Friday, 17 August 2007

Self-evident interfaces and perceivable possibilities

In attempting to understand Durrell Bishop's research into self-evident design with more clarity I thank Fusewire and Alec for their comments to my previous post. Cultural mediation and perception appear to be two aspects that need considering with Bishop's thesis. With further reading around the subject I have read highlights of an interview with Bill Gaber, professor of design at Goldsmiths College in London. In this interview he cited the work of perception theorist J.J. Gibson, in particular Gibson's 1979 book on The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.

As I have an interest in human evolution and the development of human creativity (in the words of Douglas Adams "the secret is to keep banging the rocks together guys!") Gaber's thesis was understandably of interest. If, as Gaber hypothesizes, our evolution has allowed our species to benefit from perceiving what actions would be useful to our survival over those that wont, we are able to perceive, validate and combine complicated actions together such as our ancestors' stone tool-making. This outcome of perceiving the possibilities when flint is struck with another stone, mammoth meat can then be butchered for the tribe back home is disseminated through perceptual experimentation and then cultural-mediation. Each stone age tribe makes stone tools with their own twist on the technology, evolving it through an ongoing iterative process of constant development. This perceptual process is the same as we use to evolve interactive design.

Gaber in his research and work when at Xerox EuroPARC has tried to demonstrate that people can deal with graphical elements within interface designs as if they are self-evident physical objects by "thinking about the interface being a physical environment rather than being a kind of command-line-driven conversational metaphor". This is more than just creating an icon of something from the physical world and placing it into the visual design of an interface. A rewind button on a tape deck does not function in the same way as a backwards button on a physical or digital CD player. A scrub wheel does not function in exactly the same way on an iPod as it does on an analogue device. The physical function may be similar but the perceived outcome may not match the outcome. Gibson's theory refers to these perceivable possibilities for action as "affordances" and Gaber has applied Gibson's affordance theory to interactive design by attempting to peel back "the notion of affordances to its real essentials".

Has anyone read Gibson's work? I would be interested to hear if his theory has been advanced further or has been dismissed in favour of a more robust thesis. Any further reading on this matter would be greatly appreciated by myself.


Alec said...

I haven't read Gibson's work, so the only comment I can make might be a trivial one, but I think that you need to be careful when using the word 'evolution'.

Perhaps you're deliberately using it in two different ways, but there is a large gap between the blind, random, 'survival of the fittest' physical evolution of a species and cultural development through learning from and sharing the experience of fire/cooking etc.

Likewise, although it's possible to talk of the evolution of a design, it's a conscious, controlled progression.

As I said, you might be doing this deliberately, but the connotations of the word in its technical sense may not be what you mean to suggest.

bazaar said...

Hi Alec, I take your comment about the danger of the word "evolution" used in the context of design. I am, as Alec guesses, (he knows me of old), deliberately drawing upon evolution to discuss our ability to use iterative design, and hint we have had that ability for a very long time as a human species.

Just to explain to readers the context I am using evolution in is not the common misinterpretation of Darwin as "survival of the fittest" individual. Evolution is the process of survival and passing on of the best genes that are helpful for the continued survival of a species. These genes are usually slight mutations that give an advantage, that over time replicates through the breeding population through natural selection. Each generation in turn passes on the good genes, slowly over a very long period of time, evolving into successful species (or not as the evolutionary case may be).

It is in this purer sense of evolution that I draw on in the blog. Our own species of human is a result of our ancestor-species' breeding the genes through to us, homo Sapien. Basic tool-making has been evidenced as a skill known in a 6m+ year old common ancestor between us and our cousins the chimps and bonobos that we jointly inherited, but have developed differently.

Our human central nervous system has been our secret weapon in our development over our cousins as we have the ability for abstract thought. We can communicate ideas beyond the immediate and make conceptual links as a result.

The process of cultural mediation in creating tools is an ability that is a result of a combination of genes past down from our ancestor-species that culminates over time in us as the ability to learn to make and improve on tools that will make our lives (hopefully) easier. Chimps also have been observed with tribal cultures and so have other non-primates, but it is only observable in humans the ability to think abstractly.

Thanks Alec for pointing that out and giving me the opportunity to expand upon what I meant. Alec is a graduate of mine and always keeps me on my toes. (see the Naomi Enami quote opposite).

A quick note: this is a blog on interactive design and not a Darwin vs Creationism debate so please let's not go off on tangents here. Set up a separate blog if you want to debate these issues. If you want to read two good books on evolution and abstract thought leading to human creativity then I recommend the following: The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art and The Ancestor's Tale