What Humans Make - Physical Information - Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture (2014)

Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture (2014)

Part II. Physical Information

Chapter 7. What Humans Make

Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.


The Built Environment

AS HUMANS, WE ARE the source of much of the environment we live in, including roads, buildings, and cities, as well as the social interactions and relationships we have, which influence our choices and behaviors every day. Architects and engineers refer to the human-made structures as the built environment. Although there are certainly big differences between the built environment and the natural one, our perception of context comes from the same cognitive capabilities, whether we’re surrounded by towering skyscrapers or giant redwoods. From the human point of view, the products of our culture are separate from nature, but from the planet’s point of view, our environments emerged from the activity of our species not unlike an ant hill or bee hive. “There is only one world, however diverse, and all animals live in it,” says J. J. Gibson.[151] No matter how much plastic and electricity we use, our built environment is still made of substances, surfaces, objects, and events.

Even though people have been building things for a long time, the study of how cognition works among these structures is fairly recent. One landmark work is the 1960 book by Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (MIT Press), which presents a framework for analyzing the contours of urban environments and understanding them in human terms. It was the result of a five-year study interviewing and observing inhabitants of several American cities. Lynch’s focus was on the form of built urban environments—their physical, structural properties and the clues they provide.

Even though it was not an expressly ecological-psychology work, there are strong parallels between Gibson’s concepts and those of Lynch, whose elements of urban form (Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes, Landmarks) are preoccupied with how people navigate and learn the surfaces, objects, layouts, and places of a city. As a way of talking about coherent invariant cues, Lynch proposes the concept of imageability—the “legibility,” or understandability, of the urban landscape. Lynch also introduces a new use of an older term (previously used mainly for things such as navigation by compass and maps), wayfinding, for how people use sensory cues from the environment to work their way through it.

Lynch points out that “the image of a given physical reality may occasionally shift in its type with different circumstances of viewing. Thus an expressway may be a path for the driver, and edge for the pedestrian.”[152] This idea is similar to the shifting nested quality of the environment in ecological terms, and also similar to the idea of a creature’s umwelt. Lynch also found that, as people lived in a city longer, the elements in the environment they relied upon might shift from, for example, particular paths to a broader set of landmarks and nodes; in a sense, their umwelt changed over time, as their perception learned and internalized patterns.[153] Lynch also found that, even though his framework breaks the city down into components, people don’t rely on that sort of parsing; rather, they take it all in as one integrated environment.[154] More recent research reinforces that wayfinding is tied to embodiment, finding that people could remember more accurate details about their environment if they were more “cognitively active” way-finders versus “cognitively passive.” This means that people who drive or walk themselves places tend to remember more about the built environment than those who ride in vehicles that others are driving.[155]

Built environments might be perceived with the same principles that drive perception of the natural world; artificial structures can exert great influence on how people perceive a layout as a place or not. Recall the field and the stone wall in Chapter 3: in a sense, the wall makes a strong argument about what the perceiver should experience, splitting parts of the field into one place separated from another. We could do the same with just signage and names, as with a parking sign that indicates parking is legal on the left, but illegal on the right. And as we will see, in software, the language establishes the structure of the territory itself.

Over the years, wayfinding has become a design field in its own right. For example, a classic text by Paul Arthur and Romedi Passini, Wayfinding: People, Signs, and Architecture (McGraw-Hill), takes some of the essential ideas from Lynch and runs with them, adding more insights on how people learn urban places. Unlike Lynch, they add significant content focused on how signage in the built environment shapes how people understand it.

Alas, their book is now out of print. The bulk of books and materials on wayfinding now focus mainly on the design of signage rather than the intrinsic, physical-information qualities of buildings and cities. I bring this up because it’s important to realize that, for context design, physical information—the surfaces and objects of the environment—are core to how all creatures find their way and learn places. Signage is part of the semantic information we will look at in Part III. In the built environment as well as in virtual environments such as digital interfaces, the physical shape of our surroundings is what we perceive most directly, with the least explicit effort.


Kevin Lynch’s pioneering work on wayfinding relied heavily on a psychological concept called a cognitive map, a phrase that you will see often in research literature, usability guides, and experience-design textbooks and articles.

