Words are not enough – On how experience changes the way we use the Internet
Every once in a while I think we all go into this ‘future prediction’ mode. So I’ve philosophized a little over the weekend about … well about the future of the Internet and how this will shape our society. If you remember back in the 90s when the Internet craze began a lot of voices predicted that printed stuff would go away. Well, not only did the book industry not go away but book sales reportedly grew year over year both by volume and in value. It was not stellar growth, around 10%, but it was definitely not a retraction. It’s true that lately daily newspapers have started feeling squeezed by electronic news delivery but glossy magazines are still by far our reading preference when sitting in our ‘private moments’. However it is also true that the amount of words delivered in the electronic format has grown at an impossible pace. In only 20-30 years this has transformed us from information hungry into information overloaded (by the way, we still have problems adapting our brains to this).
But not only the information is now easily available, an increase in computing power helped us make better models and thus solve more complex problems. And with solution to these complex problems, guess what, even more complex problems emerged and a new level of complexity came into our life. But hey, we had the Internet so we started to use it not only to deliver information but to deliver applications. Now people not only exchange information using email but also use shared calendars over the web to plan and keep track of group activities (and these are only two of the most common examples).
As information exchange and complexity grow well over our brains’ capacity to deal with, we built applications that help us manage that. But of course, for these applications to be helpful, they need to require less effort to learn and use than to manage the underlying complexity directly. In other words they need to be intuitive. Or better, they need to match our expectation. But what if these expectations are not coded into words? What if these expectations are about how the computer behaves? Up until now, the engineering of information (the driver of the Internet) was a very … engineering occupation. We’ve known for ages how to codify information with words, also from ages we codified the words into writing. Now we digitized everything and spread it using Internet. We are very good with words and almost all the experience we had now with information and information management was mostly word-related (with a little help from the typography). But now a new beast come into play. With the new runtimes like the DHTML engine in browsers (people call it AJAX), Flash, or Silverlight we activate a new set of awareness and thus create a new kind of expectation: the cinematic expectation.
As humanity we have a long history and lots of experience with words and how to codify information in words. We also know how to codify spatial information although is a harder task: architecture and graphics are really hard but we have a lot of experience here also. But the democratization of the application will demand yet another skill: cinematic. And this is one of the newest skill and more difficult to get right: theatrical experience is hard and making movies is even harder.
One of the difficulties that architecture and movies share in common is the difficulty of codifying their language. This comes from the fact that a lot of their language can’t be expressed in words. That’s why they’re called arts, no?
Now spatial representation, sounds, and cinematic presentation is starting to get mainstream as applications get into our everyday life. Suddenly the computing industry, where a bunch of engineers like me where dealing with problems that had a decent formalism to be communicated (words, mathematical language, etc.), are faced now with problems that require more and more artistic stuff. And the more you (well it’s usually a team) get all these right the more efficient the application will be. What we generically call usability is now a melange of words, script, cinematic … even sound. And this is going mainstream. And we don’t have a decent codification for a lot of this stuff. Smells like making Rich Internet Application is becoming more an art than an science. And because good applications have proved valuable in this highly complex world this means that businesses will need to adapt to create and consume this kind of art.
Just as books and a lot of printed press have not been wiped away by the Internet, I think the new use of the Internet to deliver applications will not challenge the current way we use it: to distribute information or ‘The Know What’. I can however state that we will now start to use the Internet to distribute one of the most difficult piece of knowledge to distribute so far: The Know How. We clearly see the benefit in this but we have barely glimpsed the challenges that lie ahead.
So I say to myself: What a wonderful world … for a good Information Architect or a good Interactive Designer !