On User Conditioning and OS X Lion
It’s time for another look at two of my favorite tech industry companies and their respective approaches to a user-centered design problem: how to get something adopted by millions of people who have existing expectations for “how things work”?
In the left corner we have Google, search giant and recent social network-cum-everything company. In the right corner we have Apple, widely acclaimed leader of industrial and user interface design, purveyor of things with few buttons.
Both companies have a history of tackling the aforementioned problem, which in a nutshell revolves around user conditioning: the act and process of getting users to behave according to patterns of your choosing, optionally changing any existing behavioral patterns they may have. Note the sternness of this: it most definitely goes beyond user education, in that it rarely sets the goal of the user being more well-informed, and focuses instead on getting the user to be better off—although “better” is defined by those doing the conditioning and may not, in fact, mean better off to the user.
However, our two tech companies are not in the business of alienating as many people as possible, hence their approaches to user conditioning both have the goal of delivering a better long-term experience for the user. Note that their respective beliefs in what a better user experience is may still differ.
With the just-released new Mac operating system, OS X Lion, Apple has reversed the direction of scrolling content within windows to match how we interact with content on touchscreen devices. In essence, where pre-Lion we would scroll the viewport around the content—scrolling down moves the content up—now in Lion and on iOS alike we scroll the content itself whilst the viewport stays put: scrolling down simply moves the content down.
On Twitter, much of the buzz around Lion has revolved around this switch. People are used to their scrolling behaviors; after all, they’ve used them in one and only one way since the 80’s—or whenever they started using computers. It’s understandable that this complete reversal of (mental and physical) muscle memory doesn’t appeal to everyone. But although Apple have helpfully provided a toggle in the System Preferences that allows you to return scrolling direction to pre-Lion days, it’s unlikely they will ever reverse their stance on this matter. To them, there is no question as to which way is the “truly right” way: scrolling should scroll the content, just like how we interact with objects in the real world.
Now recently, I’ve been having repeated arguments over a certain user conditioning that Google has employed in their Google Calendar web application. Frequent and heavy GCal users no doubt see this as a non-issue, perhaps even love it especially, but every time I use it I feel friction and resistence to the conditioning I experience. I’m referring to doing a single click inside the calendar view—day, week or month, it’s all the same.
In Google Calendar, a single click anywhere inside this view—which occupies about 80% of the entire page—creates a new popup dialog that asks you if you want to create a new event at the time or date you clicked. Mind you: this is a click just on white, empty space. What Google are saying to you, the user, is this: every single pixel within a day’s visual area is a button representing an “Add new event” control.
The age-old convention of controls being represented by buttons—however they’re implemented and styled—is being spat in the face. In Google parlance, a button control is whatever they think is most fitting for whatever interface they happen to be designing.
Whilst I personally consider this to be a highly questionable design practice to live my professional life by, I think I have a certain appreciation for it. I believe, but have no evidence whatsoever to back this up, that the designers at Google made this decision to optimize and strongly encourage the process of making new events in a calendar. This is an easily defensible decision with which I won’t argue (beyond what I’ve said so far). No doubt they had some numbers indicating that people made more events this way.
If this is indeed the reasoning Google’s designers used, then the user conditioning comes into play in simply making it impossible for you to change the interaction model of Google Calendar to work any other way. It’s very much an “our way or the highway” approach, so you better get used to it.
This is actually perfectly fine. Sometimes we are better off trying to encourage (mostly) everyone to use one and the same method of interacting with our products, rather than trying to cater to the wildly varying expectations and desires that people have. Simplicity, in the long run, has a tendency to overcome many such challenges.
But I think there is more legitimacy to Apple’s conditioning, if for no other reason than that they’ve done this many times before, and in almost every case they have set the standard that would later be adopted by the rest of the industry. Think about it: Apple conditioned us to forget about terminals and command-line interaces. Apple conditioned us to forget about floppy disks. Apple conditioned us to forget about parallel ports and adopt USB. And now Apple is conditioning us to rethink the way we scroll our content, but also, the need for disc drives and physical media.
All of their acts of conditioning have helped Apple’s bottom line in some way, but they have also been made with a more long-term vision in mind. Command-line interfaces are not for all but very few of us. Floppy disks had outlived their usefulness; same for parallel ports. Physical media are slowly dying off thanks to more efficient and less environmentally-unfriendly online distribution. In a nutshell, the tech industry has benefited at large from the things Apple conditioned us for.
But user conditioning is not a goal to set too often; resistence and friction breed unhappiness. That said, sometimes it can be employed for very good reasons—as long as you consider the long-term effects of your decisions.
The Scott Adams Fallacy
“… society is organized as a virtual prison for men’s natural desires. I don’t have a solution in mind. It’s a zero sum game. If men get everything they want, women lose, and vice versa.”
This quote stems from a somewhat recent blog post by Dilbert-cartoonist Scott Adams, wherein he displays a deep lack of nuance and sensitivity on the issue of gender theory. Adams took turns writing about rape, adultery, discrimination and plain old juvenile “boys will be boys”-style behavior, and managed to offend all but those whom he calls his “regular readers”—people who, according to Adams, have an “unusually high reading comprehension” but who are, by any discernible fashion, merely people who happen to agree with his views.
