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The User Illusion

It’s often hard to remind myself what is the purpose of doing what I am doing. Why did I come to this particular school for? Why do I want to study “interactivity” and people connectivity? What is the core idea behind “interaction”? “The User Illusion” intrigued me with its title first and but the further I went to its rabid hole, the more it addressed of my questions.

The main concept that Tor Norretranders introduces in the book is the idea of “exformation”. He defines exformation as “the mental work we do in order to make what we want to say sayable”, perpendicular to information, and zero linkage or correlation between the two.  To fully grasp the concept, the author gives a perfect example of how Vitor Hugo’s delivered the shortest correspondence in history. When Vitor sent out his masterpiece “Les Misérables” to a publisher, he could not restrain himself from asking how the book was doing. So he wrote the following letter to his publisher: “?” and the answer from the publisher was “!”. Tor Norretranders says this was an act of referring explicitly to what he had discarded, but from the loin of view of the correspondence it is still discarded, exformation at its best.

And this is why the least interesting aspect of a good conversation is what is actually said and the amount of information it holds. What is more interesting is all the deliberations and emotions that take place simultaneously during the conversation in the heads and bodies of the individuals involved.

So when we are trying to create an interaction, it doesn’t matter how much information or direction you give to the other person because information is perpendicular to exformation. We need to provide exformation to the others by understanding the context of the conversation and predicting how much knowledge/information does the others might have. This is the very reason why projects that target the right audience are the most impactful and successful.

Too much information or information for the sakes of information has no value in itself. How much exformation a given piece of information implies is important.  Surprisingly, the core notion of information was developed by an engineer at AT&T’s think-tank Bell Laboratories. The amount of information does not necessarily build an interesting complexity. Information stemmed out due to the corporate nature of AT&T, the idea was much more about increasing revenues by having the rest of consumers talk about truth, beauty, meaning, and wisdom – on the phone. A mess can look complex but it does not have any structure or exformation we can connect to. This might be why we are intrigued by complex particles done programs that has a certain order even though we might not understand them. Most of what we find worth making interactions comprises of things and thoughts of great complexity: great depth but perhaps not so much surface area. A state with a rich history. The thought-provoking things in life may be not the ones that take long explanations to describe but those that take many experiences to get to know. Same for anything we make, we shouldn’t have longwinded explanations to describe our projects nor instructions for the user, it should contain a rich experience for user to take in.

Tor also states that consciousness does not contain depth in information. Since information is unpredictable, consciousness will find composure by acknowledging that people need more information than consciousness can supply.  It’s a similar concept to our need for a map to find our way around the terrain.  What really counts is not knowing the map itself, it is knowing how to use it. We need to get the information contained in the map’s consciousness.   The world we habitat is so rich and unpredictable, we cannot hold nor understand all the information of it, but with a map, we can find our way around it.  We have to remember that everything we see and feel is done by the information we hold. When we think of “I”, we don’t need to suffer from user illusion.

Finally, Tor Norretranders reminds us that “in sublime performances, the Me is given permission by the I. It is characteristics of the great feat of athletics, the great thought process, the great piece of craftsmanship, that an enormous amount of information and experience is processed; far more than consciousness can control.”  This made so much sense in my head and indirectly addressing the questions I always had for design and art. Even though there seems to be a logic and rule to a good design, you just can’t quite quantify the formula when you see an amazing piece that touches your soul. It is because there is great amount of information and exformation that the creator gives than what your consciousness can control.

Analyzing the steps of how we think and feel, what the user thinks and feels are big ideas to take in. However, starting from this book, you might understand a small portion of the whole process of “creating”.

4 comments to The User Illusion

  • jyp323

    I also believe in communication over instruction. It is so true that we have to keep in mind to transfer personal point of view correctly to others whenever we present something. This may be the reason for having critiques. Like you said, transferred information should not carry overload, but comprehendible concepts and main points. I personally believe that we could use whatever mediums for communication. We could communicate through literacy, conversation, art, music, and etc. The most important thing in communication is not the medium, but method. Don’t you agree? I am still a little confused with the term “exformation” in Norretranders’ definition. I guess he implies the term as “brain storm.” Obviously, we need to do some mental work before we start communicating with others.

  • Hi Ju young, thank you for your response. Yes, I completely agree with you in that critiques are crucial part of product development. The term “exformation” was more for our own mental work to process and understand the context of conversation or a concept. A bit different from brain storming as brain storming is to develop a concept with other people. “Exformation” would be more like a brain storm you would do on your own to communicate better with others. Also, you are right on a point that we all should think before we speak. This often gets forgotten when we present our work. We often think that others will understand a project since we’ve been looking at it for so long but we need to incorporate this “exformation” process in between making and presenting. It’s quite important to do “How would others think?” process even when you are always told to make whatever you want to make.

  • Nancy

    In conversation our tone carries so much information. And in writing when you know someone. Great story about Victor Hugo. Probably many more stories of horrible miscommunications in writing…amplified now by emails. YOu might take a look at the conversation around the book Inner Game of Tennis about the conscious and unconscious parts of our selves.
    Nice post, Su.

  • jyp323

    I guess the word, exformation, means more like “our own mental process”. Yes. we need to keep in mind of “how would other think?” before carrying some actions. This is another good reason of promoting/encouraging broad point of views. I personally try myself to view the world in more broad and wide perspective in order to communicate with many different people. This whole thinking process is very helpful to ITPers, obviously, since User Interface design and User Experience design are what we do here, and they require such a thinking process.