Previously I blogged about Nootropic Medicine and other aspects of our evolving understanding of the mind and the resulting impacts of this technology on education. I’ve also written about Virtual Words, Mobility and other emerging technology. I noted in my posting on mobile technology that the cultural readiness factors in distributing a technology are just as important as the feature set. The need for a common language and cultural base to understand the technology is just as important as the concept itself.
This evolving cultural understanding of technology merits continued discussion. Recent linguistic research has uncovered a tribe in the Amazon that lacks key concepts related to numbers in their language. In fact their linguistic development seems to prevent a cultural understanding of basic concepts related to historical events, storytelling and mythology. This is an extreme example of limitations imposed by language. I recall from my own language studies when I took on an intense Arabic immersion program that there was a point where the thoughts in my brain switched over to Arabic. I dreamed in Arabic. The constraints on my vocabulary gave me the experience of a world of fewer colors, contrasts and shades. Conversation with educated peers including discussions over policy and politics moved to extremes simply out of the lack of the ability to express the nuances of our positions.
When we consider the rapid pace of technology change for users and consumers of technology it is really impressive just how quickly people have adapted. I believe that we have too often mistaken adoption and usage for understanding. The brilliance of Apple and Google in the last decade have been to understand that key difference and use it to reshape how we interact with technology.
Users may appear comfortable with web browsers, twitter, iPhones, YouTube and Facebook based on their usage. Careful examination of user behavior may determine that users are not fluent with the technology, but are instead working by rote memorization along a predetermined path. Users may appear to be quite sophisticated, but upon careful analysis actually have a limited understanding of the tools they use. Their knowledge gained by trial and error may not be actual knowledge but just well trained reflexive responses. Expose them to something unusual and these users will often fail to reach their goal. We can look at things like the variations within usage path, observing how users recover from being directed away from normal paths, and their adoption and usage of features to measure their real understanding of the tools and technologies. The impact of working to understand and measure users can be seen in a number of “2.0″ technologies from the last few years. In understanding the true fluency of users application developers and technology innovators can create huge cultural shifts and build amazing new things.
Consider the cases of the Google Chrome Browser and the Apple iPod. Google creates sophisticated user profiles through adwords, search queries, gmail and their other services. This profile enables an understanding of how users consume web content and interact with one another. Using this data Google has been able to create a new browser called Chrome. It is my view that the success of Chrome comes directly from challenging the assumptions about how a browser works, and optimizing the experience of web browsing towards the user rather than attempting to teach them to use existing features better. Designers of early web browers made a number of assumptions about the utility of features and how the user would interact. These shaped the culture of the browser and how other future browsers would be laid out, until Google Chrome emerged. To highlight a few of the things one expects consider bookmarks, the URL bar and the homepage. Designers assumed that you would navigate primarily by means of entering in URLs (e.g. http://www.johnfontaine.com/), that you would want to maintain a list of those URLs (e.g. a bookmark), that you’d want to navigate multiple windows at the same time (tabs, browser windows), finally we assume that you would have a “home page” that you define and personalize which would launch into the world. Yet in studying users we find many of these assumptions are wrong. Many users open their browser and search. Firefox introduced the search box in the upper right corner, but Google was the one to really push it home by asking how often you really will enter a URL anyway. Bookmarks are not used, and the adoption of truely personalized home pages remains low. When we look beyond this to technologies like RSS and Feeds we find that while some users are benefiting adoption is still quite low. Chrome has addressed some of these issues by rethinking the model. Rather than fight the behavior of failing to understand the ability to make URLs and bookmarks; Google supports you. Second Google knows that outside of searches many people stick to a few common websites (a local newspaper, a favorite blog, perhaps some site featuring photos of cats with captions). When you open Google those sites are simply there. You don’t need to bookmark them or take any action. The result of understanding how users were using the capabilities and optimizing around them; has resulted in rapid adoption of their technology.
As a second example consider the original iPod. I think this illuminates a second pattern at work here which is the cultural and community aspects created through the deeper understanding of users. An early tech geek reviewer wrote, No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame. Yet the device triumphed over every MP3 player out there and ultimately rewrote the rules of music, pdas and smartphones. I think this resulted directly from focus on culture and user fluency and form over function. Either through luck of design and intent the combination of the iPod and the iTunes music player/store into something that simplified the user experience to a core set of use cases and also provided legitimacy to a previously underground practice. The filesharing culture of Napster and other sites was replaced with a legitimate outlet of iTunes and an easier experience than the pre-iPod MP3 players. In setting aside the gadget elements and focusing the user and cultural experiences of music Apple was able to mainstream a technology gadget and breakout of the commodity PC corner of consumer electronics.
Lest you think this is easy read this fascinating insiders history on Microsoft Bob and how an attempt to simplify the user experience and make things culturally relevant fell flat.
I invite commenters to cite other examples of optimizing products towards users even after the product appears to have become mainstream. If you were looking for other examples consider researching the Wii, SalesForce.com or other recent breakout products. Based on my early usage of the Apple iPad I think Apple may have found yet another technology that wasn’t quite aligned to the fluency of the population as a whole with regard to the technology.
I have a lot of thoughts and examples on how this relates to the world of the VLE. Following from previous discussions though I invite readers to post their own meditations, or argue with my reasoning above. To layout a framework for discussion:
1) How do you profile your users (students and instructors) and what are you doing to improve their experience
2) A recent report from the US Department of Education indicated that 53% of instructors felt undertrained in the technology available in their classrooms. What can be done to lower the barriers in current technology and encourage more widespread adoption.
3) The VLE (Moodle, Sakai, Bb, etc) has evolved in a common ecosystem of early adopters and designers. In this model there are a number of features and capabilities considered “standard” (much like the browser homepage, bookmark and URL entry). Comparing these capabilities to usage patterns which ones do you consider most in need of reform / revision or simplification?