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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.

2020: When Computers Will Look “Over There”

Wherever you are right now, go somewhere else in your head. In some near-tomorrow you will be able to do the same with your computer.

Wherever you are right now, go somewhere else in your head. If you’re in your home, think about a different room. If you’re not at home, think about a room in your home. You can probably look around the room a bit, remembering all the parts of it. Now you can probably go to some shelf or drawer and look around there.

You don’t have a perfect replica, but it’s good enough that you can remember, right now, where some remote object is. And if you went there right now, you would find that object where your brain said it would be.

This is a highly developed skill of the brain. So developed, in fact, that quite a few people use mnemonic device called the Memory Palace (Wikipedia: Method of loci) to allow them to memorize information rapidly and recall it with ease. But our computers currently rely upon the use of textual bits to demarcate things like files and folders.

If we’re forced to give the location for something, we tend to speak relatively: “down the hall, third door on the left, the big bookshelf in the corner with the taco bookends, second shelf from the top.” We don’t say, “the room called var, the piece of furniture called games, the shelf called board games, the object called dominoes.” (Okay, we do say roughly the last part.)

That’s all going to change. Let’s say you have a next-generation, non-invasive Brain-computer interface (Wikipedia: Brain-computer interface). Suddenly the computer can listen for you to “say” something like, “open that thing over there.” It can store a mapping for what “over there” means, and it can use your reference to it to trigger the mapping and get the data you want, without you needing to remember the location in the computer’s terms.

This will allow the computer to manage more of the problems that are currently shared between computer and user. And it will make computers easier to use.

But it will do some other things, too. It has the potential to overturn education, by having the computer help in your learning in a way that only the best teachers currently do.

Take, for example Kickstarter: Zombie-Based Learning: Geography taught in Zombie Apocalypse by David Hunter. This looks to be a great example of traditional teaching. The teacher uses their creativity to generate a compelling narrative for the material, setting the proper pacing, activities, etc. so that the kids all learn and retain the knowledge.

With computers, and a BCI (Brain-computer interface), the computer can help people to store memories in ways that will maximize their recall. This will initially happen in some rudimentary ways, like flashing pictures that are composed from a variety of images thought to be uncanny enough to help in memory. For example, a clown in a fish bowl, next to a fish in scuba gear.

But that may give way to better schemes where the computer has image representations of some of the places it knows you remember things, and it could suggest you add the memories in those places. It could also quiz you by flashing the location and asking you to show you remember what you should.

Passwords might consist of a challenge/response, where the computer flashes an image and you have to recall another image at some place in the same sequence.

Brain-computer interfaces represent a major leap forward in what computers will be able to do for humanity. They are on the horizon, and they are undoubtedly an epoch. Just as there is the world before the Internet and after, there is the world before widespread BCI and after.