The phrasing is actually unfortunate, because it can lead practitioners to assume that users have something like a map in their heads that gets filled in as they explore an environment, or that they have a stable “mental model” formed in their brains. Even according to traditional cognitive psychology, these maps are not stable or necessarily accurate, and can be distorted depending on many factors. And yet, the metaphor of a “map” in the brain persists. But there is no literal cognitive map we can point to inside people’s brains, just as there are no representational “pictures” in the brain—and no brain-dwelling observer to look at them with tiny eyeballs.

It’s possible to memorize maps and make use of explicitly recalled semantic structures, but the typical wayfinding individual is using the environment itself more for recognition than recall, and attending to only the minimum information necessary. The body is significantly involved in the process of that learning. That’s why people don’t remember details of a traveled route as well if riding in a car compared to walking or jogging to their destination.[156]

One problem with many wayfinding studies is that they rely on recollection after the fact, using verbal and written data from interviews and surveys. By the time interview subjects have articulated answers into language, they’ve moved from tacit awareness to explicit deliberation, which might not accurately describe their actual perception-and-action during wayfinding. For the same reasons, this distortion can also be a problem for user-testing in software design: asking users “Why are you doing that?” often causes them to invent a reason they convince themselves is real.

Brains are, of course, involved in wayfinding and environmental learning, like all action, but it’s a matter of degree. When it’s crucial to memorize a map, the brain works overtime. Evidence shows that memorization of massive wayfinding data, such as what London cab drivers are required to do for their licenses, can actually cause the brain’s hippocampus to grow to an unusual size.[157]However, that is deliberate, purposeful memorization, as opposed to tacit engagement with familiar surroundings.

The environment itself serves as an external map of physical and semantic information cues, most of it beyond our conscious awareness. A city’s layout, culture’s language, and the ever-present activity of other people serve as extended-cognitive scaffolding that have the models already in them, without our having to keep them in our heads. The environment that makes up someone’s context is inseparable from their ability to understand, learn, and navigate that environment. All the more reason why we have to make environments that are coherently structured so that user perception can make sense of them based on what they present to the perceiver in the moment, rather than some hoped-for map in the user’s head.

The Social Environment

The built environment isn’t made by or for just one person. Look around you; almost everything you’ll see that’s made by someone was made in a social context that involved conversation or collaboration of some kind. Humans are deeply social creatures, and other people are a critical part of our environment.

For humans, other humans are a special class of animal—objects that are animate in the environment. Recognizing animals (and humans) as distinct and different from other objects is one of the first things human infants learn. As Gibson points out, they provide the “richest and most elaborate affordances” in our environment; “When touched they touch back, when struck they strike back; in short they interact with the observer and with one another. Behavior begets behavior.”[158] When things in the environment “touch back,” they are “interactive.” And human interaction is the standard against which we compare and comprehend all other interaction.

We tacitly attend to our social context all the time to see how others are behaving or where they’re going, to gauge our actions against what feels like the normal behavior. You’ve probably had an experience in which you find yourself standing in a line unnecessarily because you assumed you were supposed to line up with everyone else, or you went to dinner with friends with a resolution to skip dessert, but ended up eating one anyway because everybody else was getting one.

We also rely on other humans for much of our extended cognition and memory. A lot of what we assume to be objective reality is actually just what we absorb from the collective assumptions and perspectives of our respective societies; but like so many things that are deeply part of human life, we’re typically unaware of just how strongly the social environment affects our own thinking and behavior.

Classic social psychology studies, such as the Asch Conformity Experiments in the 1950s, have shown social pressure can cause people to believe obviously incorrect “facts.” In one famous example, subjects were convinced by participants (who were secretly part of the study) that the line on the left card depicted in Figure 7-1 was not the same length as line C on the card on the right, even though it was.[159]

Cards and lines like those used in the Asch Conformity Experiments

Figure 7-1. Cards and lines like those used in the Asch Conformity Experiments

More recently, studies have been showing that people are influenced in a more passive way, just by social behavior going on around them. One well-known finding from a few years ago discovered that obesity tends to be “contagious,” in the respect that the eating and activity behaviors of the people around us tend to affect our own daily habits.[160] This effect was later found to vary across cultures. Some were more prone to group pressure than others, but the principle still held.[161]

In another example, passersby dropped money in a street musician’s hat eight times more often when they observed another person donating. When asked afterward why they donated, none of them said it was because they’d seen someone else do it. They all constructed reasons on the fly, such as “I liked the song he was playing” or “I felt sorry for the guy.”[162] These discoveries underscore the fact that we’re mostly not consciously aware of what our environment is influencing, socially or otherwise.

