Thursday, May 31, 2012

On Norman - Part Two

Norman didn't just talk about affordances, although frequently that's what we remember him for. In his book he lamented that he was remembered for bad doors, but either that was some time ago, or among a community to which I was not a part of, as I have never yet heard anyone refer to anything as a 'Norman Door.' Throwing the word 'affordances' out like a buzz word is one of the easiest ways to pretend you know a great deal about Norman! Although, to be fair, the difficulty in affordances is not in understanding what an affordance is, but in applying it to your current situation to understand how you should design something.

But enough about affordances; I told you, already, he's talked about other things!

In "The Design of Everyday Things" Norman talks about several concept, affordances included. One of the other big topics he hit on was natural mapping. Or conceptual mapping. Or mind mapping. Or mental mapping or- gosh darn it, I'm just not sure what to call it any more. Conceptual, mind, and mental mapping all seem to be words for more or less the same thing, if you ask me!

Usually, a conceptual map is a diagram for understanding the relationships between items, in which case we could say Norman is talking about conceptual mapping because he is pretty much laying down his observations in diagram form. And a mind map is a brainstorming tool. And a mental map is one's understanding of ones sociocultural and spacial position in the world.

The reason I take the time to point these out is because almost all of them are addressed when one is in the interactive entertainment field, and I feel it is very important for me to set the record straight. Donal Norman did talk about other forms of mapping- his famous 'trying to get the temperature right in the freezer and the refrigerator' example was one such instance- but Natural mapping is one of those other buzz words we associate with Norman and which needs to be addressed in any lengthy blog post about him.

Natural mapping is the idea that components of a system should share easily observable properties that help a user correctly and intuitively guess the relationship between them.I say 'guess' because when we use non-dangerous controls, we tend to grab- without thinking- whatever control seems most natural to us, and attempt to operate it. If we are unsuccessful, we will proceed to try a few more options before actually bending our brain to the problem. Humans are not meant to think about their activities 24-7. Some things need to be doable automatically.

In most of his examples, these shared properties are a spatial map. That is, good natural mapping in these instances means that a spatial understanding of one part of a system should also apply to to second part of the same system. For example, a user, upon assessing the controls for an object, should be able to make an internal map of their spacial arrangement, and then apply that same internal map to the actual objects. This helps the user understand which switch controls which. Creating an internal spatial map comes naturally to humans. If it is ignored, we just never learn the correct controls for something (For example, I cannot tell you right now which of the light switches in my home controls which light- and I only have two light switches. Period.) If it is violated we will almost consistently attempt to input the wrong controls.

Natural mapping can also work for non-spacial relationships; for example, if I love chocolate and hate seaweed, I might keep chocolate near the good controls and canned seaweed near 'bad' controls (like scram-switches).

Natural mapping is likely similar to the 180 degree 'line' in cinematography that it is 'illegal' to cross via cut, and is still uncomfortable to cross via dolly/pan.

For me, natural mapping meant that even though it would look nice if all of my 'journal' pages were on one side of the interface, and even though I never want to cover my whole screen by having journal pages on both sides of the interface, tab-like menu items on the right side of the interface could NOT summon journal pages on the left side. I tried to do this for awhile, only to surrender to the inevitability of that which Norman observed first: its best not to agitate the user by providing unnatural and nonsensical motion.  Instead, I opted to close any journal pages on the left hand side of the screen before opening journal pages on the right, and vise versa.

Due to the low gaming experience of my audience, natural mapping is actually a very important concern, particularly concerning the fact that some 'gamer' conventions are not particularly natural- and also because I am working on the iPad where many 'naturalistic' gestures are possible (and where it is equally possible to mangle them). The traditional, gamer, buttons-and-joystick combo, for instance, is exceptionally awkward for my player; while the mechanics inherent in the Sims for iPad is a perfect research model: it was already crafted specifically for my audience, after all!

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