Ambiguity clouds meaning that design can help to define

I recently had the pleasure of attending this year’s dConstruct conference for a day of great company and insightful talks on the topic of communicating with machines. At this point you might be expecting my run-down of the day but thankfully lots of other people have that covered so instead I’m going to deconstruct a conversation I overheard in the ladies’ loos.

In a space often privy to juicy gossip, this particular exchange between two fellow female delegates centred on the rather mundane problem of how to turn on a tap. Specifically, there was an expectation that this tap would be “automatic” and confusion when this was not the case, followed by further confusion over how to actually turn the blasted thing on.

Hidden in my cubicle, I was bemused: what was it that was causing these undoubtedly bright and tech-savvy minds to stumble on such a simple task? Especially a task that many of us are privileged to perform tens if not hundreds of thousands of times in our lifetime?

Design is not a trivial matter

This question is not as trivial as it might first appear. Indeed, e… industries have been built around it and in my role as a user experience architect it’s a question I confront daily in the digital realm. Neither is the problem itself a trivial matter. Not being able to turn on taps quickly and easily (or even at all) has ramifications for public health: it is one of the almost infinitessimal factors in disease outbreaks and thus indirectly affects potentially billions of lives on a fundamental level. Of course, I’m using the tap as a metaphor for almost anything we interact with – the principles apply equally to books and websites too.

As I emerged from my private public space I decided to investigate the cause of this conundrum (not least because I was primed to tackle a confusing hand-washing experience myself). As I surveyed the sanitation tools available, I found a case of bad design through ambiguity. Of course that statement is itself rather vague, so I will do my best to define what I mean as clearly as I can.

Bad design: is ambiguity to blame?

So what it is about the configuration above that conjures up the umbrella term “bad design” and why blame ambiguity? For starters, we can see that the spout and handle have similar shapes and dimensions. They are also made of the same material and this combination of factors makes them difficult to distinguish visually. In isolation, this might not be enough to make you doubt which is which, but the picture above is incomplete.

What I haven’t shown is that this was one of several identical taps overhanging the long trough-like basin: a collection of visually similar objects with entirely different functions (spouts v. handles) all positioned together in a neat horizontal row. In this configuration, the meaning of each object (i.e. whether it is a handle or a spout) becomes unclear – perhaps the handles look a bit like broken taps, or they are positioned where we expect the next spout to be – and we become confused over how to interact with them.

Great expectations

And what about the expectation of “automation”? What exactly was expected and why? Approaching this expectation literally renders it rather odd. Staying true to the etymology of the word – from the Ancient Greek αὐτόματον (automaton) meaning “self moving, self willed” – a truly automatic tap would be pretty useless. Such a tap might spout water whenever the tap itself willed it, rather than whenever you wanted to wash your hands. Using a commonsensical approach, however, it seems clear that the actual expectation around “automation” was that the input should be an electronic sensor rather than a mechanical device.

But where did this particular expectation come from? Was it simply formed through previous tap-interaction experiences or was there something about the design of this particular hand-washing area that afforded the assumption? As I finished washing my hands and scanned the room for a way to dry them, I couldn’t help but think back to an earlier talk by Luke Wroblewski who impressed on us how the inputs for our digital devices are tending from the humble duo of mouse and keyboard towards infinity. It’s seems it’s not just computers that suffer from this problem, but bathrooms too.

As the digital realm permeates spaces previously dominated by mechanics or biology (not necessarily a one-way process, anthropomorphic toasters, anyone?) and opening up a raft of exciting new design challenges.

Design clarity not ambiguity

Ambiguity, like fear, is a path to the dark side. By shrouding meaning in confusion, ambiguity leads to misunderstanding and ultimately suffering. As designers, communicators – and even simply humans being – we have a duty to constrain ambiguity, to reign it in where possible and thus avoid propagating negative experiences.

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