The Digital Place You Love Is Gone

Expanding on Marsha Haverty’s discourse on meaning, we’ll look at what happens when we encounter loss of place.┬áSo many times we design for new users, with only a passing nod at existing ones. But what happens when we redesign a familiar experience, especially one that people have “grown up with”? What happens when digital destinations disappear? A strong dissonance affects people who become used to a certain digital place, a certain set of patterns, images, and interactions. When this place changes, especially dramatically, people experience loss, frustration, anger, blame, and confusion.

We’ll use Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s “The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home” as a starting point, with strong nods to work by Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati, Jim Kalbach, Peter Morville, and other experts in placemaking, wayfinding, and other digital geographies. We’ll look at physical analogies as well as digital examples. Ultimately, we’ll ponder key approaches to easing the sense of loss people might experience when progress destroys their digital homes.

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Joe Sokohl: A lot of us have had loss in a physical sense, digital sense, and other things, and so a very quick small journey. This is my dad in '68 or so, maybe, at my mother's father's house, my maternal grandparents' house. They lived just a few blocks, about a mile away. When I look at this picture, it does take me back to that time, and that chair in that corner with the cupboard.

Then a picture from '71 of my father, and my grandfather immediately behind his left shoulder, and my cousin/uncle Dee over my father's right shoulder. Of course, everybody's going to key in on the cigarette. I grew up with two parents smoking non-filtered Pall Mall's in the non-air-conditioned car going down the road with the ashes flying in from the front windows to the back.

Obviously there's memory that's evoked here, but it's memory of a place, and the place itself is a memory. When my oldest brother got married, and my father was the best man, Jack's best man, and my brother and I were groomsmen, still in that same corner.

Now we come to today where the house is still in the family. My middle brother lives there. Recently visiting after Shirley, my cousin who owned the house after everyone else had died, after my father had passed away a couple of years ago. I look at that corner and I say, "It's the same corner but it's not the same corner. It's the same place but it's not the same place."

Or the opposite corner where my grandfather would sit in front of the fire, and they always had the cedar tree, which we always hated because when you're putting the ornaments on, it's always sticking you in the hands. My oldest brother and his wife, and so it's a few years later, but my grandfather was still there, but he's not anymore.

I can look at these windows, and these are the same windows. This is the same fucking chair, but it's about ghosts. There are ghosts there, but there are also ghosts, not just because of memory, not because of nostalgia, or things, but because of the me who is me.

As Melissa says, cognitive maps, formed by the brain upon first viewing a place really don't like to be changed. Emphasis is hers. It's about those cognitive maps that form these patterns and the more over time, the duration of something, over the usage of that.

When we start looking at digital places, and this is one of these realizations, is, she says, and this is something we have to realize, this is not meant to be anti-progress. This talk, and my thinking, and her thinking, is not meant to be a Luddite, "I just want to go back to the way things were. God dang it, the kids these days with their loud music, I'll tell ya. Not like when I was a kid. Led Zeppelin, that was music. Nine Inch Nails, new stuff.

No, it's not meant to be that, but every place writes its own elegy before it's even founded. We're born, we live, we die. So does our work. We have to think about how that's used.

Oliver Sacks has this great quote. You can read it, but, "Discontinuity and nostalgia are most profound if in growing up we leave or lose the place where we've born. If we are become expatriates, or if the place, or life, we are brought up in, is changed beyond recognition or is destroyed."

Here's a GIF of the different versions of iOS, all the way up through 7, and it's pretty impressive when we think about all of those different changes. We can say that they're subtle changes, but we can also look at those people who skipped versions. The people who had an iPhone 4, and then they go to a 6. Think about those of you who use iPhone.

Think in the Android world, people who got their first smartphone when they were 15 years old, and then because of money, finances, whatever, they don't get the next one until they're 20, well 17. What is their experience like in comparison to what it was like?

Crystal, some of you may know Crystal. I'm going to be one of those people. iOS, you're giving me whiplash with all the animations, and of course iOS 8 has taken things even further.

This was a video that made it around a couple of years ago. It's on YouTube. You can look it up. It's this kid, he's four-years-old, but the change from iOS 6 to 7, in his case, through his perspective, was so drastic, he ends up crying. The video is he's just crying, and his dad is trying to say, "It's OK, things are there, they're just in different places." Like, "I want it to be the same."

