The Role of Language in Placemaking (Hey You Got Your Map in My Territory)
My presentation at Midwest UX 2013 in Grand Rapids, MI. The theme was all about "Place."
This talk explores how language is a crucial foundation for how we create and understand places, whether virtual or real.
Philadelphia, from the 1683. It was drawn up by an Englishman named Thomas Holme, based on the direction of William Penn. Holme was the ﬁrst Surveyor General of the new colony of Pennsylvania. Holme had met Penn after having joined the Quaker movement in Ireland. Penn had received a charter for a huge tract of land in the colonies from King Charles the 2nd, as a partial payment of a debt. He wanted to create a settlement that wouldn’t need city walls, so he worked to forge good relations with the Lenape, the native people of the area. As a Quaker, William Penn had experienced persecution for his religious beliefs. But unlike many religious ﬁgures who went on to found colonies that persecuted others in turn, Penn decided he wanted his to be free of religious persecution. He envisioned a city where all people, regardless of religious belief, could live together in peace. had a somewhat utopian and for the time really progressive vision for this little “towne,” laying it out on a gridiron, to give enough land to each landholder that the buildings would be more like the countryside than the crowded cities of England. It was the most extensively pre-planned settlement in America at the time. Holme had initially named the horizontal streets after prominent landowners in the town, but as a Quaker, William Penn felt it overly prideful to have streets named after individual citizens. So he decided to name them after trees found in the area: Chestnut, Walnut, Mulberry, Pine and so on. The streets going north to south were numbered, but Penn’s Quaker heritage may have been why there is no “First” street in Philadelphia, but instead the ﬁrst one closest to the river is called “Front” -- after the Delaware Riverfront, and the numbering starts with 2nd Street. - Another street - the main thoroughfare running east to west, was named “High” street according to English convention. It was to be wide enough to accommodate the various street markets and bazaars that any thriving town of the period would play host to. But eventually, after years of people saying “I’m going to the market street” it changed officially to “Market Street” instead. This naming pattern -- a “Front” street and streets named things like Mulberry, Chestnut, and Walnut -- would be repeated in towns and cities all across Pennsylvania and the rest of the country. - The city’s streets were named not just because of an official map, but also because of the cultural sensibilities for language brought to it by the city’s founder. As a Quaker, Penn had a sort of layer of information he brought with him, through which he saw the world around him. A personal story that structured the world’s meanings in a particular way. - So, too, were the collective stories of the city’s inhabitants -- which ended up changing a lot of the names of streets in the city. High Street wasn’t the only one whose name changed. Almost half of Penn’s “tree” streets ended up having new names over the centuries, often just from the way people talked about them.
surveyor Purchase from Natives Pre-enlightenment ideals THE WHOLE CULTURAL STORY ALL OF IT MADE OF LANGUAGE In order for Philadelphia to have come to be, lots of things needed to exist in the world, all of them made with or dependent upon language.
semantic narratives in a given culture are part of that culture’s infrastructure of place. In the late 18th century, when Europeans under the command of Captain George Vancouver were mapping the coasts of the northwest Americas, they were providing their own names to what they saw, as they sketched out the contours of the landscape on their maps. Vancouver writes in his journal that the native people seemed to have a bizarre manner of navigating the sea. For one thing, the natives didn’t seem to understand the logic of going in a straight line, which seemed to the Europeans the most sensible way of moving over an undifferentiated expanse of water. The natives’ winding routes were very sensible to the natives, however: they were navigating around places that they believed to have powerful spirits or monstrous dangers, based on prior experience and shared lore. The natives didn’t have a written map of these obstacles, but they were inhabiting a shared map nonetheless. For Vancouver and his crew, it was doubly bizarre that the natives were more concerned with the particularities of the sea and the shore, and seemed to treat the areas inland as if they were mere spaces of nothingness. But for a native civilization that subsisted mainly on what the sea could give them — and much less interested in “taming the land” for agriculture or permanent fortiﬁcations — this reversal made sense1. T he Europeans and the natives were, in essence, inhabiting separate worlds, even as they were inhabiting the same location. They were separated not only by language, but by the relevance of affordances of the environment to their respective cultural assumptions about what is valuable and what is not. For one culture, the sea was full of meaningful places, and the land was mostly meaningless, mysterious “space.” For the other culture, the opposite was true: the land was full of potential for strategic settlements and agricultural production; the “space” was the sea — what they traveled through in order to get to the places that mattered to them. 1 Place: A Short Introduction by Tim Cresswell, Blackwell Publishing,. Oxford. , 2004 Page 9
landmark I grew up knowing about in Atlanta. This is known as “the big chicken” -- in Marietta, part of the metro atlanta area. If you ever ﬁnd yourself in Marietta and you ask a local native directions to just about anywhere, they’ll start off asking “well, now, do you know where the big chicken is?” Basically everybody’s directions are oriented around the big chicken. This isn’t an official municipal landmark -- it’s folk wayﬁnding.
