Is the Medium Impacting The Message? (Thoughts on Kate Hartman's TED Talk: The Art of Wearable Communication)

Discommunicator by Kate Hartman
Image taken from TED talk

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This week is all about Reader Requests. If you have an idea for a post, drop me a line and it might get written (with attribution, of course).

This first one comes from @bethmaru who suggested that I take a look at a TED talk by Kate Hartman on The Art of Wearable Communication.

Wearable Communication.
Not wearable communication devices.
Wearable communication.
Well, then. I was intrigued.

Kate Hartman has been developing prototypes of various clothing items to improve communication. Like a hat that helps you hear yourself better. Or a funnel that lets you fight with another person by letting them hear your angry tone without feeling the sting of your words. (That one is pretty powerful) Or how about a suit that lets you hug (and listen to) a glacier, thereby better understanding the natural world around you.

Bizarre? Extreme? Yes.
Effective? Definitely.

Ms. Hartman explains:

we're in this era of communications and device proliferation, and it's really tremendous and exciting and sexy, but I think what's really important is thinking about how we can simultaneously maintain a sense of wonder and a sense of criticality about the tools that we use and the ways in which we relate to the world.
Yes, the medium is the message. We need to keep in mind what we're using and how we're using it to really understand the impact it has on what we're doing. Here's a for instance: picture a work setting and consider how the following activities could change your interactions with people and your ability to communicate effectively:

  • Writing an email
  • Using instant messenger
  • Talking on the phone
  • Meeting in person
Now, go through that list again and consider two different scenarios:

  1. Your project is going well.
  2. Your project is off the rails.
The outcomes of your interactions with other people could be remarkably different in either of those circumstances: they could be skewed not only by how you choose to interact, but also on the context surrounding the interaction.

Now think about this from a designer's perspective. If you were to design an effective system, site, app or product, you would need to consider your user and their context of use. What tasks are they trying to accomplish? Where are they when they are trying to complete these tasks? How are they trying to complete the tasks? Etc.

But that's not enough.

We often forget to step outside of ourselves and to consider more than just the process itself. We forget to ask: how does the current system (or lack thereof) make them feel? What is the emotional reaction to their current circumstance? Is the system making a bad situation worse? Is it making a good situation bad?

If we only examine the tasks, we can forget about the person completing those tasks. Oh, sure, we might have created personas and identified their backstory. But once we start analyzing the workflow, do we remember to bring their personality with us through the steps to see how s/he would react?

Consider: The most effective exercise I ever used in a workshop was called: "Break the IA" (IA = Information Architecture). In this exercise, small groups of participants each created a detailed persona from a different target audience group. The groups then did a role play, pretending to be their persona, calling themselves by their persona's name, and walking around the room to various stations representing the different content groups in the website architecture, physically completing the path that the user would take through the website. Using coloured markers, they indicated their actions and emotional response at each station they visited. We received comments such as,

  • And this is where he got p*ssed off and went to Google. [with Google logo]
  • And here is where she poured herself a drink. [with martini drawing]
  • And here is where he found exactly what he needed. [with smiley face]
  • And here is where she left the site, never to return. [with angry face]
Sure it was role play, but it enabled us to consider the human context, not just the words on the page representing tasks. It enabled us to really listen to the experiences these people would be having. Of course, this was role play based on audience research; it would have to be validated with proper usability tests. But it was a critical moment for the client. It was the first time our client tried to adopt the mindset of their own clients and realized that what they had come up with in the bubble of their offices would not meet the majority of their user needs. And they needed to start over. They needed to go back and listen to their clients. As Ms. Hartman says: "the most satisfying experience I've had is the act of listening, which is what we need in any good relationship." A good relationship with your colleagues, your clients or even your family.

So here's your challenge (and mine!): This week, whatever you're working on, step outside of the technology and focusing on the impact of that technology on people's ability to interact. Is it helping? Hindering? What can you do to make the interaction better?

To paraphrase Kate Hartman: Can you examine the technologies you use to interact with the world with a sense of wonder and criticality? Imagine what you (we) might learn!

Kate Hartman on The Art of Wearable Communication:

FYI: Join me Friday, April 12th at the Ottawa Public Library Main Branch Auditorium for a FREE lunchtime session: "Hacking is a mindset, not a skillset." For more info and to RSVP, check out the event details.