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This Old Thing?

by Hana Schank
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References to older technology in new product designs can communicate important information to users.

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.

post authorHana Schank

Hana Schank, Hana Schank has been in Information Architecture for 14 years. She began her career at Andersen Consulting where she designed an award-winning interactive training program, and went on to work on designing the first website for CBS News. As the first hands-on Information Architect at OgilvyInteractive, Hana helped to establish a detailed documentation methodology and information architecture process which led to successful engagements for several clients who were designing and building sites for the first time. In her role as Director of Information Architecture at Zentropy Partners, she developed an IA process for the global organization, as well as leading the information architecture development for a range of high profile clients. Hana founded Collective User Experience in 2003, and now oversees all IA and UX work in addition to working directly with a range of clients to help make their web sites and applications more usable. Hana and several of the team members from CollectiveUX blog about IA in the real world at beautifulbutdumb.blogspot.com. She has finally broken down and started tweeting @hanaschank. Hana lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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