Just using language describing the social behavior context can have a strong effect. In the United Kingdom, in an attempt to improve collections on delinquent taxes, the tax agency tried providing some social context:

In one letter HMRC appealed to people’s sense of civic duty. “We collect taxes to make sure that money is available to fund the public services that benefit you and other UK citizens,” it read. “Even if one person fails to pay their taxes it reduces the services and resources that are provided.” Another used actual statistics: “Nine out of ten people in Britain pay their tax on time.”

The results were dramatic: collections rates increased from 57 percent in 2008 to 86 percent in 2009, within similar portfolios of debt.[163] It bears repeating: these people were not physically watching others’ behavior; they were only reading about it, and yet that environmental pressure tacitly nudged them toward behaving differently in vast numbers.

There’s a seemingly endless stream of studies like these from the social sciences. I think we’re fascinated with them because we are consistently taken by surprise by how little truly independent agency we actually have. Of course, lots of what we respond to in the social environment isn’t physical information but the social narrative in which we’re immersed—things we hear or read about or the belief systems in which we’re raised.

Meaning, Culture, and “Product”

The built environment and the social environment are all part of what we loosely refer to as culture. Culture is something we don’t normally think about as culture. We take its cues and meanings for granted the way we take a tree or mountain for granted—it’s just there. Studying one’s own culture in an objective manner is a fairly recent concept.

Culture brings with it environmental invariants that aren’t always physical. In fact, the parts of our environment that we think of as culture are mostly nonphysical, even when they’re about physical things. Figure 7-2 shows the famous Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in Spain, which is a functioning edifice made of physical materials, but most people who have heard of it or seen pictures of it understand it as uniquely shaped with cultural meaning far beyond its physical form.

The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank GehryWikimedia Commons:

Figure 7-2. The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry[164]

Even a mundane object such as a mailbox has meaning to us that is mostly about cultural concepts. J.J. Gibson uses the mailbox as an example of something that affords action beyond its intrinsic qualities. From its physical information alone, a mailbox, such as the one presented in Figure 7-3, affords a simple concavity that can hold objects of a certain size, and that’s all. But, for a human who is “encultured” in using postal services, a mailbox offers the possibility of a more complex action—putting an addressed object into it, and expecting that the cultural system of postal services will take that object to the specified address. This is where cultural constructs and affordance overlap, from the first-person perspective of the perceiver.

A mailbox in DenmarkWikimedia Commons:

Figure 7-3. A mailbox in Denmark[165]

This rich bundle of compound invariants requires the existence of many social systems working together, from educational (people need to know how to read and write letters and address them) to infrastructural (there needs to be some organized mechanism for moving mail around, even if it’s just carriers riding horses), not to mention economies that offer the purchasing and using of stamps and other forms of payment. The complex systems of our cultural environment are built up from information that eventually traces back to affordances, which undergird all of our activities, no matter how brain-based and abstract they have become.

When designing a product, we are designing a new part of the human environment that will be placed within existing, living contexts made of other informing systems, whether those systems are towns and cities, or people, or other products.

If we think of the product as a newly introduced set of capabilities, nested within the environment, it helps to clarify how we should design the product. Does it add capabilities that complement those that already exist? Does it present itself as clearly relevant to potential users who can understand new things only in the context of what they already understand?

John Seely Brown, one-time technology chief for Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, better known as PARC, tells the story of how the early market for photocopiers was miniscule. Office workers were already making copies by using carbon sheets between pages in typewriters. They made all the copies they needed as they were typing the documents, simultaneously. A photocopier actually seemed to add complexity, requiring that you type the document first and then make copies of it on another machine altogether.

What the market didn’t grasp yet was the potential value of being able to make unlimited copies from a single original, and even copies of that copy, and so on, having created the document only once. Seely Brown explains that it took great marketing work to create the right cultural interface between the technical innovation and the market.[166] People had to be told a story that reframed how they understood copying to begin with. The structures of the existing environment that constrained the number of copies one could make had set cultural expectations about what copying business documents meant. It created intrinsic, tacit constraints on the value people could see. It wasn’t just the object that mattered, but the object plus the language about it.

