When Design Doesn’t Mimic Life
Exploring the dangers of abstraction
I’ve tried to swear off grumpiness, I really have.
Without any diagnostic rigor, I’ve accepted that being a curmudgeon comes with age. Within the topography of digital design, I’ve found plenty of landmarks to direct my cynicism toward. Addiction, privacy, sustainability, isolation, and greed are all easy targets for my disdain. They are the usual suspects, the low-hanging fruit.
However, from this ornery vista, allow me to reveal a silver lining. Often, what begins as grouchy thought can end in meaningful conversations. Once I allow my cynicism to fade, I’m sometimes left with a purified idea worth contending with.
Why begin with this pseudo-wise word vomit? Because what I’ve begun to realize is that there is always a taproot beneath my surface-level gripes about technology. Like an elementary math student, I’m left with a common denominator between what can feel like disparate issues. It’s taken me years to connect the dots and arrive at a topic that has unified all prior grumblings: Abstraction.
Meta, right? Throw out a big, nebulous word like abstraction and watch eyes glaze over.
If you’re still with me, I’d love to spend a bit of time elaborating on what I mean by abstraction, what it has to do with digital design, and why I think we ought to be mindful of its power.
Guilty by disassociation
Webster’s defines abstract as “disassociated from any specific instance.” But our digital landscapes are marked with what can feel like concrete associations. If you click this thing, this other thing happens. This is the foundation of interfaces: associating words or images with actions. We hypothesize that the right configuration will foster the right association, and in our industry, we call this user experience.
This art of educated guessing has grown into such a robust area of study, not to mention profitable industry, that we rarely doubt its objective suggestions. UX research leads us to believe that we are working within sound frameworks built on common knowledge. Let’s reexamine this assumption.
Take an example for reference: the action of liking an image on a social platform. This is an extremely common online interaction, one we rarely even have to consciously think about; this quick tap has become like muscle memory. It may seem new, but this action existed in the physical world before it existed on the internet.
In pre-Instagram times, the way we saw images from the moments of life we chose to capture were through tangible exchanges. We flipped through a photo album, leafed through a stack of polaroids, or looked at a wallet-sized gallery of prints. These interactions were usually paired with a narration of sorts (with some commentary more tedious than others).
To “like” an image in these ancient times, we had to turn to a person and say, “Hey, that’s a great photo!” or “Wow, can you believe their face?” We didn’t double-tap someone’s forehead to convey our emotions; we either told them directly or we didn’t. My point is that this action wasn’t disassociated from the object with which we were interacting. We saw an image and then we reacted to it, often face to face, with the creator or owner of that image. Or we had an internal thought about the image and kept it to ourselves or told a friend about it later. What we definitely didn’t do was travel to our town square, climb to the highest point, and with a bullhorn declare, “I, Jeremy D. Cherry, like Bob’s photo!”
Other digital examples, such as adding an item to a digital cart or sharing a post online, are similar when examined. Adding an item to a physical grocery cart involves a tangible object; we can see the bananas when we toss them into our cart, and we trust that they are real. When we share a post online, it’s easy to see the analogue action in real life. Sharing a story with someone involves a conversation. We may preface the story with an explanation or voice our confidence, or distrust, in this story’s accuracy prior to sharing. There’s a layer of personal, embodied nuance.
I’m not saying that abstraction is bad. At times, it’s unavoidable. But what I am suggesting is that abstraction should not supplant our in-person interactions or be conflated as such.
How is our psychology affected when daily online actions are further abstracted or disassociated from the offline world? For example, our double-tap on an Instagram image isn’t the same thing as turning to a friend or neighbor and commenting on how good their hair looked in that video. Likewise, adding three T-shirts to an online cart isn’t the same thing as pacing around a physical store debating whether we need those clothes or not. Our digital choices have real consequences in our physical existences.
An imaginary generation
Why waste time pondering these situational observations? To me, the distinction between the abstracted actions we have online and the tangible, physical task they mimic is one of growing concern. I think that there is tremendous cultural loss when we equate, or conflate, the two.
As a father, I’m growing increasingly more aware that to younger generations, some of these abstractions are rooted in tangible interactions of days gone by. Some actions that have traditionally had necessary and healthy social ramifications within communities have now become inconsequential noise.
Comments, compliments, and insults can be distributed via online platforms without ever seeing the impact of their reception. Mainstream media has covered the dangers to younger generations when it comes to online bullying and consequence-free communities. However, online platforms cannot avoid abstraction. In fact, I would argue this process of disassociation is foundational to their purpose. We are interacting with pixels and avatars, not sharing the same physical space and air with flesh-and-blood humans.
Along the long human arc of time, the internet as a form of communication is still very new. Screens lack all the hallmarks of a meaningful conversation. Body language and emotions cannot be quantified as ones and zeroes, nor can they be facilitated by a platform. We often forget that in our online lives, 90% of the time we’re interacting with an algorithmic middle-man, not another human being. This makes our relationships even more disassociated from the people involved.
Only by becoming aware of these realities can we begin to acknowledge their effect on our lives and the toll they could have on our relationships. Online tools have become masters of formulating an infinite network of acquaintances while eroding meaningful relationships that happen outside their servers.
The constraints of being human
Designers talk a lot about constraints. They are the necessary rails upon which we travel. However, we don’t talk enough about the constraints inherent to being human. We assume that the human psyche is evolving at the same pace of technological advance. In reality, I fear we may have outpaced our ability to abstract our relationships to people and things online.
You may be asking yourself, what can designers do about this?
First off, great question. Let me assure you that I think this is a burden too heavy for the design community to shoulder alone. But because designers are intimately involved in decisions related to how communities interact with interfaces, we have a great opportunity to educate the people we serve.
How now shall we design?
What do we do with this tension between the abstract and concrete? How do we design more honestly and humanely?
- Don’t abstract the humans out of your process.
- You’re a human; start acting like it.
- Build infrastructure around real community.
1. Look for the people in the process
The fact is that humans can be straight-up lazy. Yes, a solid FAQ section can answer a lot of questions; however, it will never replace a meaningful conversation. Chatbots can point you to information, but they can’t offer an anecdote for why that information matters. Don’t allow efficiency to abstract the humans out of your process.
2. Get personal
The reality is that it takes less time and cognitive effort to double-tap that photo than it does to write a meaningful comment. Opt for the comment. Say something personal rather than just adding to the algorithmic noise of the internet. A thoughtful comment is far more conducive to a meaningful interaction than another integer next to a heart symbol. Even better, comment on images in real life. Tell the photographer how much you love the photo, in person, with your mouth. Crazy, I know. You’re a human; start acting like it.
3. Audit for abstraction
Take a hard look at the products you are designing and ask if certain actions are too far removed from your desired outcomes. Don’t design labyrinths leading to dead-end web copy when facilitating a conversation with a human would be more meaningful. Build infrastructure on what is most beneficial to fostering a real community, not on what will save you the most money.
A better way is possible. It will take more effort. It won’t be as efficient. It may even cost you more money. However, it could lead to a healthier society of people who aren’t preyed upon by the designs they interact with. We have a choice to pursue design either with hope or with fear. May we always choose hope. Hopeful design teaches us that there are real people in real places existing in real time behind everything we create.
May we design with purpose.