Models and principles relevant to design

XVI.3 May + June 2009
Page: 50
Digital Citation

Ps AND QsDigital order

Elizabeth Churchill

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Sneaky little devil, that iPod shuffle. The beauty of this well-designed object is that, in its simplicity, it unmasked the digital complexity of the rest of my life. It has started a whirlwind of digital tidying in my house that is driving not just me but all my friends mad.

This is a cautionary tale, and here's how it all began. Recently, I received an iPod shuffle, which I love for a number of reasons. It was an expected gift, so it makes me happy because of what it connotes. 2009 also happens to be the 30-year anniversary of the birth of the "personal soundtrack." In 1979 Sony launched the "Soundabout," a portable, 14 oz. personal stereo that became better known as the Sony Walkman. Thus, I was actually gifted a reflective moment in the history of personal technology. The shuffle's form factor is superb. It's small and light and easy to carry around, and it has a built-in clip, which means I am not constantly dropping it. And it's silver, so it matches my handbag. It is easy to set up and use. It does not violate Churchill's Design Principle No. 1, which is to never interrupt humans on their path to gratification unless you are: A. trying to teach them something, B. a game designer with a fiendish plot twist in mind, or C. you know they are Zen monks in training or members of a self-discipline cult. The shuffle takes you to gratification at autobahn speed; it goes straight from package to performance—no setup frustration, no waiting to use the new toy. Finally, I love the feature referenced in the marketing tagline—"life is random"—during the 2005 product launch. As soon as it is plugged in, the shuffle auto-fills with songs randomly selected from a user's music library (or a specific playlist).

Generally I am not a person who likes random. I like to know what's coming next. I like matching beats and evoking moods with music. I create playlists. So at first I thought the iPod broke with Churchill's Design Principle No. 2: Keep the surprises to a minimum and user control to a maximum. However, this little device has brought some serendipity to my life, and as a result it has reinvigorated my love of my music collection. I have been reintroduced to music that has lain dormant, invisibly resting deep inside my computer in places I never browse. With the shuffle at the helm, I am regaled with Matisyahu followed by Abba followed by Motörhead followed by Thomas Tallis followed by Mozart followed by Pole followed by Zappa. Some of these bring a smile to my face; others lead me to wistful emotional archaeology.

But, here's the rub, and the genesis of Churchill's Design Principle No. 3: Know that your device, if truly successful, will bring about much change, will have knock-on effects in the life of the individual who embraces it. This principle is the closest I have ever come to sounding like a fortune cookie.

Why this principle? Because my shuffle sparked a compulsion to tidy up, to consolidate my music. I reasoned that if one library were this much fun, how great might it be if my shuffle could sample from all my music? So, I decided to consolidate my iTunes libraries from my three computers. Sounds easy, right? No. Here we go down the rabbit hole that began with the shuffle.

Let me tell you, trying to fuse three iTunes libraries from different computers is not as easy as it should be. First, nothing to do with the music library itself, I encountered the problem of storage space. Between the three libraries, I have hundreds of gigabytes of music. As a result of my first attempt to merge my libraries, my poor computer started creaking and slowed to a crawl. Only 5 gigabytes of free space. Bloat alert. Abort copy. Move into computer CPR. Purchase an external hard drive and attach to ailing computer.

Having just been knee-deep in a mess of digital files, it was clear to me that to date my personal information management technique had been the work of many, somewhat sentient, processors: Me, my applications and my devices. Each of us had a different idea of what a file hierarchy should look like.

Several hours later, I began the copy again. All seemed to be going well. But post-copy, on firing up iTunes, I could not see the music I knew I had. So I tried a menu option: "Add to Library" and went hunting for the files. This did not work. So, I took a peek in the iTunes library folder. (This is like looking in that cupboard where you shove everything you will need for tax time, myriad bits of paper that may be useful and demand to be sorted come March.) I saw that I didn't have a consistent folder structure. To be clear, I had a lot of structure, but it did not appear to be consistent structure. Why not? Who knows! Perhaps I inherited some structure from bygone days when I was in love with another mp3 player.

Suddenly I was in a series of Internet forums, searching, browsing, asking questions, begging people for information, and feeling frustrated that I did not know all-things-database; swiftly realizing no one else seemed to know what was going on either and I had no grounds on which to evaluate the different—sometimes conflicting—advice I was reading.

To cut to the chase and save you the dull and drawn-out details, in the end I called a friend who is not only patient, but also the Dr. Doolittle of the computer kingdom. He came over and sorted out what he diagnosed as a meta-data problem. He muttered all along about meta-data and index files, and inscrutable menus. And that he is "not a Mac user" and why is this folder structure so complicated...

