Identification

This is a mildly incoherent ramble about identification, humanity and the important need to stay within the metaphor in software design, I think.

I was just asked this in an online questionnaire by Salon.com:
Which of the following ethnic groups do you most closely identify with?

  • Caucasian
  • Hispanic/Latino
  • African American
  • Asian
  • Multiracial
  • Other
  • Prefer not to answer

Identifying with ‘the hood’ was seemingly not an option.

Icaro Doria is Brazilian, 25 and has been working for the magazine Grande Reportagem, in Lisbon, Portugal, for the last 3 years. He was the author of the flags campaign “Meet the World”. In those flags, who do you identify with? Now, what part of those flags actually represents you?

Identification and walking in other peoples shoes is important in all areas of life, of course. As David Foster Wallace said in his commencement address at Kenyon College:

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

But identification is especially important in software, where frankly the homogeneous army of geeks2(which I’m happy to belong to) who make most cool stuff bear startlingly little resemblance to the end users of their product. That’s part of the reason why we refer/[red] to people as customers rather than users at $TELCO1(I try not to talk about work directly here), to make the implied point that their needs are more important than ours. And that’s why I like Jamie Zawinski’s thoughts on groupware so much because it thinks about a horrible and hoary old topic in a fresh way that creates passion. How can calendering software make it “easy for people to do other things that make them happy: meeting, communicating, and hooking up”. It’s the excitement over a product that makes it disruptive, that gets people telling others about it, that sees people put in long hours when they get home from work to make it better. And often, all it is, all it is is one simple elevator pitch. “You know that stuff in Outlook that you use at work to book meeting rooms and get people together and stuff? Yep. How would you like it if we took all the stupidity away and made it so you could use it go out with your mates on a Friday night? Awesome.”

There are some things in the tech world that are too hard to do at the moment, even for moderately power using geeks. Things like running your own mail server, tasks that are easy to patch up and keep running but are just simply insane to start from scratch. It’s easy to say that all this is because people solving problems don’t care about the people using the solution but I don’t think that’s always true. Sometimes the problem itself is just hard and demands a hard solution and that’s OK too. But in the specific problem of mail servers it’s clear what the problem is. There are drastically high sanctions for running a dodgy mail server, one that can be used to send spam or eats innocent mail. Your computer gets quarantined from the rest of the internet so you can’t communicate and in fact you feel ostracised3(not that this has happened to me, I’m just making this up as I go along) from the ‘online community’ and all this can happen from a simple misconfiguration, an accident. Very few people are going to be interested in doing something where a mistake is catastrophic, that’s the point. You try and make it easy, fun and riskless to explore in the certain knowledge that 80% of your audience is scared stiff by the entire concept and will treat every click with suspicion. Because if you mess it up for them, nobody’s going to use it.

Now using the example of setting up a mail servers and then comparing it to ‘ordinary user behaviour’ is fairly close to an ultimate straw man argument but it should be mildly worrying for most tech designers when people who’re interested but don’t have to do the task for a living start running away. That’s the point where you have to do the complexity of the task/complexity of the interface tradeoff. I should clarify that the field of Mail Servers is pretty much the most calcified bit of software that I’m ever likely to go near, huge infrastructural investment and trained competence rubs up against 1980s usability and interaction design, even for many newly created projects. It’s an area where the Big Beasts of the UNIX world tend to roam, people who have difficulty in sharing, or getting along with others at all, even in technologically mediated discussion. That’s why I’m off to Hula as soon as it’s anywhere near stable, because it’s thinking about me, because their hackers are trying to identify.

In other news I saw ‘Blue Velvet‘ for the first time last night. It was exceedingly good.