Thursday, May 31, 2012

On Norman - Part One

There is such a great deal to say about Mr. Donald A. Normal, the writer of The Design of Everyday Things; some of it good, and some of it bad. He recently spoke at TED, an event at which he admitted that while usability needed to be a strong focus of HCI, beauty was also important.

Donald Norman's ideas, set forth in 2002, are now fairly common. What's more, they seem so blatantly obvious that it is strange to read a book about them, as if I were reading a book describing describing how the sky is blue, and grass is green. It takes a problem, a conundrum, a task-that-wants-not-to-be-solved before Norman's words, buried somewhere in a young designer's skull, start to breathe life into solutions.

I will divide my blog up into two sections. In the first, I shall discuss affordances; and in the second I shall discuss mental mapping/conceptual models.

Affordances can be summarized in a few neat words- so neat and so few that it's initially difficult to understand why they should inspire me. Affordances are the attributes of an object that hint at what can be done with it. Or, put in verse, an object has well-designed affordances if- by looking at it- the user can determine how to use it.

Well duh. This applies on so many levels. For example, don't design a door who's handle statistically causes a first time user to apply force in an incorrect direction to open the door. Don't design something to be indistinguishable from an 'enemy' in game if it is killable and you don't want people to kill it. Clicking on a crosshair should not cause my character to jump- ever. A crosshair means aiming. A button is something I can click. A scroll-bar can be moved up and down.

To me, this all really just sounds like "Don't be stupid. Here are some rules you can give your boss/programmer/self-absorbed teammate who's currently being stupid."

Well, that has merit on its own. If only designers know entry-level designer material (like don't make a stove look like a toilet), sometimes we are taken for granted and ignored. Real research and conventional wisdom that skews our way can help us be successful.

But that was not the end of this story.

What if I apply the idea of affordances to women and feminine products?  Now of course I know that with non-gamers as my target audience, my interface has to be ten times as obvious as ever. No shape can be strange to the average web-user; no control can be more than one or two steps away from whatever real-world or online activity these women are already engaging in.

But that's not what I mean. I mean, what if I apply the idea of affordances as a fuzzy logic/boolean variable concerning whether a product is considered 'feminine' or not?

I have stumbled upon a big idea. How do women buy products? An affordance is something  about a product that hints as to its use;  but the use of an object cannot be fundamentally seperated from its user. It seems to me that affordances can send off social/cultural signals, as well as physical ones. And why not? Humans are pattern matchers after all. Perhaps a given affordance says:  "I am unisex, I am for children, I am for old people, I am for people with short hair, I am for men, I am for people with large breasts, or I am for women.

That's it! There are things about products that act as affordances to signal which operators are intended to act upon those products. A shooting game's affordances, may specify a male actor is preferred; a bottle of Dove Herbal shampoo boldly assists a woman in navigating through shelves and shelves of hair-care products to find it.

What does this mean? This means that the products women buy may not necessarily have the same attributes that women prefer. Any given woman may prefer to use a very powerful men's dandruff shampoo, but the signals in the hallway have called her to the curvaceous, baby blue, Aussie shampoo bottle.

This goes back to the old pink & purple debate. Toys for girls are pink and purple because toys for girls have always been pink and purple. The pink and purple helps moms and daughters locate the 'girl' side of the toy aisle. That girl grows up identifying with these symbols, and eventually internalizes them and perpetuates them on to her own offspring. Its not like pink is naturally feminine; but it does serve a useful function of providing clear color dividers between one side of the toy store and the other.

So how does one apply information of this nature?
First, identify products that women buy. Look at their websites, brand labels, and advertisements. Does this tell you what women like? No. But it tells you what visual clues women are going to be looking for when they try to determine the gender of a new product.  For instance, the outside of a barbie horseback riding game may be gratuitously pink to signal itself as a toy for girls. On the other hand, the inside of the game may be surprisingly pink-free.

Why did the outsides and insides of the game have a different color scheme? Easy. The color scheme on the inside is the one the target audience actually prefers. The color scheme on the outside is not actually part of the game or the user experience, it is nothing more than a signal. It is a word-less sign of pink-dome, and it reads loudly: "I am for girls."

Certain objects have affordances that signal themselves to women. Almost all female products are targeted about clothing, the color white, clenliness, health, utility, social, children, home life, soft tints, and curvaceous lines. Check out a bottle of Suave shampoo. How do you know if its for men or women, if you don't read the label? There are glaring color and font differences.

Does that mean you have to make a white, cleaning, health-oriented, utilitarian, social based, can-play-with-children, helps you cook and clean, mauve colored dear-Abby game for women? Of course not. But at first glance, it needs to have the proper affordances to hint as to its intended operator. It must signal the woman. It must let her know that she is the intended operator, and it must work exceptionally hard to build her expectations concerning the game.

This is largely manifested in marketing and posturing, of course, but this also means the fonts, the character artistic style, the placement of the interface items, and in fact the overall metaphors used for designing and later skinning the game, all require a sensitivity to feminine affordances. It also means that as long as the shell builds up the proper expectations concerning the internal game, many of those affordances can later be discarded or modified.

For me, affordances are two things: the properties of Heros: Duelworlds that signal women to come in and give it a try; and the properties of the game interface that let her know what to do with the actual controls.

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