City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Fascinating day yesterday at an internal BBC event for the new media community (called ‘Digital Futures’, following a similar event last year), in which we pulled in a few external speakers to provoke discussion around user experience design. I’m afraid I missed Ron Pompei’s presentation, which I’m very sorry about (phone call from the boss to handle). Apparently it was good though. Matt Webb hacked his Mind Hacks into new shapes. Dan and Adrian Hon gave a fascinating talk around their Perplex City alternate reality game, of which I am in awe at the sheer scale of the operation. Natalie Jeremijenko foregrounded the ethical aspects of interaction design, drawing on feral robot geese accordingly, and Jeff Veen of Adaptive Path picked over Web 2.0, of which more below.

But well done to the fabulous Max Gadney and his colleagues on NM Design Forum for sorting it – a really useful day, which provided a cogent summary of current issues, somehow wide-ranging and related at one and the same time. It will have inspired many in the team to produce higher quality interactive experiences for public service. Which is A Good Thing. The question left buzzing around my head at the end of the day was the following one, which I asked to Jeff Veen.

Jeff’s talk adapted his colleague Jesse James Garrett’s excellent layers diagram from The Elements of the User Experience (in turn a reworking of Stewart Brand’s layers diagram, also done here) in order to present a framework for interrogating what was truly new and useful amidst Web 2.0’s hypefest. The latter is subject of ludicrous focus, particularly in and around San Francisco as Jeff admits. But equally, there is something genuine in the increasingly smooth convergence of techniques which have been gestating for a few years. However, the point is what do we do with it, and how? On the former, there’s no shortage of ideas. On the latter, Jeff usefully indicated a way of separating out the various issues across the different layers of surface, skeleton, structure, scope and strategy. Which equates to the visual layer (surface), the varying structural layers of ordering information and information architecture (skeleton/structure), the sense of what’s online and what isn’t (scope), and what we’re doing in the first place (strategy). It was a good talk, as ever from Jeff, and developed a coherent framework to articulate user experiences – always useful.

My concern, and question to him, was the relationship between the surface layer and ‘trust’. Jeff summoned up the recent research around web users ‘judging’ sites within 1/20th of a second, which has swept through the interaction design community. This snap judgement illustrates how we are drawn towards particular sites, even at a blink. But I reckon equating that judgement with trust is a step too far. My question suggested that, in the physical world, people are often drawn into deeper relationships with objects that indicate patterns of usage, signs of graceful aging. People generally don’t follow the road not taken, but the well-trodden path. Stone steps bowed through human traffic or a banister polished by the accumulation of thousands of hands draws us in somehow, begins to embark upon a relationship which might engender trust. Typically, Brian Eno said something about this:

“We are convinced by things that show an internal complexity, that show the traces of an interesting evolution. Those signs tell us that we might be rewarded if we accord it our trust. An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface. This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet.”

The judgements we make at the 1/20th second stage are actually about other things – does this site look professional, polished? We were drawn towards the site which ‘looked good’; or balanced from a graphic design perspective. Which is relatively easy to achieve and reinforce, frankly. And indeed, the result of that may also be embarkation upon a relationship of trust. Yet I feel there’s something missing in this surface layer. This was alluded to amidst the comments of my New Musical Experiences talk.

An example: when I give someone a record on vinyl, and the sleeve is a little dog-eared and I spend a minute describing it, this object is implicitly laden with semantic information, often indicating that the record is well-loved, played or handled frequently, in context. This information is surface (visible but essentially non-functional) or transient (my speech a threshold between you and the object, in an architectural sense). When I chuck you an mp3 – or you browse my collection – there’s generally no such implicit information. The speech may still be there, possibly, but what other implicit information is? Certain ‘meta-music experiences’ can indicate patterns of usage, but only in a crude quantitative fashion, and these are almost always distant from the moments of exchange or experience, as my talk indicated.

