Part II of the 99% Invisible series A few months ago, I delivered a talk on “Idea Spaces” at the New Media Consortium Summer Conference in Portland. It was a concept I had been struggling with for quite some time. There were many disparate threads to connect, and it was challenging to find time for reflection. Like many things in my life, the talk came rushing up to me faster than I was ready to deal with, and my task to discern the coherent narrative amidst the complexity was on a tight deadline. Fortunately, on my flight to the NMC Summer Conference, I had time to watch two excellent documentaries. The first was Tim’s Vermeer in which a Texas-based inventor, Tim Jenison, tries to replicate a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, and in the process, discovers an ingenious optical tool that Vermeer likely used to paint his photographic, still life pieces. The second film, Objectified, explores the importance of design in our lives. Both are highly recommended for anyone trying to build things — narratives or technologies (both hardware and software). The key idea I took away from these films was the importance of simplifying your final product without “dumbing” it down. I decided then, on the plane, to challenge myself to remove at least 5 slides from my 25-slide presentation for the following morning’s talk, and given the reception from the crowd, it turned out to be the best presentation I’d ever given. It was a tough exercise, but it contains within it an object lesson for anyone who designs technology solutions. When it comes to creating the technology environments, our main challenge is to be simple and clear without being simplistic, and to communicate complexity in a clean, well-designed way. When making presentations, we often lose sight of the ultimate goal of our audience, which is to get something useful out of our story. The same thing is true when our audience is the users of our technology. Elegant design can allow the user to interface with complex technologies in a way that is simple and approachable. This requires a discipline that is often lost on many technology designers who like to emphasize all of the neat things the technology solution can do. In the process, they lose track of the user’s goals and the cleanest narrative that is necessary to take them there. Like my task with this presentation, our work of designing technologies for education can produce overly complicated solutions because we lose sight of the end and the clearest path to get us there. Maybe it’s time to cut some slides from our technology designs. The process for how to get to clean lines is not always clear. While it is essential to engage the end users at every phase in the project, they should not, in the end, control the process. Steve Jobs famously eschewed focus groups because he understood a fundamental problem inherent in creating an elegant solution to a technology problem: users often have a poor understanding of what makes up effective design. This is counter-intuitive, but what sometimes occurs is that a group of users will have a wide range of views on what they want a technology to do. Everyone starts adding their own pet need based on their own behavior patterns. The result is often a hodgepodge of features that muddy the essential end of the device in question. At some point, you have to go in with a scalpel and start simplifying the process. As I have emphasized repeatedly in this series, a key way to think about this is narrative. Every piece of technology tells a story. Mostly that story is “how to use me,” but in addition, a truly effective piece of design narrative will inspire the user invent to new ways to use the technology instead of being preoccupied with just making it work. This is really the only way you get to the state of “augmentation” that Douglas Engelbart was striving for. In other words, narrative is as important to the function of classroom technology or learning management systems as it is to good storytelling. People who are in the story, however, usually fail to see the encompassing narrative except in retrospect. Unfortunately, technicians, installers, programmers, and what we traditionally think of as IT are often equally poor at understanding the narrative of technology design. Storytelling is not part of most Computer Science curricula, and most people who are interested in that tend to get degrees in English or one of the design fields. In a recent interview, Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext and an inspirational figure in the technology community said, “Most technical people have virtually no idea how to present things to you.” This creates a serious problem because design is presentation and storytelling. What we should take away from this is that every technology design project should have someone on the team who is a relatively disinterested storyteller. They do not need to be technical experts, but they must understand the technology well enough to communicate and negotiate with technical experts when they say, “It can’t be done.” This person should also have no technical stake in the outcome and should not be asking for feature sets. Their sole role should be to understand the story the technology is telling to the user and make sure that is a fundamental part of the design. Because, as it turns out, the world needs poets and artists, after all. Marshall McLuhan wrote fifty years ago in The Medium is the Message, “The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” Those who design technologies should leverage that expertise as much as possible. In the next installment, I will lay out the struggles we have had in communicating the narrative of our multimedia classrooms to faculty. This has been a decade-long process, and the lessons learned were not always obvious in the midst of our decision-making process. There are many elements that impacted the success of the overall design, not all of which related directly to the technology of the systems themselves. Our current design is much cleaner, but it took a long time to reach the “Goldilocks zone.” Stay tuned. > Read Part I in the “99% Invisible” series About Tom Haymes Jack-of-many-trades, Tom’s interest in computers started in 1981 with an Apple ][+ at the same time he began developing a serious passion for photography. Keenly interested in government, Tom earned two Master’s degrees from Georgetown University, and has been teaching this subject in both a full- and part-time capacity for Houston Community College, Northwest since 2001. As the current Director of Technology, Tom is deeply involved in strategic planning and project management to accommodate a campus of over 20,000 students. He has contributed to the EDUCAUSE Quarterly on the subject of cultural change in education, and has been involved with the NMC Horizon Project as a member of the Expert Panel since 2011. Currently, Tom is focused on conceptualizing and designing innovative learning environments for his institution such as Idea Spaces and the Teaching Innovation Lab. You can find Tom on Twitter (@hccgov), LinkedIn, Flickr, and his photography website. Window image CC BY-SA 2.0 by justindula Total Share 0 Facebook0Twitter0Email0Reddit0X Linkedin0 Delicious0 Stumbleupon0 Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.