All it takes for humans to make something into a place is to say something about it. To name it, or mark it in some way. There were names for craters and mountains on the moon long before anyone walked on it. But when the ﬁrst humans actually set foot on the surface, they marked it with this ﬂag. No text is on it, but it’s a rhetorical act. A semantic utterance. The official line was “we come in peace, for all mankind.” But the subtext was, “Hey Russia, this is ours.”
differently colored number plates, and where they are allowed to go and not to go.” - visualizingpalestine.org MAP / TERRITORY At a website called visualizing palestine, there’s a map and diagram illustrating how the actual territory -- including the physical roads and bridges and tunnels and automobiles -- is marked and demarcated to limit the mobility of certain groups of people. A layer of semantic information that, coupled with a system of rules, creates boundaries that many habitants experience as oppression.
as systems of semantic structure for giving explanatory context to our environment, then we have to realize we live in maps. Not just explicit maps but tacit maps. Cultural maps. Sure, a printed map is not literally the same thing as the territory it describes; but it brings particular meaning to the place it is about, to the point of changing the kind of place it is -- or making it a place at all.
STRUCTURE 9 Language is “a form of mind- transforming cognitive scaffolding: a persisting, though never stationary, symbolic edi ce [playing a] critical role in promoting thought and reason.” - Andy Clark “Supersizing the Mind” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CantileverScaffold.jpg Language is environment -- it’s stuff we put into the world that allows us to make more stuff, including whole civilizations. Maps are linguistic artifacts; and in that sense they are just functioning the way that all language functions. Philosopher and writer Andy Clark, in his book on embodied and extended cognition, talks about how language is a kind of scaffolding. It’s part of the environment we create for ourselves. It’s what we use for creating our environment together.
*blink* HA! I WIN! “First one to blink loses” Think about how the staring game works. If I just walked up to anyone and started staring, I’d likely be thought rude. But all it takes is asking “hey want to play the staring game?” or “I dare you to keep staring and not blink - whoever blinks ﬁrst loses” and you’ve created a sort of shared map of structure between you that changes the place you’re in, if only for a few minutes. Architecture that’s invisible, made only of an agreement. (example adapted, with thanks, from part of Frederik van Amstel’s presentation at the 2012 Interaction conference in Dublin)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Baseball_diamond.svg All games work this way. They all have structures made of words. Watch a baseball game and think about all the action that happens on the ﬁeld that is guided by a collective agreement to follow a set of rules. There are actually very few physical structures constraining action on a baseball ﬁeld, no rails connecting bases, no apparatus taking a batter off the plate after three strikes. People just do it, because they agreed on the rules. Invisible structures mapping a sort of temporary shared hallucination of “Place” for the sake of the game.