So trust could perhaps be inferred from the things which Jeff put at the structural level in his framework – the emergent information architecture, the flurry of tagging and rating, which indicate patterns of usage, other people, “traces of an interesting evolution” in Eno’s words. So my question remains, as well as these layers of experience, how can we pull that sense of interesting evolution – of traces of other people and what they did – to the surface layer? What visual patterns could we develop to indicate that? These could lead towards a more sophisticated, meaningful judgement beyond that mere 1/20th second sense of ‘polish’, beyond that “finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface”, based on enabling questions like “Do I want to do that too? Are they like me? Do I know them or these things?” and so on – the things which could truly begin to engender trust.

In other words, when we’re presenting interfaces of tracks or radio programmes or books that people have a relationship with, how do we represent those relationships and patterns of usage at the surface layer? Is there something beyond presenting a list of ‘most listened to’ or making it bigger in a ‘tag cloud’? These are both fairly crude and reinforce basic behaviour of clicking on the top thing or the big thing. In fact, the patina on the record sleeve, or the bowing of the steps, merely indicates a pattern of usage. Can we go beyond this with digital products, to indicate the semantic arc of an evolution, as quantity does not imply the particular quality of a relationship. We can hardly fade out the mp3’s title to indicate wear and tear. So what is this digital surface equivalent of wear and tear? What analogues can we develop to provide the equivalent of subtle, implicit meaning conveyed by the appearance of the well-loved book or record? How can we play to the subconscious in interesting, graceful ways to convey intrinsic meaning and engender trust in rendering the surface layer?

Aside: Although the inquisitive conclusion to that last paragraph makes me sound like some kind of interaction designing Carrie Bradshaw, another question springs to mind i.e. is the digital surface layer so supremely different to the physical world that these analogues make no sense at all? Further, is the relationship implied in Eno’s quote imbued with an out-dated, perhaps Old World (European) fascination with objects which last, age, can be re-used or adapted? Is the sheer plasticity – or post-plasticity for that matter – of this world so formally different that our relationships with objects that age become irrelevant? I don’t think so, or rather I don’t want to think so.


5 responses to “How can the design of digital surfaces help engender trust?”

  1. Preoccupations Avatar

    The one more travelled

    cityofsound: How can the design of digital surfaces help engender trust?:Jeff summoned up the recent research around web users ‘judging’ sites within 1/20th of a second, which has swept through the interaction design community. This snap judgement illu…


  2. Nick Avatar

    fascinating Dan – do you see any relationship between trust in design and trust in editorial content? Is there a difference


  3. leisa reichelt Avatar

    I thought this was a really interesting post and its all over some of the questions I’ve been asking myself lately.
    I think that your question – “how can we pull that sense of interesting evolution – of traces of other people and what they did – to the surface layer?” – is particularly interesting where we’re not designing the next 2.0 service to sell to Google, but we’re redesigning a large corporate or government site.
    Here there are all kinds of constraints and challenges that need to be dealt with, but there are so many different opportunities for dealing with them now – assuming we can define the right ones and sell them in successfully.
    More than anything I loved the idea of being the ‘Carrie Bradshaw of interaction design’. I have to admit I think that describes me perfectly a lot of the time. And what’s to be ashamed of? We should be asking a lot of questions and questioning accepted approaches and conventions, and we’re kidding ourselves (I think) if we try to have all the answers right now.
    Now, if only I had her shoes…


  4. adrian Chan Avatar

    I havent read jeff’s work on this, but there’s an important distinction between trust (among people who know each other), and the the phenom you’re describing, which might be called confidence, or history, or familiarity… And are you after increasing your confidence in the object or information, or in its users? Because those, again, would be very different. There’s not much you can restore to users you’ve never met, (e.g. delicious)… I’m not sure how much can be gained from data about (meta) people. Descriptions are no substitute for experience.
    The judging in 1/20th of a sec; i think that’s recognition. somebody’s confused recognition and trust…


  5. Preoccupations Avatar

    Trackback: The one more travelled from Preoccupations: “cityofsound: How can the design of digital surfaces help engender trust?:Jeff summoned up the recent research around web users ‘judging’ sites within 1/20th of a second, which has swept through the interaction design community. This snap judgement illu…” [Read More]


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