Words Matter in Interfaces

Visual design is powerful, but the words are what people quote to one another.

And they are the only part of the design that survives across time and media types. They can be held intact in a human mind.

Erika Hall

Source

As soon as I read this quote on Joshua’s blog, I thought about my reluctance to use Snapchat. I once had a conversation with someone who is an ardent user of the social network and after explaining a few basics of the app to me, he grew weary of my inane questions and simply said, “if you’d been with the app since the beginning, this would not feel weird to you.”

Indeed, I see it as this – visual design needs a lot of historical context to understand. If you’ve seen it evolve over time, you can understand it well. But if you are dropped into it anew, it’s all strange and confusing to you. A new user might even be scared of clicking things, if they have no idea what they’re doing.

I love playing a game called Egg, Inc. For the first few months of playing the game, I would notice these cute little drones flying around. I thought they’re just an easter egg by the developer. Unrelated, I would notice that at random times, my resources would shoot up, by random values which made no sense to me.

While reading a post on reddit one time, I discovered that you’re supposed to smack those drones out of the air. See, in the game, you’re running a chicken farm, and you believe those drones are a violation of your space, so you can shoot them down, for a reward. Sometimes, fast moving drones appear and shooting them down is difficult but awards you with an exponential value. All of this would be in the onboarding, but I can never recall there being a specific time when I was told to hit the drones. In a way, that is an easter egg – you’re supposed to discovered on your own that those cute flying objects are actually an annoyance to your character and shooting them is the right thing to do. But I felt betrayed. How many months had I wasted not knowing about this growth hack?

I can’t expect a game of all things to label everything. The elegant interface of Egg, Inc, would only be made more clunky by the addition of ugly labels. But I can expect this from Snapchat. Their job is to make it easy for me to use their interface, specially if I’m a new user.

An interface made up entirely of swipes is revolutionary, but a hindrance to people who have not understood it from the beginning. The same is true for all visual design, and it’s worth remembering for everyone who is involved in the task of designing interfaces.

n.b. Notice how quickly Erika’s ideas were attacked by someone who puts more value in visual design than textual context. I would have expected people to have differing opinions about the topic, but one opinion doesn’t invalidate another. It’s an opinion, not a fact.

My wife asked me the other day – why do you use twitter? Isn’t it full of bile and anger? This is why. Great ideas are often posted to it, and inquisitive minds go where the water of knowledge is.

How are stories kept a mystery in your mind? – A Whole Lotta Nothing

How are dreams ever unknown to us?

How are stories kept a mystery in your mind? – A Whole Lotta Nothing

I’d like to ask the opposite – how are dreams ever known to us?

I get fairly vivid dreams every once in a while. Sometimes, I can correlate them to events happening around me – some tension I’m focused on, some happy occasion that’s around the corner, etc. But most of the time, my vivid dreams are out of the blue. I meet acquaintances I’ve not seen in forever, I go to places I’ve never been, and once in a while, my wife stars as a detective in a story-line I have no way to make head or tail of.

But to me, these are not because our brains are trying to hide something from us, as Matt alludes to in his post. Dream narratives are when, according to me, our subconscious is able to surface ahead of our conscious mind. Our subconscious is always there, ticking away, firing off a million connections that make no sense whatsoever. Every once in a while, we have a eureka moment, because some connection is triggered that makes perfect sense to the conscious, and needs to be surfaced.

See, I think that our bodies do somewhat act as “a bundle of parts of competing systems”, but not knowingly. When we’re focusing on something, or going about our daily lives, the primary objective that’s driving our thoughts is survival. This can be of any order – from the most basic physical and ‘where will our next meal come from’ to a much higher level, such as thoughts about the future and metaphysics. But all this while, our body is going at its functions. Just as we don’t forget to breathe, we don’t forget to think in the background. It’s constantly happening. When we have a sudden urge to pee, it’s because our body realizes that we’ve been ignoring this function since some time and an alarm needs to sound. Just like that, when a great idea comes to us, it’s an alarm that some section of our brain sounds to let us know that the connections it recently created make some sense.

But when we sleep, our survival is in the background. If our minds were still preoccupied with urgency, we wouldn’t be able to sleep. So it is either that we’ve resolved the day’s urgencies, or our mind is overwhelmed with them and needs a break. For either reason, we sleep, and when we do, our subconscious’ plays come to the front.

Now, does it always happen that when we need to pee, or need to get up for an important meeting, our mind triggers a bad dream sequence to jolt us into waking up? I don’t think so. However, when those events happen, our mind does use vivid imagery, or fantastical scenes to inform us in its own way that we’re dreaming and need to get up.

As for the last question that Matt asks –

How could you even begin to design an experiment to figure out how stories unfold in our dreams?

I think the way to do this is to give yourself some tension. One time, drink a jug of water before going to sleep. Another time, worry a lot about some upcoming event and see how your dreams are different than when you had water.

I’d like to close by one of my most interesting dreams (there are a few I don’t think I’ll ever forget). As a child, I used to read Tell Me Why before going to sleep. On this particular occasion, I asked myself the question – “what’s the last topic covered in this book?” The answer was a three paragraph explanation of termites. I read it, went to sleep, and woke up in a dream where we had returned home to find termites infesting everything, from the large Eucalyptus tree outside, to every cabinet and drawer inside. It was not a scary dream – I saw it all matter-of-factly. Despite having read a single explanation about termites, and seen just one image about their handiwork, the vividness with which my mind recreated a termite invasion was amazing to me. It wasn’t out of any malice or urgency either. It was just the last thing my mind processed.

Now and Then

A few years ago, a rather interesting idea came to my attention. In an effort to better inform their readers about their day-to-day activities, some bloggers decided to create a ‘now’ page. This page would be frequently updated with what the blogger was doing right now (today, this week, or this month) and would be a great way to update people and also push bloggers to interact with their blog more frequently.

That idea started with Derek Sivers and is immortalized on the nownownow.com website.

I too made a /now page. You can see it here or from the main menu on my site.

Recently, I came across the idea of an ‘on this day’ page here and here. I found it interesting enough to want to implement it on my blog too. Note that this is different than an archive page, which WordPress already has, because that just lists blog posts as a list and is a great way to find a particular post, but not a great way to discover or reminisce.

I call it the /then page. You can see mine here. Most days, it’ll be blank, while some days will show 3-4 posts over the years. That’s just how my creativity ebbs and flows, and how my day job keeps me busy on certain times of the year more than others.

I hope to use the now and then pages frequently, to discover old posts and rethink ideas, and explain to the world and to myself what I’m doing. If you come to the then page and see it is blank, drop me a line and remind me to blog more often! 🙂

If you want to discuss how I made it, drop me a line here and I’ll flesh out the basics in the commends. Most of the code came from Colin Walker.