On the language of Interactions

XV.1 January + February 2008
Page: 6
Digital Citation

Ps AND QsWhat’s in a name?

Elizabeth Churchill

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"I'll wall you," someone teased me the other day. If you do, I'll poke you, I retorted. We both laughed. The person sitting next to us looked mystified. I proceeded to try and explain that no, my friend wasn't going to come to my house with a spray-paint can and personally annotate a wall. And no, I wasn't going to reach over with my bony index finger and prod him in the side.

Give it a shot: Explain to someone who has never been on a social-networking site, much less used Facebook, what it means to "write on my wall" or to "poke" someone. A lot of words, several dubious analogies, and a couple of wobbly metaphors later, I gave up, got my laptop out, and proceeded to demonstrate—to show him just why writing that thing feels like such a threat, and why my poking back lacks firepower. To be honest, it isn't even clear to me if being poked is a good or bad thing. But, by "walling me" with that comment, my friend was essentially saying he would embarrass me publicly by sharing something mind-bendingly silly with all the folks who are my Facebook friends.

Walls, poking, and friendship... This all got me thinking about communication—in particular about the language we use when naming the human-computer-human interactions we design, and more generally, about idioms, metaphors, and idiomatic reasoning. And about metaphorical memes, shared understandings thereof (or not), and the actions that invite, inspire, and imply.

It has been argued that our conceptual system, the terms in which we think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. Idioms, metaphors, and similes are evocative. They describe one thing in terms of another, enhancing our conceptualization—often of both things. Telling someone they look like a bulldog licking mustard off a thistle or that they look like a shaved monkey reflected in a spoon is going to make you think differently, even if only for a second and only for humorous effect.

Similes, analogies, and idioms sometimes spring from experiences with technology. Some are easy to trace. "Don't stand there like one o'clock half struck," my mother used to say to me. (Think about it.) Some idioms stand the test of time; to burn the candle at both ends has been a warning for decades, probably longer. The blocks didn't fall right is readily understood to mean something did not work out as planned, even to people who have never played Tetris, whence the idiom purportedly derives.

Sometimes idioms converge conceptually despite their divergent sources. All singing, all dancing, and fully loaded—one idiom in performance, the other in capacity, but now they are used interchangeably in conversation.

In technology design, metaphors are also often used to nudge people to act in certain ways. The desktop metaphor is a well-known example—the use of documents, files, and folders as pointers to... documents, files and folders. In 1999, Bill Hibbard, emeritus senior scientist at the Space Science and Engineering Center, articulately invited us at ACM's Siggraph to "find effective visual idioms for direct manipulation user interactions with visualizations" and to "find effective visual idioms for collaborative interactions among multiple users."

But, there be dragons. Metaphors and analogies underpin our creative leaps, our lateral thinking, our inspirations, but they also constrain us. In lazy moments metaphors become the thing, become reified and reused, confused with fact or rules for design. Scaffolding reasoning through metaphors, similes, and analogies can lead to problems of initial understanding, design rigidity, and overextension, and—perhaps most interestingly for the global world of internet-based interaction and communication—problems of translation and derivation.

To the first point, inevitably there will be breaks in design metaphors. For example, years ago, despite a friend's insistence that the desktop metaphor interface was "absolutely intuitive," the metaphor did not immediately make sense to a lot of people—including me. I found it absolutely not intuitive.

For context, I had ventured into the world of file and folder icons from the land of the command line. Consequently, on this first exposure to the desktop graphical user interface or "GUI," I spent a long time looking for grep. I mistakenly tried to concatenate files by slamming one icon into another. Finally, I sat paralyzed for some time, refusing stubbornly to drag my floppy disk icon into the trash can, or "the bin" as I called it, being British, because I did not believe this was the way to eject a floppy disk. No, I reasoned, that would surely simply erase everything on it the disk—throw it all away. Wrong mental model. As HCI pioneers Frank Halasz and Tom Moran pointed out in 1982, this was an analogy-inspired mental model that could be considered harmful; it certainly caused me some stress and a few cross words. Looking back I thank the stars (whoever they may be) for desktop search. I also learned to say it correctly as "gooey" and later was satisfied to publish something with that name.

