The Double-Edged Sword: The Informed Amateur As Expert Partner
The digitizing of information, the rapid rise of digital information systems, and increased access to those systems by a broad range of people have challenged the way in which we look at specialists and the roles they play. In many industries, specialists are no longer information gatekeepers, but rather system negotiators. For example, in the travel industry, agents provide value not by finding the best deals—which you can do yourself online—but by ensuring your trip goes smoothly. If you’re stuck at an airport after missing a connecting flight, you have someone to call.
The consumer and the specialist are now more likely to work in partnership. While we may never hold a scalpel during surgery, we may—through online research—find treatment options to discuss with our doctor. Families who deal with long courses of medical treatment for particular diseases often find they are better informed about recent studies and discoveries than their doctors, who don’t always have time to keep up with their reading. While we may never fill out our tax forms, we may strive to become better informed about tax breaks that may potentially benefit us. And while we’re unlikely to build our own homes, we might make suggestions about earth-friendly materials or alternative power sources to our contractors. Though specialized knowledge is far from universally accessible, the trend is toward information sharing. All this access to formerly proprietary or at least hard-to-find data means we are increasingly better informed.
Yet this access to information is a double-edged sword. For example, we have a dizzying array of choices among global vendors for products, investments, and travel. We are also increasingly responsible for managing everything from our bank accounts to our credit, our insurance plans to our retirement plans, our health care to our education. This responsibility is time-consuming—and while we are no longer amateurs, we’re not really experts either. Herein lies a great challenge for information designers, who must format data to aid understanding, decision-making, and efficient task completion.
The Problem of Reinventing the Wheel
It seems like every system has its own proprietary method of information display: the user interface for managing your 401(k) is different from the one you use to manage your home and auto insurance, which is different still from your online bank’s bill-paying system, which is a separate user interface from that which lets you view your credit card charges and unrelated to the user interface for your stock-trading account. Our current model of interaction with digital systems requires us to learn a separate system for each different type of transaction we perform. While this may have been a natural way for our digital systems to evolve, we have reached a point of diminishing returns for our digital experiences, at which these separate systems have ceased to be convenient or time-saving and have become burdensome instead.
We can no longer consider the tasks of information design and user interface design independent of the broader context. The complex information environments people inhabit should influence the way designers approach their tasks. We have made some progress: There are universally understood icons and keyboard shortcuts that remain constant across most operating systems, application programs, and Web applications.
As designers, we may understand how our decisions affect users’ understanding of a digital product within the confines of a specific project—as well as a product’s usability and accessibility—but we rarely, if ever, understand how a product, service, or publication we produce fits into a person’s overall life or workflow. We may see a data-collection problem we need to solve for a client; the user sees yet another information interface to puzzle through. Our displays and user interfaces are technologies that must fit into people’s lives, not the other way around. We must become acutely aware of the pressures that complex systems place upon people. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, the products we create will not receive the same attention, acclaim, and interest from our audience that we give to them.
A perfect example of the unintended and unexpected consequences that result from digital experiences that are not part of an interrelated system appears in the proliferation of user account information. To keep users’ data private, we’ve secured our Web sites and applications with passwords. But each site membership and each application, requires users to remember a different set of account information. When solving the problem of data security, we did not imagine the sea of user names and passwords that would confuse people’s everyday lives. Our solution for securing information has created another problem: We need so many complicated alphanumerical passwords that we’re forced to write them down on an unsecured piece of paper or risk losing access to our data.