In Chapter 11: Making Things Make Sense, Hinton discusses how physical objects and language intersect when a person has to use language in order to understand the operation and context of something physical. These intersections can sometimes create confusion when either language design or physical design are ambiguous, or when they contradict each other. People tend to rely on conditioned responses born out of experience in order to interact with their environment, which causes further problems if the design of something is different than what they are used to. The relationship of the physical environment and the intangible language all to create meaning and then establish understanding.

Language and "Sensemaking"Edit

Many activities are done unconsciously, but by trying to make sense of them, a person can understand them better. Language is necessary to analyze any activity. “Sensemaking” is the term Hinton uses for understanding gained by experience. Hinton explains, “our conscious engagement with context requires our use of language.” [1] Language is ultimately used as a medium of understanding.

Sensemaking is neither entirely conscious nor entirely subconscious. Sensemaking is an ongoing system of interpreting unfamiliar concepts according to more familiar ones. Some of the decision-making is driven by “tacit” passive experience, while another layer of decision-making is based on “explicit” analytical experience, in which a person actively tries to comprehend what is happening. He gives an example of an experiment in which subjects measurably enjoyed an expensively-labeled wine more than a cheaply-labeled wine, despite the wine not changing in any other way. Hinton claims, “another example of how our immediate experience of the environment is a deeply intermingled mixture of signification, affordance, cultural conditioning, and interpretation.” [2] Information must be interpreted within a certain context rather than relying on sensory information alone. If the context of something changes, even if the environment is the same, the overall meaning also changes.

Much of what people do can be accomplished without necessarily seeking to make small understandings. As people attempt to understand actions, the language center is activated to communicate with each other to create a shared understanding. The term “sensemaking” discusses the way people were able to create understanding through experiences. Additionally, in order to interact with culture, language is necessary. To take a closer look at these one has to understand the difference between tacit and explicit thought: tacit is when the mind is partaking in passive awareness to purposeful consideration (what is going on leading to what one should do next), whereas explicit has to do with the thoughtful, metacognitive reflection of the experience. A compelling study had participants who underwent fMRI scans when analyzing two wines, one was less expensive than the other. The scans showed much more pleasure was perceived from the more expensive wine due to the human's "deeply intermingled mixture of signification, affordance, cultural conditioning, and interpretation." [3] Another example is any experience going through the drive thru, where one uses tacit thought in considering menu options.

Physical and Semantic IntersectionsEdit

Hinton offers several examples of how semantic and physical information overlap:

  • Identification: Labels on anything of shared human importance.
  • Clarification: The need for context in order to fully understand the significance of a physical object.
  • Orientation: Directions offer information about the use and relevance of physical objects, like where specific doors and hallways lead.
  • Instruction: Verbal information about how to utilize physical objects.

Digital intersections (of objects and semantics) must be carefully designed since they rarely mimic the physical world and lend themselves to ambiguity. Just as how a hospital must have clearly labeled signs for the people visiting to operate efficiently, a website must have clearly labeled links and contextual clues in order for users to find their way around. Hinton adds, “To understand and improve these environments, we should know how to distinguish physical from semantic, but we should not forget that the denizens of such a city can’t be expected to parse them.” [4] In any environment, both information and physicality are in a “phase space”: a permanent state mimicking a period of transition.

The concepts were further broken into multiple primary intersections: identification, clarification, orientation, and instruction. Identification discusses how people use names to recall items or experiences. Clarification discusses how people can use additional context clues to identify an item. Orientation establishes the concept of using “built environments” to discuss orientation within a setting. Instruction is the ability to use words in the sense of labels to identify a set environment such as labeling a bathroom. Moreover, the concept of intersections can be physically experienced in a city. In the city, the signs all have various shapes and colors provide contextual clues for areas such as crosswalks and traffic signals, which are all there to supplement the physical intersection with semantic intersection.

Physical and Semantic ConfusionEdit

At times, physical and semantic information can contradict each other, or one may be overused to compensate for a deficit in the other. For example, signs being used to label the operation technique of a door, which should normally be intuitive based on the physical design of the door. For example, a door is a “compound invariant”: a cluster of objects work with an internally consistent set of rules, even if these rules are not externally consistent. Hinton says, “No door is an island, so to speak. It’s part of a larger construct of symbols, social meaning, and cultural expectation.” [5] Even a clearly labeled sign on a door can be confusing if the physical design of the door is misleading. Hinton speaks of accidentally walking into a door which had a “PULL” sign and offers reasons why these are a poor design:

  • The physical design of the handles could be easily confused for those of “push” doors, allowing for the possibility of confusion
  • The transparent doors led Hinton to look past them rather than at the sign on them, missing the "pull" cue
  • His body satisfied--he made an error due to excessive familiarity with similar-looking doors operating differently, so he did not consciously choose to look for more information than he thought he needed
  • The spelling of “PUSH” and “PULL” are visually similar and easily confused on a subconscious level, again allowing for the possibility of confusing the two
  • Hinton was verbally preoccupied, without enough attention to read and speak at the same time, which contributed to his missing the "pull" sign
  • By the time he was actually standing at the door, the sign was below his field of vision, again contributing to his having missed seeing the "pull" sign

Hinton describes people’s reliance on habit as the “cognitive ‘loop of least resistance.’” [6] “Dark patterns” are design patterns that maliciously take advantage of these habits, like phishing scams, in which criminals lead someone to a webpage asking for personal information impersonating as a reliable source.