We (well, he) completed the merge days later. The resultant tidy folder of folders in folders, Russian-doll style, was a beautiful thing to behold. This clean slate set in motion the kind of obsessive compulsive behavior that would have made Lady Macbeth proud. My greedy, music-hungry eyes lit upon the remaining 600 or so CDs I had not yet ripped. Anything that looked like a CD was put in line for the music-ripping conveyer belt. Then I set about solving the next problem that emerged—removing duplicates from my music library. There were up to three versions of various CDs, each in a different format, making it difficult to decide which version was best. So, back online I went, reading about formats and "de-duping", i.e., removing duplicates. Carrying out version comparison and removing duplicates should be easy—this surely follows the really basic principle that boring dull repetitive tasks should be done by computers who are good at that sort of thing, while we humans do the creative stuff. Isn't that what batch processing is all about? Finally, thanks to iDupe, a nifty little application that simplifies the duplicate music file problem, the job was done. I had ripped hundreds of CDs and was ready to shuffle randomly across hundreds of gigabytes of music.

Then, my newly purchased Seagate external hard drive refused to mount—intermittently. I now had all my tamed music files and folders on an apparently failing hard drive. Detour again. This time, however, I was in a complete panic. I did not yet have a backup of those clean music files, old and new. Having at this point sunk hours into this music organizing process, I was not ready for a repeat performance. All the while, a recently unearthed 1980s song by the Fixx, "One Thing Leads to Another" played in my mind, accompanying my distress.

Fast-forward a few days. I am under my desk inserting a new terabyte drive in my computer. I am backing-up and consolidating my farm of external hard drives. I am researching RAID backup solutions. I have gone insane.

I think some have called this insanity "personal information management"; that much lauded activity in which an individual (quite possibly an OCD individual) sorts and resorts and stores his/her personal-information items (e.g., files, email messages, Web favorites, contacts) with retrieval in mind. Having just been knee-deep in a mess of digital files, it was clear to me that to date my personal information management technique had been the work of many, somewhat sentient, processors: Me, my applications and my devices. Each of us had a different idea of what a file hierarchy should look like. Thus, over the years, we collectively created a muddled set of incompatible file hierarchies. Each local decision we made—me and my applications and appliances—was, in some sense, optimized within the realm of local control and convenience. But the global picture, illuminated by my innocent shuffle, turned out to be unwieldy, and detours were necessary when the multiple possible breaking points got strained. None of us involved "owned" or understood enough about the global situation to be aware of the problem or easily fix it. That being said, in retrospect, it was probably up to me to be vigilant all along. But how was I to know vigilance was required? I was seduced by convenience and wanting to get on with my social, embodied life. Tidying and maintaining my digital closets was not my top priority.

This all begs the question: Would I have done things differently had I known? If I had known that the merge and removal of duplicates was going to be such a pain, would I have not set up several different libraries? More likely, I would have done everything the way I did it and said to myself: "I'll clean up later." Hindsight is not foresight, and in this instance there was none to be had. How would I have known there would be clean-up? I have been dealing with layers of systems, each of which in itself was supposed to be the ultimate—and final—solution. (Each music format was supposed to be the one, right? And I am old enough to remember the day when 640K was supposed to accommodate anybody's digital needs.)

Ultimately, I'm not unhappy about this unplanned cleanup. I am reminded of my friend who wanted a "crunchy crunchy thing" (aka a disposal unit) in her kitchen sink. When she spec'ed what she wanted, she realized it required a double sink. This double sink was larger than her current sink, which required the kitchen counter to be replaced...and on the story goes. A kitchen extension into where the garden patio had been, several thousands of dollars and many months of dust later, she has a gorgeous new kitchen, all sparked by the disposal unit and justified in one-step increments. She is happy, no question. But my point is you never know what is going to spark that life revolution.

Reflecting on my encounter with my shuffle and its consequences, I have some lessons to add to my ad hoc design principles:

  • Lesson One—loosen control and good things might happen (or falling in love, even with a device, can change your life)
  • Lesson Two—random can lead to order
  • Lesson Three—digital order is an ongoing and time-consuming process, not an end state, not least because the world itself keeps changing around us
  • Lesson Four—the solution does not lie in well-developed, mental models of individual devices and applications; it's about charting multiple technological worlds of negotiated meaning
  • Lesson Five—current, state of the art personal-information management does not scale to the bigger digital person I've become. Contemporary personal-information management concepts and applications, no matter how well scoped for my smaller self or my partitioned self (work/home/hobby), are pint sized, and therefore out of their depth when dealing with my digital ocean.

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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 Churchill researches how people manage their digital and physical archives. She rates herself a packrat, her greatest joy is an attic stuffed with memorabilia.

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0500  $5.00

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