ON THE LEFT SIDE TO DRIVING ON THE RIGHT 12 When rules change without everyone being on board, bad things can happen. This is Sweden in 1967 the day after a law passed that changed the legal side of the road for driving. The same streets were there, but just a change by a legislative body created structures in the environment that not everyone understood yet. All these things are just made of language, and yet they create, shape, and change Places for us all the time. This is basically what happens on Facebook every time they update their privacy controls. picture: wikimedia commons
EXPEDIA The “map” of an online travel platform changed the “territory” of the actual hotel. The Luna Blue is a small hotel off the Mexican coast. As a friendly, family-owned hotel with a great reputation, the proprietors of the Luna Blue were dismayed to discover that Expedia — a very large gorilla in the travel-services jungle — was showing their hotel with “No Vacancy” even though they had plenty of rooms. Because Expedia is such a huge player in the travel space, its metadata gets used for lots of other sites, so the no-vacancy status spread all over the Web to sites like Trip Advisor, Hotels.com and even Google. The whole scandal went viral on sites like Reddit, and it still took many months to sort it out. This was in one sense a sort of clerical snafu. But in another sense it changed the reality of this hotel -- for people online, it was not an available option. The language in the pervasive layer of information that maps our world for us trumped the physical reality of the place. 1 http://mobile.theverge.com/2012/12/28/3809328/one-small-hotels-long-nightmare-with-expedia
Casey. One of her friends found herself effectively exiled from their circle for six months because her parents dawdled in upgrading her to an iPhone. Without it, she had no access to the iMessage group chat, where it seemed all their shared plans were being made. ‘She wasn’t in the group chat, so we stopped being friends with her,’ Casey says. ‘Not because we didn’t like her, but we just weren’t in contact with her.’” This isn’t just about websites - it’s about all networked channels. In a fascinating story about teen girls and iphones, there’s a telling quote from teenager Casey who explains iMessage is a crucial piece of infrastructure for her peer group. “Not having an iPhone can be social suicide” she says... one of her friends was basically exiled from their group for six months because all her friends were using iMessage group chats, where all their plans were getting made. This probably wasn’t a conscious choice, it was just humans satisﬁcing by defaulting to a channel that was easily at hand for them, forgetting to include the one outlier. iMessage as a *place* real enough to affect relationships. Isn’t this why a lot of people are on Facebook and some other platforms, even though they might not enjoy them that much? If they aren’t there, they’re no-where. What Really Happens On A Teen Girl's iPhone Huffington Post 6/5/2013 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/teen- iphone_n_3322095.html
SHARE AS CHAINS LOSE 16 “A one-star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5-9 percent increase in revenue.” - Michael Luca, Harvard Business School Working Paper It’s not always so bad though. A study from Harvard Business School found that Yelp has had an enormously positive effect on independent restaurants, because it allows people to choose to eat at them based on reputation information they wouldn’t have had easy at-hand access to otherwise. So instead of going to a known quantity like an Olive Garden, people are more willing to try a mom-and-pop Italian place. Yelp adds a meaningful layer to the environment that changes the sorts of places these are -- it has a real, physical effect. Star ratings on Yelp can make or break a business now. http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/12-016.pdf
or from their shared, co-created environment. So it is with human networks; bees make hives, we make mobile phones.” - Clay Shirky In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky compares humans to bees. “Individual bees can’t be understood separately from the colony or from their shared, co-created environment. So it is with human networks; bees make hives, we make mobile phones.” It’s so true -- but it’s not just about the phones, but the new dimensions of place they give us access to.
formed into & experienced as “place.” The process by which people give meaning to experience. Placemaking has previously been something that urban planners and geographers talk about, but we’re ﬁnding that people experience online environments as places – and pervasive information tech is making physical places digital as well. So placemaking is creating the right conditions – structures and other information – to make a place cohere into something meaningful. But it depends on the sensemaking of the inhabitants or users. Sensemaking comes from human-computer-interaction research, and from more general sociology, psychology and organization studies. These dynamics inform one another: People make sense of things by interacting with their environment, and they organize their understanding of environment through thinking of it as being made of places.
events in relation to an individual perceiver. - James J Gibson “ .” You’ve probably heard of affordance. Donald Norman popularized the notion over the last 20-30 years. But he got the concept from an amazing somewhat radical scientist named James J Gibson, who created the ﬁeld of ecological psychology. Gibson invented the idea of affordance to explain how perception works. That organisms perceive the world through structural information that affords action. Nothing really means anything to us beyond what it affords for us.
in relation to an individual perceiver. AFFORDANCE Physical Semantic Humans aren’t just perceivers of physical structure though. We depend as much or more on the symbolic workings of language – semantic information – as a part of our environment for working together and ﬁguring out our world, and making stuff – as well as just getting around. In this picture of a staircase at City Lights Bookstore in SF, we see stairs that have intrinsic structural information that our bodies perceive as affording the ability to walk upward. But there’s this other thing – a label – which signiﬁes what where we will be going when we go up the stairs. I call this semantic affordance. It’s an abstracted, symbolic version of how we perceive and comprehend physical structure.
