One for All and All in One

Jul 6, 2010

There’s a growing rift between the tech guys and the consumers when it comes to social technology. Tech guys see it one way – open, connected, simple – and the rest of the world sees it another – scary, uncertain, complex. People heavily engrossed in the tech communities have adapted to the change a lot more than the majority of the world. We’re used to having several different social services, check-in products, hundreds or thousands of friends, a constant stream of information flowing to our screens every minute. We strive to build products that make all of this feel simple. But the fact is, it’s not simple. And for the mainstream, it won’t be for a long while.

It’s sort of an accident that I’m in the technology industry. When I was in grade-school, I never did anything technologically related: I didn’t program, I didn’t design websites, I didn’t read articles… I did teach myself the basics of a few Adobe programs, but mainly I used computers like the majority of people my age: I chatted with friends, I wrote documents and I played games. But now I find myself in the center of an industry that frustrates me and feel unlike many of my design colleagues. I’m not interested in the latest tech gadget or a new website or the visual subtleties in the iPhone. I don’t read the blogs online, I don’t make pixel-perfect mocks and I honestly don’t want to have to “check in” on a dozen versions of the same service. I just care about people and want to make things they like to use, especially if it makes them happier and feel more connected.

My mindset is one of people, not products. Only recently in the industry has there been a strong push for user-centric design, with dozens of these new roles emerging at tech companies. Before now, technology products mainly focused on productivity tools which helped us increase our efficiency at getting things done. Now, however, we’re focusing on people and their interactions with each other.

Design is about people and spaces, not interfaces.

We are experiencing a shift in the mental and social model; the world is becoming more open and connected. We can see this especially in the younger generation, which takes to computers like fish to water, and is extremely comfortable with the openness and ubiquity of social technology. But the vast majority of people find us moving too far, too fast and they can’t keep up. We’ve pushed to build simpler tools over the years to make them easier to understand, but are we getting too simple too soon?

Now I, like many a designer, advocate for simplicity. After all, Apple has built much of its success on designing interfaces that mimic real-world interactions, simple and to the point without too many complications. But on the Internet, we’ve seen a different trend, more along the lines of a single-service front-end. You can do everything you want from one text box on Google. You can post updates to any one of thousands of people from one text box on Facebook and Twitter. Engineers work tirelessly to build systems that give you supposedly exactly what you want up front. It’s magical, and there’s little under the hood explaining how it works. Productivity-wise, this is pretty good. But if we’re trying to connect people with each other, replacing the face-to-face medium that’s existed for centuries, I think this is approach is a bit ahead of its time.

Design is about people and spaces, not interfaces. The issue we are facing with social technology today is the lack of defined spaces. Technology and tools may grow leaps and bounds over the years, but we are still biologically limited. We are very context-dependent. In order to understand the world, we build mental schemas of how things work and are put together. We inherently recognize the difference between spaces and their respective functionalities – that’s a big part of how we learn about the world. But with the advent of technology, we’ve been able to conflate the mental model and give users the ability and desire for having everything in one place at their fingertips. Some love it, many don’t.

We have an issue that’s twofold: 1) How do we consume information across multiple social circles from potentially hundreds of people and still be able to give the same attention as we would in a face-to-face conversation, which occurs between only a handful of people at the most? And 2) how do we converse with our various social circles in only one online setting instead of what would otherwise be multiple independent groups at different times?

The answer is not really about simplifying, in fact it’s the opposite. We need to be building in a little more complexity and shape the structure of the products themselves to allow for contextual mental models that accurately affect the real world. The hard part is, the industry seems to be moving in a different direction. I find it pretty hard to design for other designers nowadays since expectations are so high. They’re higher in the industry than they are for the real world. Ask a product designer what the difference between two versions of the iPhone is and you’ll no doubt get a 20-page paper. But ask an average person and you’d barely get a paragraph. The fact is, the tech industry has ramped up considerably in the last decade but the rest of the world hasn’t yet.

With so many options in reach, it can be a bit paralyzing for anyone. The message in the book The Paradox of Choice suggests that people need choices to feel free, yet too many choices will have the reverse effect. It supposes that we actually feel better when we have limitations, so making a decision doesn’t feel as heavy. I’m confident that as technology becomes even more prominent in our day-to-day lives, we will shift to a more carefree, open mindset. But at least for now, let’s be a little cautious on the strides we take, a little sensitive to the consumers’ hesitations and let’s make sure people feel comfortable along the way.

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