I'm thinking, "We're all that kid when it comes to a lot of the things we use." Anybody remember this movie from a few years ago? Why was it called, "You've Got Mail"?

Audience Member: AOL.

Joe: AOL. Anybody know, for extra credit, what movie it was a remake of?

Audience Members: "The Shop Around the Corner."

Joe: Thank you. Jimmy Stewart, set in Hungary. Yes, AOL. I don't even have to do the hand raise, I'm seeing some smiles, and nods, and, "Oh yeah, those goddamn CDs that would always come in the mail."


Joe: But there are a lot of people for whom this is and was the Internet. When they encounter AOL, this is AOL today, and it's a far cry from what AOL was. Now again, gradual shifting and there's another thing to talk about, that there's justification for making those gradual shift. Lee Rosenfeld, he's done wonderful things talking about redesign must die. There's radical re-design. One of them, though, is because this sense of loss. How many people remember this?

This is the Facebook. For a lot of people who encountered the Facebook, it was because of the BC Berkeley, Brown, UVA. Where's VCU? It's not on there. That's before Shaka Smart turned it into a nationally known school, but there was this specialty of knowing that you were part of that inside group.

Then of course, it changed over the years in certain time. The change that people experience sometimes is gradual and acceptable. Sometimes it's so radical that it absolutely rocks their world. When it moves further afield, frustration, loss, anger bubble up. In trying to do this new thing here, the old who can send you a Facebook message is being retired.

A lot of people really were upset with that. They didn't understand where Facebook was going with, "Now we're doing something better for you." It's like, "You know, damn it, I want it to be the way that I'm used to." Because Facebook is a place, Facebook means something. I would argue that or is not really a place. It's the avenue perhaps.

But things like Facebook, digital experiences like Facebook and others such as Gmail. Gmail is also, it is a tool, but it's a place. A lot of people, for them, this is a repository of their lives through their history of email, through the pictures that are shared.

When Google came up with a new compose, there was sack cloth and ashes in the street. People were just renting their garments and saying, "How long Google?" A lot of churning. Then what happens is we equipped these layers of mitigation on top of them which confuse things.

Apple created their own sense of a world, obviously very skeuomorphic with eWorld. There are probably three or four people in the room that might remember this vaguely. But there were people for whom they said, "No. I want to do eWorld instead of AOL." They got used to it, and then eWorld died.

People spent time in MobileMe and signing up. What Apple did was they were warning you, "We're warning you." But then at one point, people knocking on the door were presented with closed, out of business, tumbleweeds wandering down the avenue.

Sometimes, our digital worlds get bulldozed to a certain amount of angst, especially for places where people come on a non-regular basis. I don't want to say infrequent, but I want to say who have a duration, and then a gap, and then another duration. Signs like Geocities, certainly The WELL. Amazing that The WELL was bulldozed and it disappeared.

Again, part of that is progress. The home that we live in was somebody's else's bulldozed area of some kind. I totally, totally get that. But sometimes it is just that emptiness. We have this digital imminent domain that occurs to us, and often almost invariably without our permission.

In the same way the imminent domain is a share of tacking an eviction notice on your door, a bulldozer on your yard. Being hit with imminent domain is a bit like being jumped in the dark street late at night. One minute, you're walking Joe by [inaudible 9:43] along. Then next, you've got someone's arm tied around your throat. That's the way people feel.

The pipelines are in Virginia right now. There's a big controversy because of a natural gas pipeline and other places where, "Yeah, we're putting a highway here." "Really? No. This is my home," or, "This is my parent's home. I come back to that." Think about returning The WELL, I don't go there every day. I'm not a WELL editor.

But you know what, when I want to know information about what's going on, that's where I go. Obviously, nostalgia comes up. You all were thinking like, "Joe, this is just nostalgia." But nostalgia is not just a cheap trick that bands like Cheap Trick use when they come to your state fair. Have you come out to Tent C?

It's a powerful emotion coming through different things from "nostos," the root sense of return, the returning home. The wanderer returns. Odysseus coming back to Ithaca, and [inaudible 10:40], the idea of pain, it is that [inaudible 10:43] in German, which is a really great word. It's a home pain, literally. Because of this core to who we are, it's very powerful.

