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Chapter 6: The Elements of the Environment defines how an individual sees and reacts to the environment. We base our understanding on constant elements and learn the patterns of the elements that change. Digital environments that use elements that operate like the natural world are easier to use because they work with how users evolved to understand the environment.

Invariants Edit

Invariants are, “persistently stable properties of the environment; they persist as unchanging, in the midst of change”[1]. They are not permanent, but they are strikingly constant in the way that animals perceive them. Some elements of our environment need to be stable enough to afford action. Invariants make context possible, as we base new knowledge off of things we already understand. We learn based on patterns and building experience, so it is necessary for those structures to be consistent for the user, even if those elements do eventually change over time.

On the other hand, “variants are the environmental properties that tend to change in our perception”[2]. Variants change, so we cannot base our knowledge on those elements’ consistency. We cannot count on variant properties for affording action, just as we would not rely on the grounds solidity if we thought it might be quicksand.

Compound invariants are combinations of invariants that act as a singular unit of invariant properties. In software, “invariants can be compounded to the point that they’re not directly connected to physical properties at all; rather, they’re part of a self-referential system distantly derived from our physical-information surroundings”[3]. In short, the facts we take for granted can be based on other unchanging elements to the point that our whole knowledge base is grounded in assumptions of constancy. Users need stability in digital environments, certain consistent invariables to base perception off of. Even though digital environments can change easier than the physical world, they shouldn’t change too much, in order to avoid shaking the user.

The Principle of Nesting Edit

The ecological principle of nesting is when “all these invariant components of the environment are perceived in relation to one another”[4]. The process of relating unchanging elements to others and seeing them as parts of a whole leads to a web of relationships. The environment is “nested,” with subordinate and superordinate structures. We can loosely define tiers and components, but none exist within a vacuum. Nesting is full of overlaps and transitions. How we interpret a nested environment depends on current needs and perspective.

For digital environments, “information architectures also present nested structures through categories and semantic relationships”[5]. A designer needs to create invariants for stability while also allowing the user to shift between different nested perspectives. Hierarchies, on the other hand, are not natural and require explicit, conscious effort to understand. While hierarchies are logical, nesting might make more sense depending on the user and situation because they are grounded in their naturally evolved experience.

Surface, Substance, Medium Edit

Hinton goes into detail about how we get information from objects in the environment: “When we perceive information in the environment, we’re largely perceiving information about its surfaces”[6]. Surfaces are formed by the boundaries between states of matter and they provide the structure that enables perception. These surfaces are made out of substances, which is anything that creates perceivable information when environmental energy interacts with it.

Medium is the substance an animal moves through that also allows physical information to be detected through it. Parts that do not afford action are surfaces, or impeding substances. We evolved to interact with surfaces, substances, and mediums, so it is important to incorporate them accurately in digital environments.

Objects Edit

An object is a substance surrounded at least partially by a medium, with a topology that distinguishes it from other surfaces. Objects are an invariant location, so they contribute to the invariance of the surrounding information. An object’s properties and affordances will change based on if it is attached to something.

Objects relate to three modes of experiencing the world: Readiness-to-hand, like when using a tool, you stop thinking about the tool and focus instead on what you use it on (tacit), Unreadiness-to-hand, like if the process of using a tool is disturbed and you have to stop and think about tools and materials (explicit), and Presence-to-hand, which is when you remove the object from the context of being a tool and examine its properties separate from the situation (explicit).

Detached objects can be manipulated, sorted, and classified. Some detached objects, like humans and animals, have agency. We treat each other with consideration for that agency and when we are treated as merely objects, we feel “dehumanized.” Technological systems need to include contextual empathy. Because we evolved knowing that objects have properties, we approach digital tools with the assumption that we can learn those properties too. Not all simulated objects can be manipulated like physical objects, so the user needs to interact with them to see if they can be moved.

A digital interface can be an object, a place, or both at the same time. Users can get confused when digital interfaces suddenly exhibit agency because in the natural world, objects either have agency or they don’t. We evolved being able to learn the properties of objects in our world, so we operate best with digital tools that respect the same rules that would hold constant in the natural world.