Conversely, in a more recent example, consider the One Laptop per Child program. Founded on many laudable ideas, the program sought to put network-enabled, inexpensive, durable laptops in the hands of children in less-developed parts of the world.

But the product’s designers made the mistake of developing the OLPC laptop—the XO—based on sound-yet-unconventional concepts about learning, community, and computing. Even though the product won many design awards, it found low acceptance in its intended populations. Why? Because the product wasn’t really suited to find a niche in the nested ecologies of its intended market. These societies were already adopting mobile phones as their personal-computing device of choice, where marketplace conventions and community norms had already emerged around using SMS and other simpler cell-based communications.[167] If their children were going to learn how to use a laptop, they wanted kids to learn the device as a business and workplace computer. So, they preferred that children learn Microsoft Windows and other conventional business software, rather than the elegant, theoretically sound Sugar operating system of the XO.[168]

Writing about innovation, products, and business practices, John Seely Brown says, “Context has its own dynamics. It’s just like a garden. You can’t pick up a set of plants and just move them without understanding how the chemistry could be different, how the sun shining on the garden could be different. The whole notion of portability of best practices has been a major setback for understanding how situated technologies must be and how it is the content coming together with the context, and the interaction between the thing and the context, that produces value.”[169]

The beautifully designed but contextually mismatched, OLPC XO laptopWikimedia Commons:

Figure 7-4. The beautifully designed but contextually mismatched, OLPC XO laptop[170]

Affordances create information that makes sense for action only in the context of interdependent, nested layers. A product—whether it takes the form of a mobile app, a “smart” device, or just a plain, old website—is more than a list of features. It’s part of a whole, just as vision isn’t only the parts of an eyeball, but an organically nested system throughout the body. A uniquely human dimension that we so often ignore is culture. And culture’s interface with human life is ultimately language, which we will explore in Part III.

[151] Gibson, J. J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979:130.

[152] Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960:48.

[153] ———. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960:49.

[154] ———. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960:49.

[155] Mondschein, Andrew, Evelyn Blumenberg, and Brian D. Taylor. “GOING MENTAL: Everyday Travel and the Cognitive Map.” Access 2013;43:2-7. http://www.uctc.net/access/43/access43_goingmental.shtml. (Thanks to Bogdan Stanciu for this reference.)

[156] See reference in main text to GOING MENTAL: Everyday Travel and the Cognitive Map.

[157] Jabr, Ferris. “Cache Cab: Taxi Drivers’ Brains Grow to Navigate London’s Streets” Scientific American (scientificamerican.com) December 8, 2011

[158] Gibson, J. J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979:135.

[159] Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Asch_experiment.png

[160] Stein, Rob. “Obesity Spreads In Social Circles As Trends Do, Study Indicates.” Washington Post, July 26, 2007.

[161] Watters, Ethan. “We Aren’t the World,” Pacific Standard (psmag.com) February 25, 2013.

[162] Cialdini, Robert B. “Basic Social Influence Is Underestimated.” Psychological Inquiry 2005;16(4):158-161. Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

[163] Martin, Steve. “98% of HBR Readers Love This Article,” Harvard Business Review (hbr.org) October 2012.

[164] Wikimedia Commons: http://bit.ly/1xaxMA2

[165] Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Postkasse_ubt.jpeg

[166] One example of this story is found in JSB’s essay “Changing the game of corporate research: Learning to thrive in the fog of reality” Technological Innovation. Oversights and Foresights. Edited by Raghu Garud, Praveen Rattan Nayyar, and Zur Baruch Shapira. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997:95-110.

[167] Nussbaum, Bruce. “It’s Time To Call One Laptop Per Child A Failure,” Bloomberg Businessweek (businessweek.com) September 24, 2007.

[168] Gaurav Chachra “Who Actually Needs Windows XP on the XO Laptop?” OLPC News (olpcnews.com) May 2, 2008.

[169] http://www.johnseelybrown.com/evolutioninnovation.pdf

[170] Wikimedia Commons: http://bit.ly/1xaxUzF