Digital Literacy, Part 1: Cadence

What does it mean to be literate in a digital age? While our conventional definition implies reading and writing, that definition also pays no mind to new media’s inherent malleability. It’s only by scrutinizing the ends to which our digital creations are used that we’ll come to better understand our ability to effect change via those creations.

It’s has been called a publishing platform and a conversation medium, but it’s also been used as a collaborative encyclopedia, a code playground and a canvas for art. Is there anything the web can’t do? (and should there be?)

After all, analog media was relatively simple by comparison. Everything we needed to know in order to think critically about the written word came down to reading and writing. But the web is different. Not only does it allow us to create new ideas along existing channels – we can post on Facebook and/or Twitter, for example – it also allows us to create new channels altogether, such as Tumblr and Medium. So what does this mean for our conventional definition of literacy?

Media theorist Clay Shirky offers a clue. In his foreword to the the book Mediactive, Shirky provides a media-agnostic definition, suggesting that “Literacy, in any medium, means not just knowing how to read that medium, but also how to create in it, and to understand the difference between good and bad uses.” And this definition, in particular, resonated with me (indeed, I might go so far as to say it should resonate with all user-centered designers who seek to understand what it means to create a “good,” useful web), inspiring an investigation to something I’ve currently termed digital- or “web design literacy.”

In the following three-part series I’d like to share digital litearcy as I’ve come to understand it. In the first part (the one you’re currently reading) I’ll recount a story highlighting some of the web’s more esoteric aspects, the elements that make it similar to – but altogether different from – print. In the second, I’ll briefly discuss the prominent double-diamond model of design thinking and explore how “design posture” might affect our ability to navigate that model. In the third, I’ll point to nascent trends in our profession, ways in which both investigative journalism and teaching might pertain to work that we do.

A design villain

In May of 2009, an interaction designer named Dustin Curtis published an open letter on his personal website entitled “Dear American Airlines” suggesting that the company take a look at his vision of what their future home page might look like:

The difference was profound. Instead of providing users with a cramped, uninspiring sea of text, Dustin placed the booking process – arguably the most important interaction on the page – front-and-center. He even included a photo of island getaway. Few people could argue that he isn’t onto something, so that’s precisely when Dustin decided to turn up the heat, asking American Airlines to “fire [their] entire design team,” who, he added, “is obviously incapable of building a good experience.” He concluded by suggesting that American Airlines “get outside help.”

As those watching the saga unfold later learned – in a response from a designer working at American Airlines named “Mr. X ” – what prohibited American from redesigning its website wasn’t a lack of desire or its in-house talent. No, it was their corporate culture. As Mr. X explained it, the public probably wouldn’t see the fruits of his group’s labor for at least another year simply due to the degree to which teams at American depended upon one another (i.e. bureaucracy). This meant that the company actually had two problems: not only did it have a poorly designed homepage, it also had a poorly designed organization that made it difficult to affect change.

In his most recent book, The Connected Company, management consultant Dave Gray’s tackles this
problem head on, suggesting that organizations of the future adopt a “podular” structure (not pictured above) to allow for more dynamic problem solving. Copyright © Dave Gray. Used with permission.

In many ways the state of affairs at American Airlines probably came as no surprise to Dustin – or anyone else for that matter. Of course they had a poorly designed organizational structure; why else would their homepage have fallen into such disarray? That’s a fair question and, in fact, it’s probably what led Dustin to publish his open letter. A more prudent question, however (one that apparently nobody thought to ask), is: what should American Airlines have done? Clearly they couldn’t just fire their entire design team, as Dustin suggested. How should they have gone from where they were to where they need to be?

The answer is complex. Readers likely have an idea as to where we might start (stakeholder interviews, anyone?), but none of us could possibly devise “a set of steps to take the company from bad to good” without knowing the way in which American Airlines operates on a day-to-day basis. To begin, we’d ask a whole bunch of questions.

It’s the question that drives us

To better understand how a designer might begin to solve the organizational problems plaguing American Airlines, it’s worth taking a step back and more thoroughly considering the role that Dustin played with regards to American Airlines vis-à-vis the publication of his open letter. There are many ways in which Dustin could have expressed his opinion, after all: he could have called customer support; he could have sent an angry letter (you know, in the mail); he even could have written a Yelp review (customers occasionally comment on websites as part of their business reviews). But Dustin didn’t do any of these things. Instead, he published an open letter, subjecting his inquiry to the web’s seldom-discussed-but-nonetheless-profound political affordances.

A “political affordance” is simply an amalgamation of concepts originating from the fields of social science (politics) and psychology (affordances). Whereas a perceived affordance allows an actor – a person, say – to determine the potential utility of his/her implements by way of what he or she perceives (e.g. the shape of a hammer’s head affords hitting, its handle affords holding, etc.), a political affordance describes someone’s ability to assemble and direct a public – to “call an audience into being” – by way of his/her media.

Political affordances have a profound impact on the way in which we create and consume information. By contradistinction, consider a web designer who places a redesigned version of American Airlines in their online portfolio in hopes that the finesse it demonstrates will garner them future employment. This happens all the time. But while both our hypothetical designer and our actual designer, Dustin, have each presented “alternate realities,” the web’s political affordances greatly magnify the ramifications of the ways in which these designers have chosen to express their respective sentiments. Our hypothetical designer’s message is likely considered “friendly” regardless of its reach. Dustin’s open letter, on the other hand, is almost certainly seen as adversarial precisely because of its reach. Not only does Dustin’s letter call an organization into question, it does so in a way that incites others to feel the same.