Layout Edit

Layout is “the persisting arrangement of surfaces relative to one another and to the ground”[7], the relationship of invariant elements. Different arrangements give different affordances and they affect how effective an action is and how easy it is to understand an environment. Clutter refers to objects that keep an observer from seeing the ground and sky clearly. When a perceiver focuses on one of the objects, it stops being clutter and starts being an affording object. A cluttering object can also be a barrier, which has an affordance of blocking movement.

Layouts are not static. The elements within an environment change based on the needs of the moment. Layout is not random; rather, it is knowable because elements are in their place for a reason. Digital interfaces need to take into account physical layout to understand user needs. Users need clear signals that indicate what objects can be used for. Even though everything is in a digital interface for a reason, that reason might not be clear to the user, meaning that they would see it as clutter.

Events Edit

Hinton describes an event as, “a change in the invariant structures of the environment, such as a change in substance, object, or layout”[8]. The three types are changes in layout of surfaces, changes in color and texture of surfaces, and changes in the existence of surfaces. Events can be nested.

Change blindness occurs when something in the environment changes without being noticed. Users can overlook changes that don’t directly and obviously impact their current activity. Events can have affordances, depending on the context. Some events also have laws, like how we evolved knowing that even though the sun moves, it does it every day, following an invariant pattern. We also interpret time as an event, not as abstraction.

Hinton goes on to illustrate the difficulty of understanding events within digital environments: “Users often struggle to comprehend the events that occur in software environments, where cause-and-effect does not have to follow natural laws”[9]. It can be unclear where objects go or where they came from or why, especially when the system can make things happen without the user’s input. These invisible, automated events have an increasing role in the environment as digital infrastructure becomes more complex.

Place Edit

Place, as a part of how we perceive our environment, has several key factors: 1) Locations or regions with combinations of features that animals can learn. 2) No definite boundaries, but can be placed in artificial boundaries like walls to help users think of an area as a place. 3) Nested, small within large, and can overlap. 4) Movement in the environment is movement among places, which are navigated by paths. 5) We perceive places, not “space.” 6) Place-learning is “learning the affordances of places, and learning to distinguish among them”[10]. This concept is especially relevant to digital writing because the way humans learn about their natural environment applies to the way the approach digital environments. 7) Wayfinding is knowing our relation to the entire environment, or at least the places that matter. 8) Places cannot be displaced, rather, they persist from the perceiver’s point of view. While places can be altered, they are still the same location.

Hinton describes the importance of our conception of space to the practice of digital writing: “Our perceptual system relies on the persistent properties of place, and can be confounded by environments that don’t meet those expectations”[11]. For digital environments, the fact that places can move or simply disappear is unnatural for users. Places impact both how we communicate and how we perceive.

Analysis Edit

Hinton takes a holistic approach to the individual in their environment, showing that the way we operate in the physical world impacts how we operate in the digital world. Based on that understanding, we can create more effective digital environments. Hinton’s description of place and how we understand it is especially important to digital writing. If we are used to operating within a world that we can learn based on what we see, a world that does not change without an obvious sign, then digital environments should more closely resemble the physical world. In understanding that users need obvious notifications when fundamental changes in the digital environment occur, we can design environments that better supply the users with their needed feedback.

In Jonah Lehrer’s article, The Buddy System: How Medical Data Revealed the Secret to Health and Happiness, we have a visual example of how changes ripple through environments. The people within the study illustrate how they change over time. They react to the actions of their peers, but they do so slowly, gradually adjusting their lifestyles to fit that of their environment’s values. Similarly, users everywhere are reluctant to throw themselves into the void of uncertainty by making radical changes. The changes that humans make are made when they are perceived to be necessary. We evolved to conserve energy and work with our environment whenever possible, so large-scale changes without the perceived need work against our natural tendencies.

Digital environments operate best when they mirror environments users already know how to use. The best way to do so is to observe how humans operate within the non-digital environment. The way the humans process information and their willingness to change absolutely applies to the way they approach digital environments. In turn, designers should create environments that play on these natural tendencies and make it easier for users to operate with the digital environment in a similar manner as the physical.

References Edit

  1. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 87
  2. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 91
  3. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 92
  4. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 93
  5. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 96
  6. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 97
  7. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 105
  8. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 107
  9. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 109
  10. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 110
  11. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 111

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