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Improved Discovery of Functions via Socialization

Some thoughts about when cargo cult behaviors by users may point to opportunities for improved design.

You have probably seen a comment on a website do something like:

Hello, world!
I am a block quote.

One common, simple styling of blockquotes is to throw a left border on them, maybe some indent, and call it a day. Even some rich-text-esque e-mail programs do that for quoting in replies.

Now you may have seen a comment on a website do something like:

| Hey, answer my question: what?

The answer is mu.

That use of the vertical bar (|; a.k.a. pipe; see Wikipedia: Vertical bar) is an example of cargo culting. People reading comments see the left-bordered replies and say, “okay, good, a distinctive way to quote exists,” but they fail to guess that the quote character is > (a.k.a. greater-than).

Still, if you see users cargo culting something, it tells you a couple of things:

  1. They think the behavior they’re trying to mimic is valuable for some reason.
  2. It isn’t easy enough for them to discover how to do it.

I nearly wrote “the right way” for [2] there, but if it were the right way, then it would be discoverable.

There are options:

  1. Adopt the cargo-cult attempt as the new way (or an alternative way).
  2. Implement a rich editor (e.g., with a shiny “quote” button).
  3. Make it easier to “view-source” of existing comments so users can see the secret sauce.

Something like [3] is the way to go in this instance. Let people learn from each other without explicitly needing to ask, “how?” If a user sees another with a fancy comment, they might dig into the source (when available) to see how it works.

This is the way we traditionally learn: observation. That’s how we learned to speak, and to a lesser extent how we learned to write and read.

In general, if you see mistakes being made with a piece of software that’s an opportunity for improved design. One source of inspiration should be video games. If you watch the commentaries from Valve Software’s games, they have a common pattern for learning game mechanics.

  1. Show the user the mechanic in action.
  2. Let them try it in a simple example.
  3. Trap them until they show they’ve got it down pat.

The games Portal and Portal 2 are chock-full of this pattern. You start out not even holding the portal gun, only learning you can move through portals. Then you only control one portal. Finally you learn to control both.

In more advanced puzzles you learn about conserving momentum to fling yourself, or in the second game how to paint with and make use of the gels.

Only after you have completed what amounts to a whole set of portal classes do you get to the part of the games where you are apparently fighting to win, but the whole experience (classes and all) are kept enjoyable.

We don’t currently approach general software in that manner. The first time you fire up Firefox, you aren’t presented with a puzzle of how to open a webpage, for example.

But maybe you should be.

Exporting the Western Standard of Living

Thinking about the arguments surrounding the developing world adopting a so-called Western standard of living.

One problem that comes up when discussing climate change is that non-Western peoples may want to achieve the so-called Western standard of living. The most prevalent example is meat consumption, but others (cars per household, etc.) exist as well.

Foremost, this points to cargo culting (the mimicry of behavior without understanding of its ontology/internals, and especially in a way that is doomed to produce no useful result). The cargo culting here extends to the West’s own desire to perpetuate its current consumption patterns (e.g., via the American Dream). Divorce standard of living from standards of consumption, and what remains?

Quite a lot, actually. The principles of the standard of living have much less to do with consumption and much more to do with stability, opportunity, etc.

Let’s look at the bucket list meme. The idea that you will die, and that you should do some set of things before that happens. That set is colloquially your bucket list: things to do before you kick the bucket. What should this portion of a standard of living look like?

Eat ten thousand (more) hamburgers? Win the lottery? Be elected to the office of President? Learn alchemy? Can we separate consumption-based goals from non-consumption goals? Or is the entirety of what is to be found in a bucket list consumption-based?

There are obviously a finite number of lotteries, elections, etc. Even for a pilgrimage destination as big as the Grand Canyon, could we ever deliver close to a majority of people to that destination (sustainably)?

Again, it seems like, cargo culting. That what we’re after is maybe happiness or maybe something else, but not consumption. That we need not have two automobiles per family to meet what we think of as a Western standard of living, but instead we may need to provide adequate opportunities in education, leisure, travel, etc.

The latter can be sustainable.

I sincerely hope that the Western standard of living isn’t so shallow as to require a certain amount of meat consumption, for example. Protein consumption? Maybe. But we can and should meet that standard through means other than meat where we can, especially in lightening the ecological load.

So yes, we should export the standards of reliable supplies of food and potable water. Education? Undoubtedly. But for many other pieces that get lumped into the American Dream, not only should we not export them to the developing world, we should excise them from our own daily lives.

Atop the ironies of exporting the Western standard of living, particularly that of the USA, is that our standard isn’t as high as it should be. We’re currently seeing the results of one effort to reform health care in the USA. But we have far to go on that front. Hopefully developing nations will adopt more useful metrics for how they live, and these can be imported into the West as they develop.