With all the aforementioned intersections, multiple can interact and cause misunderstandings. Language usually is the first method people use to decipher confusion. An example is Don Norman’s assessment of the problems with doors and the horrible designs. Norman explains how using doors on a day to day can even cause problems. Innately simple devices, however, when one combines the shape of the door handle or the function of push or pull, where the door may be placed, and whether or not signage is present indicated proper use all complicates the matter. The general affordance of the door is to be opened but is further complicated by the fact doors are more than just an opening in a wall meant to be walked through. The door than is a "compound invariant" made up of various functions learned by various cues. But the argument made is most people fail to see the various parts associated with the door, from the frame all the way to the handle.

Ducks, Rabbits, and CalendarsEdit

Hinton begins by saying, “The less contextual information we have, the more complicated signification becomes, whether with visual or textual semantic information.” [7] He offers a visual illusion--a picture which could be interpreted as being either a duck or a rabbit, due to the image being an incomplete representation. Hinton adds, “we don’t step back and distinguish between seeing something or seeing a representation as that something.” Much semantic information, like the duck-rabbit optical illusion, inherently possesses ambiguity. Hinton brings up the use of “calendar” in digital calendars, which use the same word to mean a calendar interface, a calendar icon, a calendar feed, a published itinerary, an iPhone calendar app, and event details. Although these different meanings can be understood with effort, the goal of a designer is to make their product intuitively understood through contextual cues to reduce ambiguity. In the case of the calendar differences, the problem is the architecture of how objects and places are represented semantically.

The ultimate distinction is how individuals can fail to use certain terms in understanding images. In the visual illusion example, the individual will say they see a rabbit or a duck instead of seeing the image as a rabbit or a duck. The image is not a physical item, only a representation. Moreover, everyone loves a good optical illusion. The way optical illusions work is by purposefully leaving out key semantic information but also "introduces ambiguities into our environment much more easily than physical information," [8] leading the viewer to believe there is a "trick" being played on their eyes.


This chapter displays problems that arise when a properly-engineered structure is misused due to a confused user. Hinton attributes much of user error to the preventable design flaw of contradictory or ambiguous physical and semantic design. Much of Hinton’s description of physical and semantic confusion is about the common use of heuristics based on past experiences, which designers must take into account and compensate for.

Hinton spends the chapter encouraging user-friendly design and explaining why it is necessary to consider the user as a vital part of any writing environment. He focuses on the importance of the audience for a written work, which has only increased in importance over time, especially since the audience is now often an active participant in a piece of media. [9] Although Hinton does not use the term "UX" or "User Experience," the field of UX is exactly what Hinton indicates needs to be considered. [10] UX design incorporates many factors of an individual's interaction with a digital piece of writing in order to modify the piece to be more intuitive to use. User testing is particularly important for reaching the goal. [11]

The author introduces the ideas by discussing the concept of “sensemaking” describing how human nature consistently tries to make sense of one's surroundings and their meanings. The authors define sensemaking as gaining understanding from the experience. They state how in most cases this is usually in reference to one's experiences regarding technology or corporate type settings. However, the primary concept regarding sensemaking is understand the meaning behind words. Even when context is present, words are sometimes necessary to understand the overall message. To make these bridges of understanding, the authors discussed multiple intersections: identification, clarification, orientation, and instruction. These are able to be intermixed and used individually to establish a bridge between semantic wording and the physical environment or object being discussed. However, when using this method to describe things, misunderstandings, miscommunication, or mislabeling are not uncommon to occur. Usually, language is the first method used for sensemaking.

Beyond sensemaking, other methods can be used to create context and understand the physical object. The chapter finishes with the age old image of the duck which can also be a rabbit to show that despite something being seemingly plainly there, making the distinction with words can be tricky. The example provided was how in most cases individuals will describe the image to be a rabbit or a duck, instead of as a rabbit or as a duck. The picture will be different perhaps depending on the context of the text surrounding the image or the person’s experiences. The image represents the idea of how visual representations can be confusing especially when trying to use language to describe it. Language is not as simple as the surrounding context, nor is the context necessarily simple enough to be put into one or two words; but it is a great place to start. The author does a great job summarizing these ideas by saying, "Semantic information is so second nature to humans that we simply overlook how deeply it forms and informs our experience...Design has to attend to this hard, detailed work so that users don't have to." [12] He means digital writings have to be put into designs that consider various contextual cues, but in such a way that if simply stated, the entire meaning can be derived almost subconsciously. Importance primarily falls on avoiding the creation of disruptions in understanding by not addressing both the physical and semantic modalities.


  1. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 176
  2. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 179
  3. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 179
  4. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 183
  5. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 187
  6. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 189
  7. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 190
  8. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 191
  9. Jay Rosen, "The People Formerly Known as the Audience," The Huffington Post. 2006.
  10. Devise Consulting. "Defining UX."
  11. Talia Wolf, "A beginner's guide to understanding UX design," TNW News.
  12. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 195

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