The Framework Age

Liz Danzico is talking at An Event Apart San Francisco about frameworks. Not CSS frameworks, not JavaScript frameworks, not Rails, not Django, but websites as frameworks. These days we’re designing frameworks for user interaction rather than static artefacts.

Liz tells a story about Miles Davis who showed up at the studio with six slips of paper listing the six musicians he wanted to play with on his record. Over the course of one day, these people who had never played this music together recorded a whole album. Davis wanted to capture something called creative instability. Kind of Blue came out of this framework that he created.

Liz wants to talk about frameworks that are uninscribed and detectable cues that loosely govern a set of actions. These are interaction frameworks, frameworks that shape how people behave.

Back to music. Classical music uses classical notation. If you can’t read notation, you can’t make sense of it so it’s kind of elitist. It also provides rules like tempo and key. If you step outside these boundaries, you are deviating from the notation. Also, every note is accounted for in the notation. You can’t improvise it. Jazz notation is different. It provides chord progressions. It’s up to the musician to improvise around this framework. Modal jazz is even more abstract. That’s what Miles Davis invented that day in the studio. Kind of Blue was created out of just a scale.

On the web, we’re making the same transition from classical to jazz. We’re improvising. We’ve moved from a hard-coded system of building pages to an open system of creating participatory environments.

But this kind of tension is nothing new. It’s being going on for years. There’s been a long-running tension between orality and literacy. The printing press destroyed a lot of oral tradition but we still use word of mouth to pass on urban legends and recipes. Liz mentions Alex Wright’s observation in Glut that we are seeing a resurgence in this kind of oral tradition online. Even though we’re writing in blogs and mailing lists, we’re not so much publishing as talking.

There’s evidence of improv online. Exquisite simplicity was how pianist Bill Evans described Miles Davis’s framework of six slips of paper.

Quoting from The Paradox of Choice, Liz shows how the default settings can make a big difference (in the number of organ donations, for example, which could be opt-in or opt-out). Geni has some smart default settings. Same with Tripit. All you need to do is forward an email and it will take care of the rest. Focus on creating smart defaults.

In improv, you need to involve the audience. It’s important to adapt to what your audience is doing. Here’s an example from architecture: there was a fountain that was built in Washington Square Park in New York but before they got ‘round to turning it on, people started using it as a seating area. When the city tried to turn on the fountain, people revolted. The fountain is dry to this day and is used for public theatre.

Referring to the redesign of the Wordpress admin, Liz points out that it’s really important to involve users in the design process. There’s a difference between asking your audience what they think of a system compared to looking at how they are actually using that system.

Listen and watch. That’s another lesson we can take from music and apply to the web. When you’re playing with other people, not only do you have to listen to what the other people are doing, you have to watch them too. It’s the same with architecture. Desire paths are created by people actually using a space. They show clearly where paths should be built. Eyetracking can reveal the desire paths of users interacting with an application. There are other tools like User Voice which can involve the audience. Observe. Listen. Pay attention.

A common technique in Jazz is call and response when musicians play off one another. You see this online in reviews where the reviews start reacting to each other rather than the original item being reviewed. Allow users to build on one another.

User-centred design and participatory design are great ways of involving the users in the design process but that’s still different to actual use. It’s time for a new way of working: designing for improvisation (but remember that no one single process will ever be successful). Our design process should reflect the trend towards user participation that we’re seeing on the web. People’s tolerance for improvisation is increasing and our role as framework providers should reflect that.

Have you published a response to this? :