Is the Medium Impacting The Message? (Thoughts on Kate Hartman's TED Talk: The Art of Wearable Communication)

Is the Medium Impacting The Message? (Thoughts on Kate Hartman's TED Talk: The Art of Wearable Communication)

This week is all about Reader Requests. If you have an idea for a post, drop me a line and it might get written (with attribution, of course). This first one comes from @bethmaru who suggested that I take a look at a TED talk by Kate Hartman on The Art of Wearable Communication. Wearable Communication.

Kate Hartman
Kate Hartman screen capture from The Art of Wearable Communication

Not wearable communication devices.
Wearable communication.
Well, then. I was intrigued.

Kate Hartman has been developing prototypes of various clothing items to improve communication. Like a hat that helps you hear yourself better. Or a funnel that lets you fight with another person by letting them hear your angry tone without feeling the sting of your words. (That one is pretty powerful) Or how about a suit that lets you hug (and listen to) a glacier, thereby better understanding the natural world around you.

Bizarre? Extreme? Yes.
Effective? Definitely.

Ms. Hartman explains:

we're in this era of communications and device proliferation, and it's really tremendous and exciting and sexy, but I think what's really important is thinking about how we can simultaneously maintain a sense of wonder and a sense of criticality about the tools that we use and the ways in which we relate to the world.

Yes, the medium is the message. We need to keep in mind what we're using and how we're using it to really understand the impact it has on what we're doing. Here's a for instance: picture a work setting and consider how the following activities could change your interactions with people and your ability to communicate effectively:

  • Writing an email
  • Using instant messenger
  • Talking on the phone
  • Meeting in person

Now, go through that list again and consider two different scenarios:

  1. Your project is going well.
  2. Your project is off the rails.

The outcomes of your interactions with other people could be remarkably different in either of those circumstances: they could be skewed not only by how you choose to interact, but also on the context surrounding the interaction.

Now think about this from a designer's perspective. If you were to design an effective system, site, app or product, you would need to consider your user and their context of use. What tasks are they trying to accomplish? Where are they when they are trying to complete these tasks? How are they trying to complete the tasks? Etc.

But that's not enough.

We often forget to step outside of ourselves and to consider more than just the process itself. We forget to ask: how does the current system (or lack thereof) make them feel? What is the emotional reaction to their current circumstance? Is the system making a bad situation worse? Is it making a good situation bad?

If we only examine the tasks, we can forget about the person completing those tasks. Oh, sure, we might have created personas and identified their back-story. But once we start analyzing the workflow, do we remember to bring their personality with us through the steps to see how s/he would react?

Consider: The most effective exercise I ever used in a workshop was called: "Break the IA" (IA = Information Architecture). In this exercise, small groups of participants each created a detailed persona from a different target audience group. The groups then did a role play, pretending to be their persona, calling themselves by their persona's name, and walking around the room to various stations representing the different content groups in the website architecture, physically completing the path that the user would take through the website. Using coloured markers, they indicated their actions and emotional response at each station they visited. We received comments such as,

  • And this is where he got p*ssed off and went to Google. [with Google logo]
  • And here is where she poured herself a drink. [with martini drawing]
  • And here is where he found exactly what he needed. [with smiley face]
  • And here is where she left the site, never to return. [with angry face]

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