Beyond limited representational correspondence, there is little similarity between the socially embedded and physically embodied interaction of manipulating papers files and folders and pointing and clicking on icons. Or between writing on a Facebook wall and grafitti-ing the brick structure I can see out of my window. However, there's a lot to be said for playful, memorable visual cues and nice mnemonics (and in the case of the desktop metaphor, good consistency across application menus). These are great ways to get people to spend time and learn to use the maddest and baddest of interface designs. And, with exposure, somehow these odd connections start to feel like they are obvious and intuitive. It is a strange trait of human beings that we tend to forget how confusing things were before we learned them. Which brings us to another common phrase—it's easy if you know how.

Few idioms and metaphors are translatable into other languages. I don't have any ready technology-inspired foreign idioms to illustrate this point, but to pull the radishes by the leaves purportedly means to get the wrong end of the stick in Spanish. And when talking to someone who speaks Spanish, if you want to spill the beans, you set free the pigs. Some turns of phrase cross subculture boundaries; the desktop metaphor is a case in point. But there are many that probably don't.

When and how do our turns of phrase and pithy analogies become contentful, recognized idioms or metaphors, understood by a culture or subculture? And what happens when someone comes along and tries to keep a metaphor in place but at the same time extend it? "What's Mebendazole and laxatives for a computer? I think I've got a worm." This is an extended metaphor that I am pretty sure won't catch on.

Do people have slightly different meanings ascribed to idioms? Do they become slippery over time? And what happens when you retain the form, prompting the meaning, but replace words accidentally or intentionally (as my friend's German-speaking mother did when learning English in stating that a popular form of face-cream was "selling like hot bricks?") I still knew what she meant, but typing it into my regular search engine just now offered a dog's breakfast of results.

Sometimes the original derivation of an idiom gets lost. I am not sure that always matters. But, personally, I worry that there is incipient ideology that lurks therein... and that I am inadvertently saying something, that if I understood it, I would be mortified at my gaucheness. Someone once told me that they had named their game design company something that sounded cool in English but that meant something heinous in Swahili. That cautionary tale is worth heeding.

How does all this relate to a favorite idiom, the source of this column's name? Mind your Ps and Qs. Following a short but effective pilot-study methodology (I asked all my friends) and a preliminary literature review (I searched the Web), I found that there are four main derivations for this idiom1. All users agreed that the term means to watch your manners, be cautious, and be cognizant of etiquette. All stress appropriate social performance, and everyone seems to think it's an old phrase. Mother Internet suggests the source lies as far back as the 1600s or 1700s. Here are the most popular derivation assertions, in order of most interesting to me, and in four main categories: technology affordances, literacy, etiquette, and folk wisdom.

Technology Affordances. One of the most popular explanations is that the phrase comes from typesetting, from the early days of printing, when movable type was positioned for printing on presses. The lowercase letters p and q were hard to tell apart since they are in most cases mirror images of each other. As each line had to be set up one letter at a time, and letters are placed into printing presses in reverse, the printmakers needed to be careful not to confuse one letter for the other. A complex, visual mental rotation was in order. My personal favorite explanation is learning to touch type on an old metal typewriter. Typists in typing pools were apparently reminded to type with even pressure to ensure an even ink appearance on typed pages. As p and q require the most reach on QWERTY keyboards, these were often the letters that came out lighter, or "ghosted," due to a lack of decisive typing pressure. Having learned to type on an old metal beast of a machine, I can sympathize with this one.

Another explanation is that Ps and Qs are short for "pints and quarts," two measurements for drinks. In the days of yore when pubs really were taverns, mind your Ps and Qs was a request for bartenders to be careful that they accurately tallied how much people had been drinking. And on the other side of that exchange, when uttered at a customer, it meant, You're acting drunk—behave!

Literacy. Another interpretation of the idiom says it refers to the problems children apparently have in learning the letters p and q, since they are mirror images of each other. Rather like typesetters, children apparently confuse these letters because a loop with a line to the right or a line to the left kind of look the same. They need to learn that the location of the line down is the essential feature that distinguishes the two.

