: search box, upcoming events).  Other cultures may have a circular concept of time in which there is no tangible present, but rather a swirling of past ancestors and future potentials which make up the cycle of moments.  Still other cultures have a view which combines the linear and circular (this could look like a flower with traceable roots and stem, but as yet unopened bloom).  These alternative notions of time have not been reflected in the aesthetic design of interfaces.  How can someone with a circular sense of time truly convey a narrative about his/her life or identity when s/he has to change all the connections to time into linear descriptions?  This has implications for causality and descriptions of actors, agents, and events.  

Moving away from the Ponderoo example, Lloyd calls for responsive design, creative innovation, but the designers working toward this goal are focused on meeting the communication and information needs of one culture and I think that needs to be stated outright.  Exploring beyond our own cognitive boundaries will require collaboration and certainly extreme flexibility.

My area of research is concerned with how the persistent design aesthetic of individualistic, chirographic, temporally linear culture impacts users outside that culture when it comes to ICT applications for conflict resolution.  Here are 2 examples, the sort which I characterized in the introduction as pragmatic in their design aesthetic.  In as much as the aesthetic of our work space influences our work product, how does the design of these applications encourage democratic engagement?  For these examples have all the interface elements of Ponderoo for a task and users that couldn't be more distant, I encourage imaginative designers to comment on alternatives.

A screenshot of Ushahidi’s election monitoring program in DRC showing mapping, text box, categorization, and date selection elements. (click on link for better view on and instructions in French)

Africa4Allscreenshot of participation forum for 'Action and Advocacy' topic. The interaction is facilitated through discussion forums and document submission, and absence of photo/video capability.

I have come across research on cross-cultural website navigation in marketing which examines the rearrangement of not only interface elements, but the succession of pages.  A notable example is given between high and low-context cultures (the extent to which the context of a thing is considered for meaning).  The US would be considered low-context while Japan would be considered high.  A website for a product targeting the US market would allow the consumer to search for item by keyword and go immediately to that page while in Japan, the provenance, history or origin (context) of the item is important so consumers navigate several pages to arrive at the item.    

Luna, D., Peracchio, L., and de Juan, M., (2002) Cross-Cultural and Cognitive Web site Navigation. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science [online], vol. 30, pp. 397–410. Available at: 10.1177/009207003236913.

Friedman, B. and Nissenbaum, H. (1997) Bias in Computer Systems. In Friedman, B ed. Human values and the design of computer technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mbiti, J. (1990) African Religions & Philosophy. 2nd ed. Oxford: Heinemann.

Ong, W. (1982) Orality and Literacy: the technologizing of the word. London; New York: Routledge.