Reading the signs

March 13th, 2010 by Jay Shaw Leave a reply »
Typical eye movement across a page

The track of a typical eye movement across a screen or page of text

I am in the middle of a series of signage articles on Slate. The first article in the series, The Secret Language of Signs, is worth reading and got me thinking in a number of different directions.

One road it sent me down was the idea that we are always looking for signs that reinforce our feelings of exceptionalism, be they political, professional or personal. Being special seems to be a psychological imperative.

In the learning and development world, we go so far as to grant post-graduate degrees in instructional design, incorporating ideas from graphics, psychology, organizational behavior, adult learning theory and various bits of technology research and development, among other specialty areas.

But I wonder if we sometimes lose sight of how much it’s the form factors we work with that determine layout and flow and therefore the logic of everything we do rather than our own choices. If we work within the constraints of certain screen sizes, resolution options, latency and bandwidth limitations, toolsets, widget libraries, etc., there are ineluctable limits to what we can achieve no matter how cleverly we arrange the deck chairs.

For example, those of us who regularly use Bloomberg terminals know, whether consciously or not, that all headlines are limited to 70-odd characters and that the first four paragraphs of every news story are short and generally follow the same pattern: the lead paragraph will set and explain the title, the second will give a telling detail (sometimes with a quote from a principal), the third the business context and the fourth will feature a quote by an authority figure of some kind. The reason? Four fairly short paragraphs are what fit on the screen and the title limit is what works without roll-over.

Given those constraints, the story paradigm works for everyone and allows brokers and traders, a group of people who I am sure have the highest incidence of attention deficit disorder on the planet, to flick through the news fast. The result? There are now two whole workplace generations of finance and government people who read this way, scrolling from story to story, screen to screen.

When GSM SMS became ubiquitous, Chinese phone companies started selling subscriptions for daily affirmations and other piquant, character limited, daily texting services written by authors with strong points of view — some wrote on love, some gave workplace advice and some wrote mini-novels, in effect narrative snippets with ever changing casts of victims, heroes and villains. It worked. A number of the SMS series authors ended up millionaires, buying pricey villas in the foothills north and west of Beijing. The phone companies did all right too.

Services like Twitter, Rypple and Yammer are, conceptually at least, direct descendents of the Chinese SMS services and share the same kinds of character constraints — though the constraints are arguably somewhat artificial in the world of browsers.

At one point talk was that one-minute daily soap operas would become NTT Docomo’s killer mobile phone application though I don’t think the Japanese have gotten quite that far yet.

What telco insiders call “feature phones” went one way. Computer-based instructional design went other ways. Adobe’s Flash technology gave toolset makers a brilliant platform to create authoring tools like iSpring, Articulate, Coral and Adobe’s own Captivate. The new Ajax, Quicktime, Silverlight and HTML 5 standards will no doubt push developers in yet new directions for browser-based user interface design.

There is a great deal of literature on this, including the classic on design: Dr. Edward Tufte on anything to do with visual presentation and recently on iPhone/iPad design (click here for one of the good doctor’s posts). There are a million informed opinions on PowerPoint design for general presentation purposes and for learning — shorter bullets, no bullets, lots of text, pictures only, no pictures, things that fly in and out (or don’t), emotive pulls, frequent knowledge checks, end-of-presentation recaps, and on and on. There’s so much advice now and so much of it conflicts that it kind of boils down to: “Show me an opinion and I’ll show you a study that supports it.”

More recently, Swedish academic Hans Rosling’s brilliant presentation technology takes us down entirely new roads (I think Google has bought the rights to some of this). And research projects like the study that created CMAP Tools are truly a gift to the world, very powerful stuff.

On the phone front, only about one in seven mobile phones are smartphones. Of those, almost half run Nokia’s open source Symbian technology. Right now, a very small percentage of the universe of mobile phones actually run Apple, RIM, Microsoft or Android operating systems. This will change. As prices come down, smartphones will take more and more of the market.

Today’s conventional wisdom says it will end up being Apple’s iPhone vs. Google’s Android (see The New York Times feature article Apple’s Spat With Google Is Getting Personal for more). Conventional wisdom also says Microsoft will lose and Symbian will become the third world’s provider of choice simply because Nokia controls so much of the market infrastructure (nobody is hazarding a guess on what exactly will happen to RIM). Bill Gurley of Above The Crowd predicts that Apple will become, well, the Apple of the smartphone industry while Google will become the Microsoft of the industry.

Assume that’s all true for a moment. And assume that mobile does become a primary distribution channel for learning. What happens then?

First, your current tools probably won’t port nicely and some of the work toolset makers are doing to create “Publish to iPhone” or “Publish to Blackberry” options won’t look very good or be happily accepted by end-users unless the toolset makers bite the bullet (points) and redesign from the ground up. This means that a lot of the sophisticated interactions, simulations and fly-ins and outs will need to be dumped. As fun as they are, they’re just too busy for the small screen. Visually simple things that work on 3×5 screens will need to come to the fore.

Second, think even more simple, like old school flash cards (the people at smart.fm do this very well — with extremely simple front ends and extremely sophisticated back-end logic that governs the frequency, sequencing, speed and intensity of items to be learned). Think repeating or rephrased text blocks delivered over days and weeks. Think talking heads with short, easy to digest points — like the nightly news or Japanese phone soaps. Think simple, pedagogically sound questions — yes/no, true/false and single answer/multiple choice but nothing complicated to struggle with on a little screen. No drag and drop, double or triple Likert or other visually complicated options. Think searchable knowledgebases with very well designed taxonomies — no Google style searching required. Just click through a logical progression to get where you need to be.

The winners will be those who are willing to throw away what they already have and instead quickly master and bend Apple’s iPhone SDK and various emerging best-practice Android and RIM development standards to their own uses.

At least this is where the signs are pointing.