19 March 2019
I was sitting in a lecture room at university doing a course on geomorphology. (“the study of the physical features of the surface of the earth and their relation to its geological structures.”) Along with my fellow students, we were learning about how materials travel down a river and the lecturer said these words:
“There are six ways materials move in a river.”
There was a collective sigh as we grudgingly recognised how we were going to spend the next hour of our lives.
But for the 18-year-old me, I was thinking something different. I was thinking: ‘that’s how we make sense of the world; we break it down into categories to make things simpler.’
In the same year, across campus, I was doing a foundation course in psychology and subject was Prejudice.
As is often the case, the academic definition of a word is slightly different from the way the rest of us understand it, but in essence it defined it as an ‘unjustified attitude towards an individual based on their membership of a particular category.
Stupid people embrace prejudice?
As I am now formally ‘an old person’, I can tell you the music I liked in the 70s. Early Genesis was a revelation to me, I had all their albums and I loved their music – Foxtrot, Nursery Crymes, Selling England, Trick of the Tail. What a band.
Years later I learned that the music I loved was known as Prog Rock. (I didn’t know that at the time.)
I was 10 years old and lived in Germany going to a British school. Every year at sports day I ran the 100 yards race and every year I lost to a schoolmate called Andy, every year I came second.
After yet another defeat I told my mum all about it.
“Is that the little black boy?” She asked.
I was confused. He was Andy; the boy who beat me every year, but, yes, his skin was darker than mine.
The world is such a complex place that the only way we can gain a foothold in our understanding of it is to break it down into bite-sized chunks. Categorising a complex process, though, is also a compromise; a compromise that is always going to be a misleading generalisation. Andy, like the rest of us, belongs to hundreds of categories; his skin colour is just one of them. Whilst that category may help describe him in a crowd of white people, it doesn’t help if you wanted to describe his intellect, health, weight, height or ability to run a hundred yards. My mum and I categorised Andy differently.
You may primarily communicate with others using email, but others use Whatsapp, text, Facebook, Snapchat, phone or any number of other systems – your preferred method is not that of others.
Designers have to understand this paradox. I am not you. He is not her. Our genes and our experiences determine us and how we interact with the world, but, in the immortal lines from Life of Brian: “You are all individuals.” (Crowd: “We are all individuals.”)
Whilst it takes a brave designer to reconstruct a popular system, process or product to reflect ‘a better way of doing things’ (iPhone, London Tube Map), most of us recognise that it is best to stick with a design which reflects ‘what most people understand’. Why risk misunderstanding (and expense) because the designer thinks there’s a better way?
In web design, the understanding of what works and what doesn’t – in the real world – must be determined by data, not guesswork. Create a web page and test how people actually interact with it - ‘More people found Page A was easier to use than Page D’. ‘We sold more stuff using a blue button rather than a red one.’
When designing a website, we are all told to discover our ‘personas’, or typical customers. The trouble is, unless you sell incontinence pants for 67 year women who have had a hip operation, any persona is unlikely to represent the reality.
Just because we think, based on our understanding of the world, that customers will phone us rather than email us, it doesn’t mean it will happen. Just because we think a customer will find out more details of our services by pressing the ‘Services’ tab, it doesn’t mean they will.
We all walk around with the world in our heads; sectioned and categorised in the way we feel comfortable; the trouble is the guy standing next to you has a completely different series of categories in his head.
So how do we do it?
Like Proctor and Gamble who used to use a general knowledge test to determine the best people to employ; we try stuff. And we try stuff without having to understand why we get the results we do. Who cares if a blue button gets better results than a red one; the important thing is that it does. We cannot infer that blue buttons will always get better results, we simply know that, in one case, it does.
Categorising is what we all do; we have to, the world would be too complicated without it, but to truly make sense of the world we must understand that categorisation is just a start in understanding the complexities of the world we live in.
A designer - and, perhaps, all of us - need to apply what we think is the best approach – based on our experiences - and then test it.
After all, we could be wrong.
Why the fox, Hywel?
After my favourite poem on creativity, The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes. Try it.