Beyond digital – affordance of everyday objects revisited

We are immersed in a world of usability issues. They are all around. From objects we use everyday in the home to the positioning of turnstiles at some of London’s tube stations.

Shower-tap control

My first bugbear is the shower control at the Oasis Sports Centre in Convent Garden. I use the outside pool in winter and getting under a hot shower quickly is a priority. The shower tap control mechanism consists of two rings, one controls water pressure and the other, temperature. Which is which is unclear to me and it takes a number of attempts to achieve the desired temperature. This is usually achieved after blasts of, either ice cold or, very hot water. After more than a year I have not yet achieved mastery of the mechanism. Am I slow at learning or is the learnability of the device weak?

In-flight entertainment remote control

On a South African Airways flight recently I found the remote control for the in-flight entertainment system practicality unusable. I struggled to turn it off, and once off, I struggled to turn it on again. I could not find any correlation between the symbols on the remote control and what was expected to happen on the screen. This annoyed me to the extent of vowing (unreasonably perhaps) to not use the airline again.


I’m not implying that either of these devices are deficient because I could not use them at first attempt. The problem could simply be me. The Frenchman in the adjoining seat on the flight to Johannesburg showed me how to turn the in-flight entertainment system off and appeared to be at ease with the remote control.

This troubles me slightly for as a user experience designer I see myself as someone who should be able to understand how things work. Should I not be skilled in decoding a designer’s intentions when using their inventions?

But this is liberating for it illustrates how we apply our mental models onto things around us. What I take from this is that as a designer I should be an observer first, and observing my own behaviour is a good place to start.

It would be revealing to get 5 people in a room to test these two devices. The results should be very interesting, if only to shed light on where I, as a designer, stand in relation to others, and whether it is unreasonable to regard myself as a typical user.

Complexity, Infographics, and Filters

A collection of apparent disparate thoughts on complexity, infographics and filters and a casual attempt to tie them together.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes:

For the ideogram is an inclusive gestalt, not an analytic dissociation of senses and functions like phonetic writing.

It reminds me of a remark by a journalist and ex-colleague:

As information goes digital, people are becoming more visual.

I’m not sure if this was her own observation or a quote. It sounds like something Marshall McLuhan may have said – clever, puzzling and provocative. I’ve never come across this statement again, but in my work as a designer I think of it almost every day. What does it mean? My interpretation is that in the digital age people will read less, and increasingly respond to patterns and abstract symbols in a direct and instant way as a means of understanding.

I’m hopeful to discover the author of this quote someday. I think there is something in it, especially when considering the appearance of infographics and icons on digital interfaces. I see it as a new hieroglyphics, the beginning of a meta-script for the digital age, understood by all.


The world is too complex to take in at a single glance. I get overwhelmed quickly when thinking about the issues we face, and our seeming inability to solve large scale problems: new models to address mass transport, food production, green energy, wealth distribution, pubic health, work life balance etc. Maybe this is the wrong approach. High complexity needs deconstruction to digestible chunks, or abstractions, that can be understood and manipulated, formulating solutions then becomes possible. We need lenses to deconstruct the immersive complexities that numb our senses and thinking.


Infographics provide a lens that we can use to digest complexity in a simplified and ‘aesthetic’ manner. The aesthetic appeal is perhaps key because of the challenging nature of some data sets. “Information is beautiful,” a new catch phrase, which seems an anomaly or a graphic designer’s obsession with beautiful surfaces perhaps. Data is a mental object, its beauty rests in the thinking patterns we invent to understand it. We now live in a world where we have tools to actively mine data, it seems that all this data is not making us smarter or enabling us to make better decisions. In a world of diminishing resources there should be no justification for making decisions not based on verified information that lead to real world improvements.


Everyday objects can be used as filters to explore complexity and to selectively filter information. For example, take the hardwood used on the neck of an electric guitar. Where do these trees grow? Are there communities and animals affected by cutting down trees that need more than a hundred years to mature? Mobile phones are interesting, considering there are more of them on the planet than us. What are the impacts of mobile phone related mining and manufacturing on communities, and the environment, from Africa to China? Every object we see exists as part of a complex web that extends far beyond us in both space and time.


We need more data visibility and ‘free’ knowledge to make better decisions faster. We live in a world were we need facts about the products we buy, for every product we use represents the end of a journey, traveling to the origins of those journeys you’ll more than likely end up in a troubled place.

My hope is that the start of the ‘visible data age’ is the beginning of such a world. The flip side is a world where databases are a new kind of ‘mineral’ and if old models are anything to go by …