I spent a few days on the far-west coast of BC this week in a small town called Tofino. In the summer, Tofino’s population goes up to about 20,000, attracting surfers and nature lovers. In the winter, the population is about 1,500. As you can guess, in February, it’s a quiet place to be.
I didn’t check email, turn on my cellphone, or tell anyone the exact place I was staying. I turned off status reporting widgets and read minimal news. I didn’t listen to my iPod once (for real). Late in the week, a surprise snowfall cut off all communication for about a full day, removing land-line phones, television and Internet access for everyone there, like it or not. Local radio is the only kind of radio there, and they lost power as well. Now that’s quiet, and perfect for exploring the beaches, taking in views that defy description and getting lost in the oddities turned up by the tides.
I didn’t fall into some kind of Luddite bliss, but I did notice, by their absence, the demand for our attention that the mere availability of these channels creates. Silencing the flow of incoming information seems to be a staple of the modern vacation, but I think that speaks to a need not being met in our approach to information technologies, and not some inevitable consequence of connectivity. That is, we shouldn’t have to turn off communication channels as a defensive action.
There’s some blue-sky thinking about how the devices we use to access these channels could become aware of our states and bring information to us accordingly, but that’s a post-iPhone world and I’m interested in what we can do now.
When thinking about this I keep coming back to the idea of information richness. The conventional wisdom is that offering depth and interesting pivot points on the information an application delivers is a good thing in itself. We want information, give it to us, relentlessly so. That takes us back to the beaches of the Tofino area for a moment.
On my first morning out I kept coming across Sand Dollar shells. I wanted to collect a few whole ones for some friends back home, but because they are usually partly buried in sand, each one has to be checked to see if it’s whole or broken.
Most are broken. Even after finding a few whole ones, I found that I had to resist an urge to check out each one I came across. It’s the beach-combing equivalent of leaving no stone unturned.
Leaving stones unturned is just something our brains don’t do well, for many good reasons. It’s not that info-richness is a bad thing in itself, either. It’s that it’s often offered without qualification, without meeting a true need other than that of data voyeurism. Always wanting to put lazy theory into a Quaker-like work mode, I’ve been putting together a sanity checklist that will keep the lessons of my week in Tofino in mind.
What is the one essential and concrete purpose that presenting a view of information serves? If the answer is highly subjective or vague, then it must connect directly with the core emotional experiences that the product is designed to create.
How deep does the view of information need to be to serve that purpose?
Applying these questions to previous projects, I see places where we came close to the sweet spot, and many other places where we really filled up at the Information Candy store. In About Face 2.0, a must-read book on interaction design, Alan Cooper identifies cardinal applications, or those that take up all of our attention for extended lengths of time. As the desktop computing experience dissolves into many and mobile devices, cardinality will be taking a back seat. Instead of designing for any one application, we’ll be designing more for an ecology of applications, each of them asking for some degree of attention from people. Being relevant rather than rich in the information that they provide will set applications apart more and more, I believe.
There are many rewarding and appropriate uses of rich information structures, and info-voyeurism certainly has its place. And, we all need to manage the channels that demand our attention, but not by dulling our natural curiosity and learning to ignore the scores of unturned stones presented on any given interface. Making information rich in relevance rather than data will be the key to making applications that fit well with our lives, rather than something we want to escape from every few months.