If interface, then navigation

Usually, I can find my way to things. And sometimes, I even help other people find their way. I’m lucky to do that for a living. But when things find me, I feel completely lost.

One of those things was a piece of writing from Anne Burdick, called “If words, then reading”. It’s a small piece so I’m going to quote it here in full so you can appreciate the playfulness of it all.

If interface, then navigation. If disguise, then disclosure. If map, then itinerary. If resource, then use. If environment, then wayfinding. If plan, then practice. If erasure, then reconstruction. If sketch, then animation. If architecture, then dwelling. If capture, then release. If trace, then archeology. If program, then process.”

Some things, like that first line — “If interface, then navigation” — find their way into your mind, lodge themselves there and start nesting.

The connection, inside Anne Burdick’s mind, managed to colonise the word interface so completely for me, that whenever I mumble it, I automatically connect it to the end of that line — then navigation. It’s concept imperialism, is what that is. And each time that happens, doubt sets in, questions start flooding in. Are we doing the right thing? Are we that used to leaving breadcrumb trails for our users — a word I’m not at all comfortable with — that its effect has escaped us?

We like to think we’re building things people are interacting with. But are we really making stuff that users have to navigate through?

Coming back to that first line, it stayed with me because most of the people using what we build make the same connection. That’s why it haunts me. Because Anne’s association comes from the real world, not the world of design theory or practice.

But that can’t be right, can it? Navigation is merely a part of a structure-making process we use to handle information, mould it into a thing and release it into a space in which people can interact with it and make other things — the interface.

Shannon Christine Mattern recently published a solid overview of the term, covering a good spectrum of ideas from both an engineering and humanistic mindset. In that spectrum, the end of “If interface, then” could be a lot of things: space, zone, threshold, translation, semantics, interaction, even allegory and metaphors. Yet, we seem to have locked ourselves in one dimension, in which the sense of orientation — across time or space — absolutely dominates. A dimension that inherits its vocabulary from HCI and engineering, where clicks, tasks, hierarchies, usability and effectiveness are the norm. Where people are users.

And it’s this kind of jargon that crutches our own vocabulary instead of augmenting it.

Maybe Jason Santa Maria is right. Maybe we don’t have the language to talk about these things. If that’s the case, maybe we need a bit of a re-think, because — using Paul Dourish’s words — the whole “world can become an interface to computation”. And the world is a big word.

Looking through that lens, I can’t help but wonder: is this what we have done to the people using the things we make? Have we invaded the word interface so thoroughly, that they can only equate it with navigation?

We need a new design language because science and society aren’t polar opposites. Daisy Ginsberg
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