UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 631 March 9, 2011

This Old Thing?

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Why new technology needs to keep old technology in mind

The New York Times recently made a quick foray into the world of information architecture (IA) with the article Why Innovation Doffs an Old Hat by Joshua Brustein.

The article asserts that the reason why digital cameras go click, car wheels have spokes, and the Kindle will soon have page numbers is because designers like to do things the way they've always been done. The article is fairly neutral on incorporating the old versus innovating new ways of doing things, until it gets to this gem:

But referencing the past can serve to dampen the imagination of designers working on disruptive products, said Bill Moggridge, the director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the author of Designing Interactions, a history of digital design.

Brustein goes on to refer to these sorts of designs as superfluous references to the past.

He is correct that there are many designs in the world that are the way they are because that's how it's always been done. In fact, we need to look no further than the New York Times website to see an example of this. They've got an impossible-to-scan, six-column format on the home page because the publisher of the first newspaper in 1618 wanted to save money on paper and ink.

But to dismiss all references to previous designs as superfluous is to completely misunderstand how people think and, when put into practice in IA, can produce some disastrous results.

As an example of designers falling back on old paradigms, the article notes that the Kindle is replacing its location numbers with page numbers that correspond to the physical book. But this change is an attempt to fix a longstanding problem. I have a Kindle, and the location numbers are impossible to use because they're too long. When I see that I'm at location 1364 I have no idea what that means. How many locations are there? 1364 of how many? Is this a long book or a short one? And where was I yesterday?

So getting rid of numbers that mean nothing is a good idea. Replacing them with standard page numbers is also a good idea, because page numbers communicate important information to me. It's not that I'm so mired in my old way of thinking that I need page numbers, but I want to have some sense of where I am in my book. Amazon could have accomplished this in a number of ways, but using the page number system that I'm already familiar with is a nice, simple solution. That way I don't have to learn a new system.

The click sound a digital camera makes (another of Bruestein’s examples) perfectly illustrates the value of references to the past. Cameras, of course, went "click" because that was the sound the shutter made when it closed. An unintended benefit was that the "click" sound also indicated to the user that the picture had been taken. Early camera designers might not have realized that this was a necessary piece of information to communicate to photographers, but when it came to designing digital cameras with no shutter, it probably didn’t take too long to realize that the click served an important purpose.

In fact, these references so permeate our daily lives that we tend not to even notice them. If you’ve ever glanced at the lock on your car door to see if the door was unlocked or not, you’ve relied on another historical reference that performs an unintentional but important job.

It used to be that you locked your car door by pressing down on the knob on the inside of the door. Today, car doors can be locked using the knob, but more commonly they’re locked by receiving a signal from a radio transmitter in a key fob, or by using a central locking system. The actual knob on the door no longer plays an important role in the actual task of locking a door. However, the knob does do the important job of letting you know whether the door is locked or unlocked. While this could be accomplished in myriad other ways (a light that turns red or green when the door is locked or unlocked, for example, or a digital display on the door that says "locked" or "unlocked") the historical throwback does a pretty good job of communicating important information in a quick, clearly understandable format.

As we develop new technologies, we need to think about all of the unintentional yet important information old technology communicates. As an information architect, I find myself making the counter argument so frequently—that we need to think about new processes and new models—that it’s easy to overlook the importance of the old model. In fact, in writing this article I kept finding my mind drifting to counter examples. I thought about the Rolodex icon on my phone, which is used to indicate the address book despite the fact that I can only vaguely remember a time when people had Rolodexes, or a recent request from a banking client to make a device interface look like a deposit slip. But I think these examples only serve to highlight the importance of looking at all the different communication roles old technology can play as we start to develop new technologies.

So when old technology is referenced in something like the iPad, consider that it may be playing an important, if unintentional, role. Not because its designers were uncreative, but because Apple cares about UX. Now if only Brustein could do something about that New York Times site.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Hana Schank is the Principal and founder of Collective User Experience, a user experience consultancy which works with Fortune 1000 clients to help make their sites and applications more usable. She has over 14 years experience in information architecture and user experience design. Hana blogs about IA in the real world at beautifulbutdumb.blogspot.com, and has finally broken down and started tweeting @hanaschank. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Comments

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@Hana
A couple thoughts on kindle page numbers:
1. Remember that kindle lets you change the font size, so pages vary greatly in how long they take to read depending on that setting. I don't understand why a progress bar isn't just as good. It tells you what percentage you've completed, and you can estimate remaining time based on how long it takes you to read a page. Arguably, kindle makes this much easier because at least you can set a font preference and stick with it. In the real world, every book has different page and font sizes, so 100 pages means very little out of context.

2. You mention that synchronizing the page numbers to the real-world books is taking the metaphor too far, but I believe this is the very thing driving many people to request the feature in the first place. As Darrell said, when you talk to a friend about a book, or join a book club, everyone wants to speak in terms of 'what page are you on?'.

ps. I HATE digital camera clicking sound effects, so I think it's perfect example of relying too much on the past. I've never seen a digital camera that didn't give enough visual feedback to satisfy me that the picture was taken. It might make sense if you couldn't see the screen when you take the shot, but the only cameras that use a viewfinder these days are DSLRs, and they still make a mechanical click. I can't turn off the stupid sound my phone camera makes and it kills me.

