I’m reading Andrew Hinton’s fascinating 2014 book Understanding Context. The key idea is that much of the complexity and difficulty that we face when using an app (for example) arises from confusions about the context in which we find ourselves, and the signals we receive from the environment in interpreting that context.
In a wonderful opening chapter (which you can read under Look inside me on the book’s Amazon page), he describes the experience of navigating an airport checkin. One example: he tries to figure out if he qualifies for “SkyPriority” (an accelerated checkin lane) but doesn’t know how it relates to his “SkyMiles” status. The checkin involves a whole raft of overlapping contexts, which Hinton depicts in this diagram:
I’m pondering the connections between these ideas and the ideas of concept design. From a concept design point of view, I would say that each of these personal status questions (do I have “SkyPriority”?) is a question about a particular concept, cast in this form because companies tend to formulate access to services in terms of status, and their marketing departments create a panoply of names for these statuses.
What makes a concept like SkyPriority confusing is that it involves an obscure action in which the airline grants you that status, and that action is hidden from you, and executed by synchronization with other concepts (so that if you reach a certain status level in your SkyMiles, for example, or are flying business class, the action occurs). So the complexity arises in part from the way in which multiple concepts are sync’d, and to understand the system as a whole you have to understand those synchronizations.
Imagine in contrast if SkyPriority was simply a fast line that you had to pay for to access by swiping your credit card on entry; then they could have a sign saying “faster TSA line, pay here to enter.” Of course, this would not serve the airline’s purpose of rewarding certain customers, but it illustrates what would make the concept easy to understand.
Note also that this (admittedly unrealistic) redesign localizes the concept in the physical space, and this is in part what makes such a concept easy to understand. When I try to enter my building at MIT nowadays, sometimes the door won’t unlock for me because of some glitch in the app that processes my COVID PCR tests (and the daily attestations I’m required to submit that I am symptom-free); this makes facing the door and trying to understand what’s going on much harder than a traditional door (even a “Norman door”) where any mechanism I need to understand is right in front of me.
Hinton explains that much of the complication of virtual systems comes from the separation of physical space and digital functionality, and seems to imply that traditional physical spaces rarely have overlapping contexts. This seems right to me, and a good explanation of much of the sense of disorientation the airport experience induced.
But it has made curious to find examples in which traditional (ie, non-digital) concepts overlap in the physical world. Here’s one example that occurred to me. When you’re on vacation in Italy and you enter the local duomo, you might find a service going on. How you behave now involves two overlapping concepts, one related to your role as a tourist making a visit, and the other related to your religious affiliation. If you’re a practicing Catholic, you might join in prayer; if you’re not, you would likely not, and you would take special trouble to be even more quiet and respectful than you would be visiting at other times. Either way, your behavior is governed by these two concepts overlapping in the same physical space.
Thanks to my friend Geoffrey Bock for telling me about Hinton’s work.