Friday, September 5, 2008

Arranging for Serenity

This post isn't directly related to assigned reading.

This week, I read an article in the Scientific American Mind section of the website titled "Arranging for Serenity: How Physical Space and Emotion Intersect" (subtitle: "The concept of "psychological distance" may help explain the art of feng shui") by Wray Herbert.

Article is here:

It intersected with some of our recent discussion, with some of the other ideas I encountered in other classes or at the recent colloquium, and with some ideas we'll be discussing in the future to do with GUI and related concepts in HCI.

Essentially, it deals with the question of whether "an ordered, open space affects people’s emotions differently than a tighter, more closed-in environment does. Put another way, do we automatically embody and “feel” things such as crowding or spaciousness, clutter or order?"

To find out, Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh, Yale psychologists, ran a series of very interesting experiments -- details in the article. Their results suggest that our brains may have a "deep-wired connec­tion between distance and safety, a habit of mind that probably evolved to help our hominid forebears survive in precarious conditions." Feeling crowded promotes "a more pinched perception of the world", prompting averse reactions to stimuli and discomfort. Feeling free -- uncrowded, "primed for spaciousness" -- has the opposite result. These two plan to continue to study "this link between psychological distance and real peril."

It isn't as simple as crowded = bad. In one experiment, participants primed for closeness were more likely to correctly estimate the calories in junk food they were offered (they guessed higher) than those primed for spaciousness. Sometimes we may want to be more guarded, more careful, more aware of potential danger, of the implications of our actions.

Herbert 's treatment of the implications refers to real space (I've heard it called meatspace elsewhere), suggesting (in the photo caption and subtitle) "the layout of your living space could cause you psychological stress, or put you at ease", but I couldn't help by think about the implications for GUI design and also Jay's colloquy, in which he referred to presence, mood, and technology.

A "crowded" interface might be one with a lot of features at top level -- something that might seem like a great idea when compared to burying things in layers and layers of menus (Word 2007, anyone?). If, though, such an interface creates a sense of crowding, of limited psychological distance, in the user, it will influence his or her comfort and reactions, potentially in ways that undermine the designer's goals (presumably including ease). If we put the world at her fingertips but it makes her more likely to feel uneasy and to respond aversely to whatever comes next, is that okay?

On the other hand, if we create an interface that promotes a sense of openness and freedom (if that's possible -- maybe a device with just a couple of functions, or an interface that is really, really simple to use), there are also some possible negatives. Comfortable people might share private information more carelessly, underestimate risk, or simply relax and get nothing done (great for a vacation machine, not so good for a work-related device).

The notion of psychological distance might relate to the concept of 'break down' as well ... if many tools 'break down' at once and become visible, the user may experience a sense of crowding precisely at the time we want them to relax. When I'm offering technical support, there's usually a period of time spent calming the person down, trying to take some of the anxiety out of the situation, so that they can become better observers of what's actually before them, capable of relaying it to me in sufficient detail, thus making it (ever so slightly) more likely I'll actually be able to suggest solutions.

An interface so uncrowded that what you need to do next is not obvious may bring on tears of frustration as well. There must, I guess, be a happy medium.

Thanks for reading! All right, back to the assigned stuff.

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