Adams begins his piece with a metaphor to the titular “pegs and holes”—unintentionally ambiguous, to be interpreted as either reductionist, sexist or both—and remaps it to the animal kingdom, from where he next journeys onto a path of flawed conclusions, unrepentant generalizations and outlandish claims. The rapid succession of offenses are weaved together through baffling twists of logic, which surface to the realm of common sense just occasionally enough that you would be forgiven for wondering at times whether he’s serious or just writing an incredibly clever piece of satire. Unfortunately, his conclusion reveals the former is the case, putting him into the spotlight as a high-profile sexist writer.
But Adams is hardly unique in his views, as his frequently-referenced “regular readers” prove. What, then, makes his argument so persuasive that it blinds so many from the more obvious truths? Regrettably we needn’t look far, nor possess a degree in psychology to understand it.
What makes Adams’ rants on these matters compelling to some people—and thankfully it truly is just “some” people, not “most” or even “many”—are the various kernels of truth that can be found amidst the nonsense. Adams’ tactic, conscious or not, is to first make you more agreeable with him by seeding you with an obvious and thus highly-agreeable truth. (You can see this more clearly in a later follow-up he posted) Then, he feeds you with dilemmas that intrinsically favor his argument rather than a fair and scientific hypothesis, and presents them in extremes so that you’re nearly forced to agree with him (because disagreeing would be agreeing with the unthinkable). By this time, a less-critical mind will be all buttered up and ready to agree with just about any conclusion, and that’s when Adams presents you with… a drug that keeps all men chemically castrated.
So much for rationality.
Perhaps Adams thinks that most men’s sex lives are so unrewarding that they wouldn’t mind abandoning sex altogether in favor of suppressing the “unfulfilled urges” he claims all men have in our society. A society which, as cited above, is apparently “organized as a virtual prison for men’s natural desires”. Whatever the reasoning is, and however it might reflect on Adams himself, it brings to light the fundamental fallacy he propagates.
Boiled down simply, Adams’ rhetoric is this: “Men are animals that can’t help themselves. I don’t misbehave, and can therefore state without remorse: it is up to other people to fix the ongoing gender problem in our society.”
Adams pats himself on the shoulder about donating to women’s causes, being pro-choice, et cetera. But donating to women’s causes does not preclude you from being sexist; it just means you have a healthy mix of empathy, generosity and wealth—and thankfully not so much misogyny that you’d actively choose against women’s causes. When it comes to people like Adams, such proclamations of support are little more than paying lip-service to absolve oneself from accusations of sexism.
So what does Adams do when he then is called a sexist for his writing? He maturely reaches out to, and eventually has two interviews with, women from some of the online publications that accused him. Unfortunately, that maturity didn’t last long because throughout both interviews, Adams displayed such a high level of evasiveness and hypocrisy that the only noteworthy outcomes of the interviews were the women’s patience.
Let’s be clear on something: being sexist is not a binary matter. It’s not an either/or character trait; it’s a scale. You can be a little sexist, and you can be a lot sexist. You can even be a paradoxical sexist, wherein you honestly, deeply believe that you’re not sexist at all, yet still say or do things that are sexist in some way.
And another thing: sexism has worse connotations than are truly implied. Being accused of sexism does not mean you’re being accused of being a rapist or murderer, but many men, throughout online discourse, react and behave as if that’s the case. It’s not.
Sexism is predominantly a problem of awareness (more specifically, a lack thereof); not one of nefarious scheming by the collective male demographic. More often than not, the accusation of sexism is short for “you don’t know what you’re talking about and have clearly not spent much time researching or understanding these matters, yet you are behaving as if you are an authority on them and in doing so you are being quite offensive.”
The accusations of sexism at Adams’ address are directly aimed at the sexist post he wrote, which was a piece in which he took to the stand as if he had any authority on the matter at all (he doesn’t), and proclaimed “The Truth” of the situation. Really, all he did was name the common fallacy after himself by being the most high-profile example of it.
The core of the Scott Adams Fallacy is the notion that the onus can be placed upon others. The idea that “science will come up with a drug” to solve the problem of rape and “men’s natural desires” is merely a cowardly step back, a way to avoid having any responsibility in the matter.
Well here’s some news for Mr. Adams: he’s responsible, too.
We all are.
Society is not a carefully crafted concoction by the world’s combined legal systems; that’s merely what keeps it all running. Society is us. You and me and the people around us. We are all responsible for what it looks like. We are all responsible for how it acts, behaves and treats the individuals that are a part of it.
Our society is not designed as some sort of prison, least of all one for men’s desires. It is, however, still heavily skewed towards gender stereotypes. Young girls are to be clad in pretty pink dresses that must be kept pristine, while young boys are allowed to play in the mud and get themselves dirty. Girls can expect dolls for Christmas; only boys want toy cars, trains or woodworking tools.
From a very young age, our society encourages predetermined roles for each gender, casually building people up to fit in as invisibly as possible. But equality is not about fitting in. Equality is about being able to be yourself, whoever, however and whatever you want that identity to be, and have the exact same opportunities in life as the person besides you.
Cliché as it is, society is what we make of it, and that includes how willing we position ourselves to understand, respect, and, treat as equals, the people of a different gender.