Lost in Space

Sometimes we get disoriented.

That left turn at Albuquerque didn’t work out as planned.


Perhaps exiting a parking ramp has spun you around like a six-year-old playing Pin the Tail on the My Little Pony. You’re simply not sure which way to go. It happens to everyone at some time, and some people quite often.

Usually we can find clues to get ourselves back on track, although sometimes that means going back to square one. Or sometimes it means taking a different approach entirely.

There are lots of other ways that we can get disoriented. Try teaching yourself an advanced software package (say Photoshop), without a book or tutorial. It’s extraordinarily frustrating for most folks.

Usually, to orient yourself, you need a guide. You need a frame of reference to help you understand a few basic things.

  • Where am I?
  • What choices do I have right now?
  • How can I achieve my goal?

Successful systems deliver on these needs, and users are able to achieve their goals. The system achieves it’s design goals by supporting the users needs.

Similarly, almost everyone has at some point been disoriented inside a building. It’s a different experience than outdoors. The external clues are missing.

We wander around searching for the equivalent of those awful kiosks that shopping malls have, the ones that confidently reassure: “You are Here.” Somehow, they simultaneously convey too much information and not enough.

I like to think of a building as an analog system. In this system, the users interact inside the system. The building has a purpose, the users have a goal. And at any point, the same three questions above are as valid for the building as the computer system.

In our building as a system, the user interface is the total environment. That interface can assist the user or confuse them. Just as with digital systems, a designer that is too focused on beauty or cleverness will often lose sight of the true purpose —and thereby fail to help the user achieve their goal.

When I studied architecture in the early 80’s, we were indoctrinated with the famous words of Louis Sullivan, “form ever follows function.” Understand the purpose first. This is the law.

The concept goes back in Ancient Rome to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio the Roman architect, engineer and author. Marcus asserted that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful.

Anyone who’s seen my furniture designs knows I apparently strive for “semper firmitas” — forever sturdy. Someday, I’d like my kids to have to argue over who has to take it when we’re gone.

There have been a spate of recent efforts to repeal Sullivan’s law. I can’t support such nonsense.

Users don’t need to experience ‘tension’ or ‘disruption’ — we need to get things done.

Among the various offenses I’ve seen are black audio components with buttons labeled in dark gray. Seriously?

As a software developer, I sought to place the system function first, and guide the user toward their goals. That always felt like the right approach to me.

Things should make sense. I have no desire to ‘discover' your app, and in most cases, I don’t have time to ‘explore your space’.

Beauty? Yes, please.

Confusion? Not enriching my life.

Sometimes, you run into illuminating examples that clearly define these concepts. One of the most beautiful apps on my smartphone is Timely, a simple and stunning example of good design.

In the non-virtual world, I’ve recently discovered a marvelous user experience at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. In their environment, a user can almost always find the necessary visual clues to determine where you are, what choices you need to make, and how to get where you need to go. And in the rare exception when you need a human to point down the hall, you always seem to be right near Someone Quite Helpful.

The clinic has created an environment where the users (primarily patients, some elderly) are gently guided through what is often a stressful time in an unfamiliar place.

The principles of designing for user experience, when effectively applied, help us orient ourselves, identify options and move toward our goals.

Navigating through applications, buildings and even cities can be daunting. Just imagine it without those visual clues and guides. Life doesn’t have a context-sensitive menu or a ‘you are here' map.

When I woke up on January first this year, there wasn’t a sign that told me where to go. There was no agenda laid out for me except twelve boxes, each containing around two and a half dozen days.

How can we know what steps to take without our guides?

I think the solution is something I’ll call ‘Adventure Mode.’

In Adventure Mode, the guides are missing or disregarded. It’s the Australian outback of experience, and is potentially as deadly. It’s what happens when you are totally unprepared for this thing happening right this minute. You process inputs with limited context, never quite sure what outcomes a decision might cause.

Experience and your wits may be the only guides, although occasionally a benevolent soul will light a candle. It’s exciting, exhausting and sometimes frightening. When the universe has announced, “Clearly this is not an ordinary day,” you might want a to have strategy to survive it.

Step one: Breathe.

Try to remain calm.

This is Adventure Mode, not Panic Mode.

Then make a conscious decision. Choose to act, to adapt and to move forward. To take charge of this day, this challenge. Or don’t and face the consequences. The universe lets you choose.

Assuming you choose Adventure, check your inventory. Classic gamers will recognize this step. What do I have that will help me get through this? (Yay, a sword!) What (and who) is around me? If you have a trusty sidekick, be sure her or she is ready for the Adventure. To borrow from Woodrow Wilson, you need all the brains you have and all you can borrow.

Then step up and go. Remember that if nothing changes, then nothing changes. Action is always better than inaction. W.H. Murray said, “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

So if you’re lost in space, get your trusty sidekick, gear up and go for it. Whatever your adventure is, embrace it, and get through this one day.

Note: Regular readers who think this might be a little bit about design and also one of Don’s metaphors for dealing with cancer might just be onto something.

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