Distinguishing between these two modes of presentation might seem superfluous – and, indeed, it would be of less consequence – if it weren’t for the sheer fact that questions lie at the heart of what we do: designers ask questions in order to better understand the boundary between form and function; designers ask questions in order to understand what users want; and designers ask (rhetorical) questions when they present wireframes, prototypes, etc. to their team. (None of these actions is explicitly “at odds” with a system, though. Quite the opposite, in fact; designers generally question things in order to attain a shared understanding.)

In his 2009 TED Talk – incidentally given the same year as Dustin published his
open letter – psychologist and author Barry Schwartz “makes a passionate call for “practical wisdom’ as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy.” This is a challenge that creative consultants frequently face.

The difference today is that the internet forces us to more thoroughly consider the timbre of conversations we facilitate. When criticism happens in private, organizations and individuals are more likely to be open-minded and develop a sense of wisdom. When criticism happens in public, however, organizations run the risk of appearing non-empathic. Many remain silent.

Ultimately, the preceding line of inquiry raises two, related lines questions pertaining to our design process:

  • What makes a question, itself, “appropriate” or “innocent?”
  • What makes a question, itself, “inappropriate” or “threatening?”

In the interest of expediency, the difference – as far as I can tell – is tact. Tact differentiates our ability to get what we want – be that potential work in the case of a student, or a redesigned organization in the case of Dustin Curtis – and our ability to squander an opportunity. Developing an intuition with regards to tact allows us to prudently plan for change over time. In this way, there’s a certain design to Design: Asking deliberate questions in a deliberate order yields a deliberate result.

Grammatically incorrect

Finally we come to the issue of cadence, or the ebb and flow of ideas.

As with political affordances, cadence behaves drastically different across the digital and analog worlds. Online, the web affords both linear and non-linear narratives. In other words, a designer can either architect a system such that a user sees a predetermined set, or “script,” of screens – a checkout path, for example – or she can make it such that a user can navigate those screens in any order that user chooses. The choice is up to the designer. Offline, things are different. Because “real life” requires that we experience events in a linear order – reading an article (as you’re doing right now) or pitching, selling, and actually producing a design project – Design requires a certain kind of sensitivity to the way in which information is paced.

And, as it turns out, this is precisely the function of grammar. What’s more interesting than the Design-grammar analogy, though, is observing the shift that grammar has made as it’s left the the world of traditional media and entered the realm of interactive media. Consider:

  • One of the most fundamental books in the history of grammar is William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White’s pocket guide to writing called The Elements of Style. Named as one of the “100 most influential books written in English since 1923” by Time magazine, it condenses nearly everything an American-English author needs to know to pace their ideas (outside of words themselves) to a mere 100 pages.
  • Following suit, typographer and poet Robert Bringhurt’s “The Elements of Typographic Style” serves as kind of typographer’s book of grammar. It, too, provides everything a typographer needs to know in order to effectively use type, basic grids, etc. in service of an aesthetic.
  • Finally, comic-book theorist Scott McCloud’s comic book about comics – called “Understanding Comics” – discusses various methods of visual communication. It comprises a kind-of-sort-of “comic-book grammar.”

Star Wars director George Lucas suggests that all forms of art share the same goal: communication. He believes that contemporary educational system should reflect this notion.

By now the pattern is clear: grammar allows (graphic) designers to better determine the way information is paced in traditional media. Now for the shift. Digital grammars appear much less didactic and much more philosophical. Consider:

  • In 2007 computer scientist Bill Buxton authored “Sketching User Experiences,” in which he described the various ways in which designers might affect change over time. Buxton’s allusion to sketching suggests that the product design (UX design) process might more closely resemble a game of pictionary than a traditional publishing process.
  • In 2008, new-media theorist Clay Shirky released his book “Here Comes Everybody” explaining the potential ramifications of a post-Internet society. While extremely well received, the book also raised a number of important, difficult questions surrounding the internet and collective action (many of them dealing with political affordances).

Again I believe the pattern is clear: whereas the grammars defining traditional media (punctuation, typographic convention, grids, and visual language) helped creators better define the cadence of ideas, the grammar defining digital media is potentially much more complex. Designer Paul Boag’s recent post about the nature of the web sums this up well.

Increasingly you are not having to visit a website in order to find certain types of information. For example, if I want to know local cinema times I can simply ask Siri and she will return just the listings required without ever visiting a website. Equally, if I want to know who the CEO of Yahoo is, Google will tell me this in its search results without the need to visit a specific website.

What does a lack of digital grammar mean for designers, those of us who want to provide the best content for our end users?

The journey thus far

This article’s covered a lot of ground. We began with a question relating the analog concept of literacy to its digital equivalent, asking what does it mean to create and consume the web, to understand its good and bad uses? In search for an answer, we first heard the story of Dustin Curtis’s open letter to American Airlines. In light of that, we discussed the internet’s political affordances and the way those affordances galvanized Dustin’s role in relation to American Airlines. This led us to consider the design of the Design process itself. Finally, we discussed cadence, the way in which grammar affords our ability to control the flow of ideas.

In part two of this series we’ll take an even further step back, using the double-diamond model of design thinking to contextualize our work and the concept of design posture to explain how we navigate that model. Stay tuned!

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