Structuralism and a Pattern Language for Online Environments

Rachel Aliana
The Startup
Published in
4 min readMar 10, 2019

Common interaction patterns.

Words shape how we think about problems. In 2016 my co-founder Sal and I built a mobile app called Adjacent using Eric Reiss’s lean-start-up method, and we used words like minimum viable product, beta test and UX research. This meant we would build a feature, test it, change it, and test again. Each iteration was slightly closer to a successful product. But this process was reactive, time and development intensive, and extremely stressful.

With each new feature designed, it felt like we searched for a light in a dark room not knowing whether what we sought would look like a lamp or a flashlight. We needed a way to proactively connect what interactions people wanted with how our platform should be structured.

We needed better words.

At the same time I was also in graduate school at the University of Michigan. I was not supposed to be building a start-up. I was supposed to be working on my Masters thesis, which was to map how coffee shops, universities, and incubators in Ann Arbor created an innovation district. My research showed sometimes people who were in the right physical spaces were more likely to become successful entrepreneurs.

This sometimes disquieted me. Something magical happened when smart people were close to each other, but the data points only revealed the what and not the how. Here, too, I saw urban analytics professionals were caught by words like data points, clusters, nodes, and anonymous aggregation. These words could be used to build and analyze detailed maps of phenomena, but could not be used to understand how the pieces connected together.

Here too, I needed better words.

While I was supposed to be finishing up the last grammatical tweaks on my thesis, instead I started to analyze the data I collected over again. This time, I developed spatial interaction patterns of how people’s individual mental models changed based on their interactions in physical space. The idea of spatial interaction patterns brought with it new words to explain innovation districts, like paradigm generation, attention lock, and trust accumulation. The magic of how individual interactions came together to create thriving entrepreneurial hubs came into focus.

Rachel Aliana
The Startup

Interaction Writer and CEO of Adjacent