in relation to an individual perceiver. AFFORDANCE Physical / Intrinsic Physical + Semantic Simulated- Physical + Semantic Mostly Semantic I think there’s a sort of continuum of affordance; First there are intrinsically affording objects and surfaces like stairs; but what about a button? there’s intrinsic affordance information here, but only for being able to push the button into the setting (assuming one has used such buttons before or seen others use them) -- but what the button will do beyond the button itself is unknown without semantic information to tell us, either verbal instruction or writing or pictographs; otherwise we’d have to push the button to ﬁnd out. When GUIs came into use, we had to borrow from the learned affordances of our environment and simulate those objects (using, by the way, graphical semantic information). But when the web came along, it brought a new convention of just clicking on words that were activated as links, conﬂating label and action, and in this case experienced as going to a new place versus “interacting” with an object in the *same* place. By the way, these challenges of affordance are the real issue behind “skeuomorphic” versus “ﬂat” design approaches -- the question of how much we should or shouldn’t use non-simulated-object affordances relying on semantic information like pictograms & words, within a particular software context.
PROMISE OF ARCHITECTURE 26 http://www.ajc.com So the content of the place has to make good on the promise of architecture. Imagine my surprise last summer while I was living in Atlanta and clicked a link to go to the Atlanta newspaper’s website, and landed here?
Desktop: Reading & creating in same Circle Mobile: Creating may not happen in same Circle, requiring extra steps. In google plus, if I am in my ‘family’ circle on the desktop site, and post a new update, it defaults to being posted within the family circle. Makes sense -- it’s like going into a room and hearing conversation, then saying something there, expecting that it will only be to the people in that room. But in the mobile app, even if I’m reading the feed in my “family” circle, a new post defaults to all circles -- essentially public. It takes a half dozen interactions to get things back to where one would expect. This is in spite of the fact that Google has worked extra hard to explain context to Plus users. The coherence of place across platforms wasn’t fully ﬁgured out.
HUMANS MAKE SENSE OF EVERYTHING 29 The gray blobs in this wonderful XKCD graphic are about major events and places -- often conﬂating the two. Because that’s how places mean something to us -- what happened there and the stories we tell about it. Helm’s Deep was a fortiﬁcation, but after the “Battle of Helm’s Deep” one might say “Helm’s Deep” and could mean either the fort *or* the battle.
30 Non-linear action. Linear recollection. There’s solid scientiﬁc evidence that our species makes sense of the world through weaving stories out of the relative randomness of our experience. Michael Gazzaniga, is a researcher who has for years been studying how people with split brain challenges make sense of their environment and even their own actions. One hemisphere of the brain might be involved in taking some action, but then the other hemisphere has to concoct a rationale – a story – around why that action was taken. This is illustrative of how we take most of our actions in life. When we look back on prior experience, we can’t help but see some kind of linear sense to it – the way we tend to see faces in things like clouds or tree bark or toast. By the way – this can really throw us off as designers. If we take the linear recollection at face value, we can miss the fact that the actual environment that contributed to that person making sense of their experience had elements in it that they don’t consider, after the fact, to have been essential. Even though they were. In other words, we have to be careful we don’t fall for the oversimpliﬁcation we hear in someone’s remembered narrative. I’ve heard it many times before, where people will say “well why didn’t the site just take me to this right away?” But they don’t remember the wanderings and bouncing around that they actually needed to get them there, that helped them ﬁgure out what they actually needed.
STORIES 31 Organizations have these shared tacit maps too; you’ll often ﬁnd a whole team or department ﬂocking in one direction, having decided “we need an app” or “we need new tab on the site”. But that’s just at one level. At a more granular level you’ll often ﬁnd they don’t share the same details of the story. What “app” means to one stakeholder (in terms of goals, scope, etc.) can be signiﬁcantly different from what it means to another. Getting a good understanding of the deeper stories underneath the corporate narrative can be crucial for success in our work. They’re all part of the “place” of the organization, and they’re also the cultural foundation on which any new work is built.
OUR SYSTEMS & ENVIRONMENTS 32 “These different terms have slightly different connotations. Whatever terminology we use in our architectures, it needs to re ect these connotations.” Jesse James Garrett “Brand Driven Information Architecture” February 2004 Jesse James Garrett even 10 years ago was talking about how an organization’s brand depends on the foundational meanings of the language it uses, and that the structures we make need to take this language seriously. How we talk about the world will ﬁnd its way into our products and communications whether we’re paying attention to it and bringing the necessary rigor to it or not -- so, best to do it on purpose.
