Discovering the intent, translating the experience

One of the first 99% Invisible podcasts I ever listened to was about waiting in line, or Queue Theory. They were investigating a large number of complaints about long elevator wait times in old New York City buildings. The 90 second wait for the elevator at peak times was too much for the modern visitor to bear. The situation didn’t seem to have a solution that didn’t involve new elevators and/or a lot of construction. Then the researchers thought, maybe they were framing the problem wrong. The real goal of the building owners was to stop getting complaints not necessarily to improve the elevator situation. Maybe they just needed a diversion during those 90 seconds. The researchers put floor-to-ceiling mirrors next to to all the elevators and—viola! The complaints virtually disappeared. Instead of feeling this dead time of waiting for the elevators, people were fixing their hair, adjusting their dress, or surreptitiously spying on the other person waiting for the elevator too.

This continues to be one of my favorite anecdotes and one I come back to time and time again. How can you reframe the perceived problem to create different solution? From the building owner’s perspective, he just didn’t want to be bothered by complaints. And the visitors were just feeling every moment of this wasted time. The most obvious choice was to literally decrease the wait time, but instead they choose to explore how to make people care less about the time. How to change their experience of time.

I’m interested in exploring the elements of design intentions in order to recreate different solutions. As technology advances and can capture more experiences through different channels so should our approach to crafting experiences evolve. Picking the right translation for an experience means understanding how the the sensations and social knowledge work together to create them. A poor translation of an experience only recreates the functional aspects, but doesn’t really carry the intent of the design.

For instance, recently I watched this day-in-the-life video of a blind woman as she completed various tasks and I realized what a stunted experience she was getting compared to sighted users. One of her tasks was creating a new entry in her calendar and composing an email to her friend using her iPhone. Yes, she was able to complete the given tasks with the accessibility features built into the phone, but I was struck by the clumsiness of how she got there. Having worked all for several weeks crafting an elegant experience for a user, I was aware of how crude these experiences felt in comparison. It was there to just translate the functions without capturing the artistry.

Walter Benjamin writes about ‘the task of the translator’ being more than to rebuild a story by matching word to word and sentence to sentence. Instead, to he reveals that a truly great translation goes beyond what is meant (a signifier) into ‘the way of meaning it’ (how it is communicated). For instance, we can think about adaptations of old works into moderns stories. We might be able to read all of the words in a Shakespearian play, but there is a barrier to engaging with the story because we are less familiar with the way stories are communicated, the culture, and the norms in which the original work was produced. A good translation pays less attention in being structurally true to the original play and puts more emphasis on how to translate the same experience for the audience: the same emotions or lessons the original play was trying to convey in a modern context. Thinking about digital interaction design, we can think about how we could perhaps recreate the range of visuals cues into auditory or haptic experiences.

There is a need to create more nuanced experiences across our sensed experiences. Currently, design researchers have considered the touch points of interactions (affordances) in order to achieve an outcome or goal, but less on understanding the murkiness of the phenomenological experiences between interacting with the the artifact and accomplishing the goal. Wendy Ju talks about design as a social process that is “negotiated and jointly performed” in order to create what she calls implicit interaction. When a design might embody social cues that help facilitate interaction. Like a door sensing a woman’s approach and opening a a bit to invite and inform that passerby that they are welcome to use the door if they need to. The door is enacting social performance equivalent to a doorman putting his hand on the knob in readiness to open the door if he sees someone approaching.

If designers reflect on the intention of their projects and they might be able to see opportunities for creating new translations across senses of the same experience. For example, visually we have different hover states for buttons to gives  users a sense of where they are, what might equivalent feedback look for someone with vision impairment? Or interactions on a small or no- screen wearable?

One exercise I propose is for designers to analyze how different interaction design elements contribute different rhetorical qualities to a situation. How they build off of social understandings, connotations, performances, and expectations in order to create an experience. And what precisely they are. By breaking apart these elements designers have the chance to imagine how other discrete elements of interaction can do similar work.

Thoughts? Discussion? I'd love to hear 'em!

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