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@Darrell Estabrook

I agree with you that Amazon's decision to make the page numbers match the actual page numbers in the physical book doesn't make any sense - there just wasn't room to go into it in this article.  So while I think they have the right idea (communicate to readers where they are within the book) they've over-extended the metaphor so that it will probably make things more confusing not less.

That said, the Kindle does currently have a progress bar and it's still confusing and hard to figure out where you are in the book because the progress bar works the same for a book that is 250 pages as it does for a book that is 1000 pages.  And because the current Kindle uses location numbers instead of page numbers, there is no hope of figuring out how long you're going to be reading a certain book.  Just because the progress bar shows that you're half way through something doesn't mean you know how big that something is.

In addition, it's impossible to go back and refer to something on a previous page because the location numbers are too long and confusing to remember.  In a printed book you might remember that something happened on or around page 32, and quickly flip back to scan that page, but without page numbers on the Kindle you can't do that.

I think the key issue here is that Kindle seems to be misunderstanding all of the varied pieces of information that page numbers communicate  (how big is the book, how long is the book, where am in the book, when will I be finished reading this book, etc...) as well as how people use page numbers (I'm going to read ten more pages before I turn off the light, I want to take a look back at what happened on page 23, etc...).

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@Chris Poteet

This is a metaphore that I noticed Apple ditched when they designed iOS.

There's no visual 'file structure', and they only added 'stacks' (arguably quite different from a traditional folder) after people complained that they couldn't group things anymore.

I'd expect to see the old file/folder metaphore slowly dissapear; Google has done it in Docs, and Apple in iOS. Once we've cleared away a few more generations there'll be little point in replicating the metaphore on desktop machines.

The problems arise when new generations build new relationships and context around the metaphores. @Kris Young mentiones the floppy save icon as an example. His little brother may not get the traditional reference, but show him that icon and he'll know what it means. So what's more important; that the metaphore retains its traditional context, or more likely, that we know how to interact with it.

I'd personally argue that using a floppy disc to represent a save feature, although terribly outdated, is so universally understood that iconographically it represents the save function more than it represents the floppy disc itself - and is actually pretty darn effective irrelivant of your age. The argument only breaks down when looking at familiarity; i.e. if you've never saved anything before, a floppy disc will mean diddly squat.

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The main reason the page numbers on the Kindle make sense is because the Kindle uses another "old" convention, the printed page. Kindle books could be (and I believe they can be, but I don't own one so I'm not sure) shown in one giant scroll-like page, with a scroll indicator. Just like on webpages. Numbering pages makes sense because numbered lists of things are how we as humans keep track of things that need to be ordered. The "old" convention is the emulation of the page, not the numbering of them. The idea of the page numbers on the Kindle matching up with the printed text is an interesting one, especially for books where the page size is much larger than the screen size of the Kindle, and it could cause a lot more problems than just number the pages in terms of how many "Kindle pages" the book occupies.

I think you bring up a good point that bringing some of these familiar ideas into new technology isn't stifling innovation or creativity, it's enhancing the experience by lowering the learning curve. People don't have to learn how to use a kindle to read a book, because they already know how a book works, it has numbered pages that you read in order. Most of the time progress has to come in steps away from the current convention, not a radical departure.

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Considering conventions when approaching the design of an interface is certainly a primary activity of the UX Designer, and I would say it's worth breaking that convention when the "form" no longer serves the "function", or when the function is no longer necessary.

I disagree adding standard page numbers to an e-reader text supplies information meaningful to the user. The only meaningful information is if someone using an e-reader needs to communicate to someone with a printed copy where to find a certain quotation. It's effectively the "address" of that content.

The need mentioned in the article is giving the user some sense of where they are in the book. In a conventional book, page numbers do not provide that feedback (they state "you are here"). Rather, the book's physical thickness communicates that sense ("less pages in my right hand" = "almost done"). I contend giving users of an e-reader a sense of location would be accomplished most effectively with a type of progress bar.

The example of the original camera "clicking" is not like the page numbers since that was not a designed feature. The fact it's needed in digital cameras is not because it's a nostalgic design element, but more because it is the most efficient means of giving user feedback when using the device. Some digital cameras may not even need to have a "click" sound because their design may give users a visual indication the picture has been taken.

As the available technology changes, the conventions must be reassessed to see if it still provides meaningful use. If not, and old conventions are used because of nostalgia, then innovation will be stifled.

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Thought-provoking article, as was the article in the NY Times. This point was really brought home to me when we recently test drove the new Nissan Leaf all-electric car. Since there is no motor in the car, it has a soundless ride. This could prove dangerous for the "plugged-in" generation. We might all be best served if some old technology is referenced in this case.

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Nice article. As an information architect myself I also find myself in such dilemmas... Especially like ensuring you get the balance right between referencing the old and introducing new and innovative ways of doing things.

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Another paradigm that's now missing its real world reference is 'Save.' We often still see 'Save' as a iconographic representation of a floppy disk. I still remember the 3.5 and 5.25 disks, etc but I guarantee my teenage brother doesn't get the reference.

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I was just thinking about this the other day in relation to information management through folders. At one time the folder paradigm was necessary to convey the physical to digital world of information management, but the more information and tools we have for categorizing information the less we need the old crutch.

The folder paradigm is an example of bringing an old paradigm into technology that has long outlived its usefulness in the face of alternatives. Yet, in the newest operating systems and information management tools the folder is still there.