OUR SYSTEMS & ENVIRONMENTS 33 zeromomentoftruth.com moveo.com ... yet think of all the commerce environments structured on the assumption of a “funnel.” One example in retail is the “funnel” You won’t see retailers use the label “funnel” for their information architectures. But inside the company and on projects, we hear it all the time. It affects the way we assume the structures of our environments should be shaped. But as a model, it’s become less useful for the over-all relationship with customers, as seen in this explanation from Google’s “Zero Moment of Truth” report. Yet look at how many retail digital experiences are built with the assumption that people’s activities ﬁt a “funnel” all the time.
OUR SYSTEMS & ENVIRONMENTS 34 CUSTOMER CLIENT OWNER PRODUCT SALE SUBSCRIPTION USER PURCHASE CART CONVERSION Requirements & User Stories Database Entities & Attributes Colloquial Terminology DOCUMENTATION TECHNOLOGY CULTURE & CONVERSATION The way language is used inside the company and in our work can have a huge, mostly invisible effect on the eventual structures and capabilities we make. The way requirements are decided upon, organized in very early project planning, as well as how we name and describe user stories for agile work. The way we name and structure database entities, or set up attributes and meta-data. The way we talk about things internally within a company – a cultural semantic map we all get used to.
Underlying Story Interface There’s an underlying story in any organization that is behind why they’re trying to take action and change the environment they’re in – by reorganizing, or making new products or software or whatever. But that story is sort of invisible to us – we’re so immersed in it we’re not fully conscious of it. Instead we try to explain that story using the props of concrete things like user interfaces. I’m sure you’ve had this experience where a stakeholder says “we need to add a tab to our home page” or “we need a mobile app” or “we need to change our software to be more like Pinterest” or whatever… It’s all a species of this problem, like going into a doctor and saying “give me this speciﬁc prescription” versus describing our problem and the context of what may be behind it. So we can’t take these things at face value – we have to dig underneath and try ﬁguring out why they’re asking for this.
ENVIRONMENTS We’re now expected to stitch together multiple places, multiple channels, objects, and processes, with all this language. Just getting around and understanding how to take the train is a lot of work and can be very confusing without the language of the environment being coherent.
37 These systems are becoming smarter, with more agency of their own. Even something as simple as If This Then That has profound implications. IFTTT recently released recipes for not just connecting software services, but smart hardware as well -- such as the Jawbone Up and the “smart home” product suite by WeMo. This is just an early harbinger of the way our environments are going to be more digitally enhanced and activated. What kind of place is your home once it’s infused with these invisible agents? What kind of object is your body when it’s connected to the cloud?
It won’t be long before we look back and see that things like google glass and the xbox kinect were primitive toys compared to the pervasively digital, active environments we’ll be expected to design for. These layers that are being placed into the world, these dimensions that map the structures of our lives. It’s up to us to not get so enamored by the glimmer of shiny chrome gadgets and gee-whiz technology that we forget the complicated and very human lives -- the stories and places that matter to them in such intimate and beautifully personal ways.
conventional wisdom is that making objects is design; making language is “just writing.” But we have to take language seriously as a medium for making -- not just the so-called content but the infrastructure. It’s not something we just pour into containers or slather on surfaces. It’s not just an afterthought after doing the “primary” work of making the object or product. More often than not, it’s essential to be able to articulate what the thing to be designed is supposed to be. Language is physical. Language is a material. Not “just for saying things”, but for making environments people live in.
rules are everybody’s responsibility. Never assume that just because something is a business rule that you don’t have something important or helpful to say about them. As our practice matures, we need to be able to participate in the discussions that determine the nature and overall direction of our work. Business rules are a story the business is telling itself; it’s often up to us to dig underneath those stories and ﬁgure out what’s driving them. These are how language is made manifest into active agents in our environment. We need to really understand them and do our best to be part of affecting and planning them.
of language -- and we are made of stories. We have to listen to them. Engage them. Understand them. And take expert care with the materials that make us human. We have a responsibility to people’s stories, as stewards of the environments where people live their lives.