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Ambient Findability, HCI/d Theory, and "Bitpools"

January 18, 2006

It was a really crappy morning today, and my car was covered in about an inch of snow and ice. Knocking off all the snow and ice, navigating the treacherous parking lot, and then crawling along the roads at a snail’s pace made me late for a spin class, which I was secretly grateful for.

Many of the smaller roads were pretty well obscured at this hour, and it made precise navigation difficult without such obvious guides as curbs and road markings. This coupled with the fact that my windshield fogged up and froze over made visibility very difficult, thus affecting the “findability” of my destination in a sense, even though I knew the way exactly. It’s easy to see how this situation becomes an enormous obstacle for someone new to the area.

As it happens, I’m reading a book entitled “Ambient Findability” that covers the incredibly important topic of helping users find information in systems that you design. In a sense, this is a book that I’ve been looking for since I got interested in HCI in the first place. This book, and the concepts it discusses, are at the core of what I consider my concept of HCI/d theory to be (or at least the aspects of HCI/d theory that I concern myself with.)

So, just as a warning, I’m actually doing five things with this post:
1) Bitch about my rough morning
2) Talk about this cool book
3) Talk about my thoughts on HCI/d theory
4) Complete an “Essay on HCI/d theory” that I need to finish for an upcoming class.
5) Relate these topics to Erik Stolterman’s notion of bitpools (which I’ll get to later)

The book, as it turns out, is an O’Reilly book, which speaks to its quality. However, this book is not your typical O’Reilly fare. It is more of a layperson’s guide to understanding the bases for the design of information finding/providing sites and services.

Fundamentally, HCI/d theory concerns itself with characterizing methodologies geared towards improving interactions between man and computer. Focusing on improving the interaction modality and context will assuredly lead to a better experience, but I believe the wording of “improving interaction” is too broad a characterization for what we’re actually trying to do as HCI/d professionals/academics.

Humans, as commonly entertained opinions suggest, are incredibly greedy, impatient, and self-centered in one way or another. This notion could probably be softened up with some politically correct terms, but I’ll leave the words in the pejorative, so as to underline the “worst possible case of user”. As computer system designers, it is our goal to “give people what they want/need, when they want/need it”. Designing for optimal interaction in this context can quickly become difficult or even impossible if this essential focus is not kept. Single user systems are quite adept at handling certain informational needs, but multi-user co-operative systems can quickly become difficult… not because of technological concerns, but because of participant interaction and interference (like dominating a control interface) that leads to reduced efficacy. In a sense, these systems fail because they are not able to satisfy the informational needs of a given person without interrupting/interfering with the interaction “dialog” of another. The most popular form of multi-user interaction may be games, where the whole point of interaction is to dominate/interfere with the “goal-state” of another user. Then there are “ambient devices”, which Richie studies. These devices are meant to convey information that is not directly focused on by the user. However, the main challenge with these systems is that they do not explicitly give information to the user when they need it, but rather rely on a user to identify the device trends as they relate to a given informational abstraction (for instance, Richie has an “ambient orb” that gives the time by illuminating in a shifting series of colors over the course of a day). So, these two areas have very large impediments to an effective interaction… one system cannot always adequately satisfy the informational needs of a given individual because it will often interfere with another (co-operative systems), while the other does not actually give information to the user when they need/want it (ambient devices). …nothing personal Richie, just fleshing out some ideas here 🙂

The basis for this exchange is a dialogue between the user and the system on terms that they both can understand. Every form of dialogue is like an interface, which our brain tries to pick apart and produce a strategy from. The brain will then try to enact the interaction that produces the greatest possible gain (at least the greatest gain possibility the brain is aware of). An “optimal” system will not only provide a means of easily accessing this option, but will also make the user aware of potentially better gains that could be enacted through different means.

The notion of ambient findability is one of both “active search” and “passive recommendation”. Morville (the author of the book in question) uses the metaphor of “push/pull” to distinguish the nature of each method. On one hand, push interfaces, such as recommendations, guide you towards the best gain. Pull interfaces, such as search/hierarchy browsing, pull you into a navigational interaction. Unfortunately, a lot of “push” interfaces are ads, which can often serve to undermine the “gain” activities of the user. However, Google has shown how an intelligent push model based in part off of user information seeking goals (Adwords) can become an enormously useful (and profitable!) endeavor.

Ambient findability also serves as a convenient method of considering interactions with the “bitpool”. The bitpool(s) is an abstract notion of a digital data source or stream coined by Erik Stolterman. The idea of a bitpool is meant to give a “material” notion to digital information in the context of design, much like “wood” is the material of a master furniture designer. The term bitpool ultimately seeks to draw attention and respect to the craft of creating human computer interactions, rather than to the underlying protocols and techspeak that punctuate most discourses on technology. Bitpools and ambient findability are attempts at characterizing the interaction materials and considerations in the context of design, but do not need to be thought of as completely exclusive… or even complimentary in all cases.

However, thus far I think of ambient findability as forming the very bottommost basis for my understandings of other forms of HCI/d theory. There are certainly many more theories that extend an understanding of HCI much further, in more detail, and in much broader contexts than what I consider. However, as we move further into the data overloads of the information age, these notions and related methods of ambient findability should serve as two of the most important skills that an interaction designer should seek to develop.

From → HCI

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