Behavior and Etiquette. As a child, I was told that the phrase meant to be careful to say please and thank you—mind your pleases and thank-yous (thank Q's). The most unlikely, it seems to me, is that it was something sailors were told so that they would not soil their navy pea-jackets with their tarred "queues" (pigtails). Not buying that one.

Folk Wisdom. Finally, as in all things, there are the money-minded who suggest it means minding your pennies and quarters, or being careful with your money, and the philosophical who say one should always remember that you have "priorities" in life, and the "qualities" of your character will help you achieve them.

So, does mind your Ps and Qs literally mean be careful with the technology of printing to get the desired result, or does it mean to behave yourself appropriately?

Mind your Ps and Qs is about a particular technology-related practice and is also a socially embedded admonition regarding interpersonal behaviors; one should not reduce the latter to the former. We also should not reduce complex sociotechnical designs to static, metaphor-based solutions. Design metaphors should not be treated as promissory notes, i.e., because we invoke an analogy or metaphor once, we are held to it ever after, to mould each new iteration into a (notionally) consistent extension of the metaphor, in perpetuity.

It feels like the design challenges are becoming greater with the proliferation of interactive experiences at the desktop but also developments in pervasive and ubiquitous applications.

Despite its warts, the desktop metaphor has inspired much thoughtful design. But...

What parts of the desktop metaphor are still relevant in today's world of widely available and powerful graphical interface-design tools, open APIs, mashups, and proficient and talented "amateur" interface designers? How far will we go with mashups and with Web-based, interactive document formats before a Web page is not a page? When will VOIP not be like phoning someone? What models are appropriate for signaling consistencies and continuities between interactive experiences that bounce off the desktop and onto public displays and into interactive objects? Should we move to a new model for recreational spaces? And what should that model be? Is "walling" someone the right or only metaphor for leaving a public message in a social-networking space? What other metaphors could there be for these communication spaces? And which, if any, will last? What issues arise when we design for cross-cultural connections? What responsibility do we as designers deal with in situations where we have, perhaps unwittingly, imparted an ideology that, when examined, we do not agree with?

The Ps and Qs of social-media environments pose particular challenges because interaction design is palpably not performance and activity engineering: Users appropriate, transform, and elaborate, and issues of social etiquette and social play are in constant tension, not owned by the users, the service providers, or the "technology" itself. Such social systems do not have a single binding metaphor but a complex weave of them. As designers we are charged with generating, using, and disseminating these metaphors, but also, most crucially, questioning them, even if that makes us unpopular.

The Ps and Qs column in upcoming issues will be about what happens as etiquettes develop and the relationships that emerge between interactive technologies and people's actions. In interviews and reported conversations, I'll look at the tensions and the interactions between these issues in various domains: Already planned are a discussion of how guardians and children understand evolving etiquettes, sanctions, and concerns in internet communication; issues in digital copyright and ownership of content; personal perspectives in controlling access to us and to our stuff; personal digital archives—the models, metaphors, and confusions of shoebox-under-the-bed metaphors and tensions in the design digital/physical doppelgangers; and the tangle of online identifiers. In each case, I'll chat with a person or persons who are smart, engaging, or simply opinionated on the topic in question.

So please, feel free to shoot the breeze, but mind your Ps and Qs when writing on my wall. And yes, "walling" apparently has already made it into the online Urban Dictionary.

back to top  Author

Elizabeth Churchill
Yahoo! Research

About the Author

Dr. Elizabeth Churchill is a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research leading research in social media. Originally a psychologist by training, for the past 15 years she has studied and designed technologies for effective social connection. At Yahoo, her work focuses on how internet applications and services are woven into everyday lives. Obsessed with memory and sentiment, in her spare time Elizabeth researches how people manage their digital and physical archives. Elizabeth rates herself a packrat, her greatest joy is an attic stuffed with memorabilia.

back to top  Footnotes

1I do not advocate trying this method in your daily work practice.

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/0100  $5.00

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