I’m travelling to America for the first time this week. A trip i’m greatly looking forward to. It will be a chance to meet some old friends again and, doubtless, to make some new ones. Whilst i feel excited at the prospect, i feel little trepidation. The US is a ‘familiar’ country: not from first person experience, but through the media, through friends, through books and through a (reasonably…) common language.
To put it bluntly, whilst i don’t know how the New York Metro ‘works’, i do know that i’ll be able to ask someone or read the map in English.
Travelling to Shanghai was a totally different experience for me a few years ago. It was most definitely ‘different’. In fact, almost everything was new and strange, from the language, to the icons used on road signs, the smells, the food, the architecture, the notion of personal space and a hundred other things. Even when i was lost, i found it hard to ask anyone for help (although people fell over themselves to be helpful and we tried to forge the usual shared language of hand gestures, talking loudly and saying ‘MacDonalds’ repeatedly.
The point is less about my lack of linguistic ability and more about the power of commonality. This is true when moving between continents and cultures, but equally true when navigating virtual spaces, online learning communities or forums. Comfort is built through understanding common conventions and language, symbols and concepts. It does’t have to be perfect, but the better the ‘fit’, the better the communication is likely to be.
We can do some things to reduce the uncertainty of new environments, but borrowing features, language and concepts from familiar ones. This is evident throughout technology: bugs, browsing, finding ‘home’, these are all concepts borrowed from the real world to help build understanding in the virtual one (the story of how the earliest computer was bought to a halt by a moth sitting on a connection somewhere may be apocryphal, but i love it anyway: hence ‘bugs’!).
One thing that we should be particularly aware of is whether our design concept enhances and supports this idea of familiarity, or whether it challenges it. For example, if you are producing a Coaching training piece, you want the overwhelming experience to be about Coaching. Using a cluttered desk for the navigation interface may look nice, but it may be missing the point and introducing uncertainty.
Similarly, when writing, we should consider the audience and the message. Why are we using the words we use? Are they useful, or are we propagating jargon? Specialist words, ones that we love to use ‘in the trade’ are great for sharing understanding, but only if you are ‘in’ the loop. Sometimes plain English is the best approach.
Communication is based on commonality. Ensuring that our sites and solutions try to build on shared understanding, that our language is accessible, that visuals support concepts and that everything supports the message, these are all things that will enhance usability and understanding. Obvious i know, but sometimes the clarity gets lost along the journey.