Twitter, above all other kinds of social media, is the one that lends itself to real time. As long as you could type fast and had good connectivity, for the last 10 years there’s been no limit to the number of conferences, big TV moments and indiscrete people on public transport you could live tweet.
But in the last 12 months, the rhythms of Twitter and public life have changed. Rather than Twitter being a way to keep up with things, things have started to keep up with Twitter. UK and US politics — particularly the Leave campaign, the aftermath of the EU Referendum and Trump’s whole MO — have taken on a post-truth velocity.
And this particular political reality is informed as much by the new norms of digital design as any filter bubbles. It’s a kind of glanceable truthiness: a politics of feeling that has slipped into our lives without the friction of forecasting or fact-checking.
We’ve come to expect good digital design to work for us. People with smart phones and smart watches get information in glanceable formats as part of frictionless experiences that predict their needs, wants and probable travel time.
Stephen Krug published his seminal book Don’t Make Me Think in 2000, and since then idea that designers and engineers do the thinking for their users has become commonplace. The fourth Government Digital Service design principles is “Do the hard work to make it simple” and it comes with a value judgement: “It’s usually more and harder work to make things simple, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Glanceable design is familiar to nearly everyone from road signs. Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear’s pioneering work in the 1950s was “part iconic, part alphabetic and part symbolic”, designed to “contain only essential information … so that the driver’s attention is not distracted from the task of driving”.
Lots of push notifications on smart phones and watches work in the same way: they direct without distracting. One of the cognitive processes this taps into is pre-attentive processing.
“Preattentive processing takes place in sensory memory; it requires no conscious effort from the user (or viewer) to do this processing — it’s automated and takes less than 500 milliseconds to complete. This can be very useful in design and in particular in information visualization design because it allows the designer to grab the attention of the user without their input or effort. This in turn allows for increased complexity of data that must be processed in short-term memory.”
“Preattentive Visual Properties and How to Use Them in Information Visualization”, The Interactive Design Foundation (my bold)
Anyone who’s sat in a meeting and watched the home screen of their phone fill up with email notifications will know the pros and cons of this kind of ambient awareness: you know there’s been an email, and you roughly know the contents, and you’re pretty sure you don’t need to click through. It’s a scrolling familiarity. You feel like you know enough. My attention’s been grabbed but I haven’t made any effort.
Richard Pope (in a post that should be called “Software is Politics”) talks about the lack of accountability and understanding these experiences create:
“If a user can never understand how something works, where is the opportunity for recourse? To pick an obvious example: what does it mean when you can’t view source on an ever more powerful Google Now.”
And the same can be said of news: why do the hard work to carry on reading if the whole story is in the headline?
The concept of “truthiness” isn’t new. The comedian Stephen Colbert’s been using it for more than 10 years to explain the confusing category of things politicians say because they feel true, rather than because they really are.
Colbert’s satirical comment in 2005 that “anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news… at you” gets to the same place as pre-attentive processing. It’s about stuff that just works, that just feels right, without you as an individual making any effort. It’s the same reason BMW spend money engineering the sound made by their car doors — the “clunk” is calibrated to sound like safety, quality and trust.
Political slogans work in the same way, giving “an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Very few people who believed in Stronger In had deep knowledge of free trade agreements and those who wanted to “#takecontrol” didn’t have long-term economic forecasts to support their case. The arguments just felt right; they slotted in, and unboxed nicely.
And there’s something recognisable from these slogans in Adaptive Path’s description of “frictionless”:
We realized that when we were describing people’s desired media experiences, we often used the word “frictionless.” It was meant to evoke an “it just works” sentiment. While akin to simplicity, it is different. For example, Kindle is a surprisingly frictionless device — no wires, you ask for a book and get it in less than a minute. The Kindle experience, however, is not simple — there are hundreds of thousands of books to choose from, there is serious power in the reading experience.
Just like politics and economics, computers are complicated. As consumers, we want them to work without understanding how or why.
Which leaves us glanceable truthiness. Slogans written on buses. Policy statements made on Twitter by POTUS.
It’s no surprise the Leave campaign was driven by data. Dominic Cumming’s description of the voter intention database will be familiar to any digital product manager. But rather than optimising a check-out process or a log-in, they were optimising voter behaviour. And in the US, Cambridge Analytica have been helping Trump do the same. Politics is being targeted at our personalities, so we’re given the messages that feel right.
As designers and engineers, we’ve contributed to a post-thought world. In 2017, it’s time to start making people think again.
So we need to find new ways of putting friction and thoughtfulness back into the products we make, without making them difficult to use. We need to start demystifying things and doing the hard work to make digital products thoughtful, transparent and legible.