Heuristics, Literacy, and Interfaces

Like in many thoughtful corners of the web, folks enjoy discussing education and the process therein. This should come as no surprise really. With readily available information on anything and everything—from immediate search results to coding tutorials to talks given by experts—the heuristic process is perhaps the single most relevant exercise for personal, intellectual growth in the 21st century.

A heuristic process, for clarification, is a sequence of events designed for a single individual to discover and learn information for oneself, by oneself. The user, upon completion of the events, is brought to conclusions via a set of instructions or a narrative. Heuristic processes, as a result, are interactive, requiring input,which guarantees immediate output or feedback from the system, from the user.

Moreover, during a heuristic process, brief conscious and subconscious problem solving techniques (as input from the user) occur that are based on the individual’s previously learned skillset(s).

A skillset I find particularly fascinating in this DIY age is literacy. Commonly known as ‘reading and writing,’ literacy is the backbone of the educational process. Because, as we should know, everything begins with language. Many of us were all once there in fact: First, we listened to family or friends read picture books to us, then we practiced penmanship. If we were lucky, we memorized rules of grammar and increased our vocabulary, and later we read books on our own and wrote book reports. Reading skills eventually developed into writing skills. We paid close attention to words, details, and their meaning.

A mentor of mine describes the two modes of literacy operation this way,

Reading broadens; writing sharpens.

And while I find this wisdom to be terribly true, I think literacy can mean more. It can mean not just reading, but observing. Not just writing, but doing. Literacy thus becomes the heuristic process of seeing the world and attempting to tame its turbulence.

Comic Books

When I was an undergrad, I studied some comic books for my senior thesis. In my research, I unexpectedly came across a book that made me think about literacy and the way we not only read, but pay attention to detail.

In Scott McCloud's graphic novel Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, he parses out the visual-lingual syntax and semantics both writers and readers consider when engaged with comics.

In the same way that we first read pictures in children’s books, McCloud suggests that the simple forms and lines of cartoon characters registers a universal language. One first reads pictures—symbols and shapes. Then one reads (English) text—left to right. Then follows a narrative—rising and falling. McCloud's commentary on the combination of words and images was the catalyst for how I began to think about literacy; and ultimately, how I wanted to teach English. I began to understand particular characteristics of the way we see, not just with words, but with layouts and design and details.

What became apparent when reading comics was that I wasn’t involved in orthodox reading at all. I was half-scanning, half-noticing, picking up words and images simultaneously, processing two mediums at the speed of a normal visual process. I wondered about discovery.

Back to Literacy and Heuristics and Interfaces

With a fresh, redefined sense of literacy I reasoned that if I was to become an English teacher, I needed to teach more than words. More than Shakespeare. More than poetic devices and literature. Hell, even more than Kerouac or Ginsberg—and they’re like—my idols.

I was to teach literacy—the heuristic process of seeing and doing, which would lead to an ultimate sense of empowerment.

And literacy (newly refreshed as an idealistic, and maybe unfortunate, model of democracy) could be broken down, I decided, into this heuristic process of looking for oneself. It could pull education out of the institutionalized gutter.

But when it comes to objects, what are we exactly looking at? Where are we to look? What is there to find?

Well, considering UX, design, and connectivity, I reason that literacy could be taught in terms of interfaces—that object or system an individual approaches and interacts on a singular level. We deal with interfaces every day, and depending on their modes of operation, interfaces usually greet individuals with a usually opaque heuristic process that begs for unveiling.

Ubiquitous examples of interfaces:
- The computer ⌨
- The book ☹
- The smartphone ☎
- The television (or cinema) ✂
- A blank sheet of paper and a pen ✍

Here’s an awesome timeline—built with Verite’s Timeline JS code—about Revolutionary User Interfaces’ inventive past.

Of course, these are basic, rudimentary systems, each with their unique flavor of interactions, content, and processes. But for the sake of the ‘figuring it out,’ we need to consider these interfaces in terms of their similar heuristic conventions—that is, the way interfaces lead individuals to information is paramount to redefining and reteaching literacy.

Other interfaces, too, should be considered. Why not pretend a painting is negotiable? Is interacting? Why not think that the movie or television show you’re watching involves you as a leading role? Here, the imagination is absolutely pertinent to literacy’s growth and potential.

An Interface’s Narrative

The first matter at hand when entering into a relationship with an interface is: Where do I begin? Where is the relationship to the object generated?

A book layout—or any print layout, for that matter—is the simplest example of its origin. There is a cover, a title, publisher details, the table of contents, paragraphs, sentences, and page numbers. Each navigational element defines the iterative steps in the heuristic process.

Once the invisible map is at least recognized as being somewhere, even if it is not fully understood, the narrative begins. Always. In everything that we experience there is a story. And this, I believe, is the point: Literacy, a heuristic process, is meant to derive the seemingly invisible stories from the details.

Considering literacy in terms of the interfaces we engage with will broaden the scope of what reading can mean, and thus deepen the possibility of autonomous, critical thinking. Magazines, windows, pictures, paintings, websites, applications, smartphones. Even if you can’t interact with the interface, you need to believe interaction is possible. This is critical. To pretend that static objects are indeed static is to stifle the thinking process—the heuristic process—to literacy.

Students once told that every interface is negotiable then might have some new critique or application. If literacy is discussed more broadly, the subjects invited into conversation become almost limitless. ‘Reading’ then can work for just about anything. For anyone. Based on your experience, your observing skills, and eyes like an owl, perhaps literacy can go beyond interfaces as well. Screens, televisions, movies, comic books, smartphones, paintings. Or, even: dialogue, body language, a situation, an offense, a defense, a code, a public policy, a t-shirt design.

Each time we make contact, a story can be heard or made; and depending on the skills and willingness of our heuristic propensity to enter the context of literacy, we have the ability to listen.

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