As any customer support person will tell you, the world is not as high tech as we designers are inclined to believe. While we are absorbed by the possibility of a nuanced gestural UI in the latest touchscreen device, our users are struggling to configure five-year old hardware to run the most basic of programs, and without falling victim to a virus. The journey to our applications can be perilous and exhausting. So how can we communicate our most abstract designs to an audience near its limit? One approach is to remove abstraction through more universally understood representations.
Consider how you would explain the concept of cubic volume to a three-year old child. What name label would instantly explain this concept? What manner of tooltip could adequately describe it? Or if your child is not already reading, then what visual icon would spare you a thousand words? Chances are that each of these rote design conventions would fail to convey the concept of cubic volume.
Now imagine that in the prior scenario you had stacked 27 wood cubes, in a 3 wide x 3 long x 3 high configuration. Not only would the composition of cubic volume be more holistically understood, but the child could also see the effects of moving blocks to different positions, removing them from the whole either singularly or in fistfuls, or even stacking new volumes based upon the original model. The abstract concept is now easily understood by objectifying it with real world objects that most any three-year old knows how to manipulate.
Let’s take a closer look at the properties of a real world object that best communicate an abstract concept to the broadest user base. We can test these against one of the most successful objectifications in the software world – the desktop folder – which has managed to communicate ‘grouping within a hierarchical data structure’.
The concept is embodied by an object that’s widely used in the real world for similar purposes. For decades before desktop computing, people grouped printed data within manila folders, which in turn resided within hierarchical stacks, drawers, boxes, and the like.
It has visual solidity and may be anchored within the world by a light source and drop shadow. Desktop folders look like they’re resting on the desktop plane or are suspended within it. They cast shadows over other objects as they’re moved about.
One look at the concept and the user implicitly understands what to do with it. The desktop folder, with its contents spilling out of it, practically screams “Open me!” One caveat: interaction methods should feature the strengths of the input device rather than mapping to requirements of the real world, because computers are supposed to make our lives easier. That’s why we simply click a folder with the mouse rather than dragging it open.
The manner in which the concept interacts with other objects is implied. A desktop folder resides in a grid of similarly sized objects, thus implying an equal status and the ability to swap positions with others in the formation.
It resides within a spatial domain with clear boundaries. A desktop extends to the virtual chrome, and to the physical chrome of the display, so users don’t expect desktop folders to venture outside of this region (and they don’t!).
As with the child and the blocks, our users can be empowered to not only understand conceptual abstractions but also to manipulate them in intuitive ways. We can accomplish this by objectifying concepts in a more familiar form, grounding them within the virtual world, offering enticements to interact with them, establishing their relationships to other objects, and clearly defining the boundaries of their domain.
If you’re beating your head against the challenge of representing new concepts to your users, then you might gain traction with this approach. We might even owe this to our host of bedraggled users, whose basic need for comprehension is so often overlooked while we pursue new precedents to impress the design community.