Designing Information Environments for Adaptation
Information environments communicate with individuals through increasingly complex interactions. Custom predictions and recommendations are ubiquitous to internet shopping and entertainment, phones send location-based notifications, and objects are becoming smarter. To make these networked systems possible, designers are attempting to understand humans through complex data and patterns. Common themes emerge from a synthesis of evidence from systems theory (Steven Strogatz’s book Sync), embodiment (Richard Perloff’s book The Dynamics of Persuasion), and network technologies (Anthony Burke’s essay Redefining Network Paradigms and John Seely Brown’s lecture Learning, Working & Playing in the Digital Age). The following overlapping themes provide a framework for designing new information environments. Representations simplify ideas, often denying the complexity of information. Second, simplified information often neglects the regulations and hidden factors that shape interactions and decisions. Third, technological developments provide new ways to adapt to individual preferences and needs. Designers face new responsibilities to facilitate communicative relationships between new information environments and individuals that provide transparency and agency.
Mental shortcuts provide ways to access information with little effort but also neglect details and relationships. Quick information retrieval occurs in what Richard Perloff refers to as peripheral route processing, or cognition that involves quick examination and simple decision-making (2003, p. 133). In these situations “people [often] look for mental shortcuts to help them decide whether to accept the communicator’s position” (Perloff, 2003, p. 136). This processing is frequently based on past experiences or assumptions.
Visual icons representing large concepts are one way of retrieving information quickly. Paul Baran’s diagrams of centralized, decentralized, and distributed networks identify common conceptions of computer network structures (see fig. 1). Generalized diagrams explain ‘big ideas’ of networks, but provide little insight for an audience into computer networks themselves. Computer networks communicate through layers of complex structures that transfer information through many processes. Chaos is also often pictured in a generalized fashion – Steven Strogatz points out that chaos is assumed to have no order when chaos is “a state that only appears random, but is actually generated by nonrandom laws” (see fig. 2) (2003, p. 185). Chaos is now viewed as nonrandom because previous representations of chaos did not match the actual complexity of the systems.
Models simplify concepts and leave out critical parts of relationships. To analyze nonlinear systems “the whole system has to be examined all at once, as a coherent entity (Strogatz, 2003, p. 182).” Understanding complexity provides designers with opportunities to identify areas in information environments where individuals may process information peripherally, leaving out important details. Designed touchpoints can engage users in interactions that trigger deeper thought when beneficial. These interventions require caution—they could be tremendously useful in situations where individuals make important decisions that require serious reflection, but could also be a nuisance during mundane daily activities. If designers build systems that acknowledge complexity, these systems must also be constructed in a manner that acknowledges and incorporates complexity itself. At this level of complexity the role of the designer shifts from designing environments that communicate information to designing environments that identify individual needs, adapt to those needs, retrieve relevant information, and communicate with individuals about this information.
Simplifications often exclude many of the systems and processes that allow functionality. For example, rules and regulations operate in many aspects of everyday life, but are often ignored because of familiarity or habit. Alexander Galloway defines regulatory structures of the Internet as protocol, “a language that regulates flow, directs netspace, codes relationships, and connects life-forms” (2006, p. 75). Protocols are necessary for networks to operate but not always explicit. People view webpages daily; however, forms of regulation (such as HTML and CSS) that make the webpage possible are rarely though about. Because protocols are a necessary part of information environments, designers must understand their implications and visibility for an audience.
Regulations are not confined to network technologies. Like protocols, peripheral cues are significant but frequently ignored due to peripheral processing. In persuasive communication, peripheral cues are subtle functions that may persuade an individual in a certain direction. A study conducted in 1999 by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer shows results that low-involved voters considered candidate appearance, endorsements, and familiar names while voting (Perloff, 2003, p. 143). Peripheral cues are also complex—understanding the ways in which people process information can complicate predictability because “persuasion factors perform multiple functions” (Perloff, 2003, p. 155). Designers must acknowledge the presence and complexity of peripheral cues to develop an information environment that better understands individuals. Regulatory functions in information environments are present at many scales, some relevant to every individual who interacts with an environment and some to a particular user. Designers must make decisions not only about what protocols are suitable in a specific environment, but also how an environment makes individuals aware of rules and regulations.
When designers develop methods and parameters for intervention in information environments, acknowledging the uniqueness of individuals must be taken into account. John Seely Brown recognizes that the web is “the first medium that honors the notion of multiple intelligences,” providing different deliveries of information that consider user preferences and learning styles (1999, p. 5). Perloff’s explanation of persuasive communication “instructs communicators to tailor their arguments to audience members’ motive and abilities (2003, p. 155),” also supporting different ways to communicate based on audience. The possibility for adaptation raises an important question: will new information environments require individuals to select their type of intelligence or will this be something the environment will identify and adapt to?
Systems that can synchronize communication with individuals have promising opportunities for interactions. All systems of wireless communication rely on synchronization: for example, the radio “tune[s] to a particular station [and] locks the receiver to the frequency of the broadcast transmission” (Strogatz, 2003, p. 193). Lou Pecora’s development of synchronized chaos provides a method that can be used to encrypt messages and hints at a private communication system. Strogatz identifies synchronized chaos as an idea that “really could be used to enhance the privacy of communications” (2003, p. 200). If information environments already synchronize communication using systems that negotiate between the environment and individual in real time, systems that identify how to adapt sound plausible. These opportunities enable designers to utilize large, diverse information distribution systems that act based on recognized individual preferences at touchpoints. Possibilities of new technologies, the way people understand how they interact in their environment, and the simultaneous presence of order and complexity in systems require designers to understand an information environment in itself, but also its role as part of larger complex systems.
Representations and icons often simplify ideas, ignoring relationships and complexity present in the system. Rules and regulations are rarely foregrounded in processes of simplification. By understanding that humans have different needs, designers can create adaptive systems. New information environments that embrace the difficulty of complexity have opportunities to provide individuals with effective and relevant technological interactions. Designers can use an understanding of relationships and systems to anticipate points that may initiate interactions, but these interactions are executed through the environment rather than chosen by the designer. Transitioning to designing for flexibility and complexity is a great responsibility with great promise. New technologies gradually provide more humanized and accessible systems, but successful system designs will require more knowledge about how humans can and should communicate with information environments. As complex as technological systems can be, designers can’t forget that many natural systems are incomprehensibly complex, including ourselves.
Burke, A. (2007). Redefining network paradigms. In A. Burke, T. Tierney, & T. T. Anthony Burke (Ed.), Network practices: New strategies in architecture and design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Galloway, A. (2006). Protocol: How control exists after decentralization. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Perloff, R. M. (2003). The dynamics of persuasion: Communication and attitues in the 21st century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Strogatz, S. H. (2003). Sync: The emerging science of spontaneous order. New York: Hyperion.