Dan had this great tweet a few years ago, with this, "Whoa, just had a MacDraw flashback." I can't even remember the context. Dan, are you in the room? No. It is that idea of that marker, that flashback. For those of you who have done a little bit too much of the brown acid, it might sound more familiar, but for other people who stayed away from the brown acid, we still have those flashbacks. We have those cognitive flashbacks. We have those markers. Sometimes they're smells. Sometimes they're sounds. Sometimes they're sights.

Sometimes we use nostalgia for real reasons. Erik Spiekermann, who is one of the greatest topographers, ever, in the world, had this great tweet, "Why would a modern airport use a Victorian typeface for signage?" The answer to that is because of nostalgia, because of the idea that it is nostalgia. It's a marker back to transportation being core to travel and harkening to the Westbahnhof in Vienna. It is that nostalgia.

What happens, though, when our experience in the landscape that we're working with in this experience keeps getting fragmented and fragmented? This is an article from several years ago, this idea that carriers are looking to offer different plans. That may sound familiar. We had this fight over net neutrality, which is not going away, and on Huffington Post, they had this thing, what their future could look like.

In Europe, what this had to do with was showing that in France, customers get access to unlimited Web browsing at 14 bucks a month, only to Twitter and Facebook. "It's not the Web. I want to go there." Well, no. They're blocking their access to what they perceive as a digital home.

The problem with this suburbanification is that it walls us off from those places that matter to us, that are our homes, and so we end up with Levittown on the Internet.

You could also argue that, riffing on those who are fans of Dave Letterman, but what about this guy? What about his life? That's his home. What about this girl? That's her place that she is. I totally get that, but when we take this approach of not understanding how change affects people, we lose.

Hotmail had a huge base, these articles were reinventing Hotmail, right, and then, in fine print in this article, "Microsoft's new service will gradually replace its aging Hotmail." If you look at the history of the way this interface works, and I didn't want to just throw images after images, but you can really see the change.

The people who have multiple places, who have a Hotmail account, like my brother, has it changed? His address is still, but when he goes to the site it's, and there's a cognitive disjunct that happens here.

I want to talk about technology adoption life cycle, anybody who's not familiar with this, just, "What the hell, Joe?" Again, it's a fairly standard thing.

Originally, these guys, Bohlen, Beal, and Rogers, came up with this. It's been used by Geoffrey Moore to talk about the chasm that occurs between early adopters and early majorities. They're the innovators, people that create the products, early adopters, who adopt them early, knowing that there are going to be problems, early majority that see promise and potential, they have business or personal reasons, but they want to see, then the late majority and the laggards.

What we tend to do as information architects, as experienced designers, as content strategists, as whatever the hell we are, as the we, that we are, just leave it at that, we design for these guys.

If you think about the startup culture, they're only worried about these guys. Maybe some people are designing, especially in a more legacy sense, but it's about, "Oh, let's come up with a new thing for those early majorities." We never think about the late majority. What happens is we take the concept of time out of this.

An innovator with a product, maybe they become an early adopter or maybe the gap is here. The early adopters, over time, become early majority of that thing. As time goes by, I think that we forget about that transition from initiation to permanence, and we need to think about that. What happens, people want to go back, and they want to go back in time.

I don't know if you can hear this.

[birds chirping]

Recorded Voice 1: What's it for?

Joe: What's it for? Maybe a recognizable scene.

Recorded Voice 2: It's a time machine, Napoleon. We bought it online.

Recorded Voice 1: Yeah, right.

Joe: It's a time machine.

Recorded Voice 2: It works, Napoleon. You don't even know.

Joe: That's "Napoleon Dynamite."

Recorded Voice 1: Have you guys tried it yet?

Recorded Voice 2: No.

Joe: "Have you tried it?" he said. "No." Time-machine modulus. High. Power on. Set the desired year. "See user's manual before using." Technical writers in the audience will certainly reflect that. Napoleon is going through this. "Place the T-handle between your legs after setting." He's going to go back in time.

Recorded Voice 1: Forgot to put in the crystals.

Joe: He forgot to put the crystals in, and he asks Kip to go ahead and turn it on, which is plugging it into the wall.

[electrical shock]

Joe: Turn it off!

Recorded Voice 1: It's a piece of crap. It doesn't work.

Joe: It's a piece of crap, it doesn't work!

Recorded Voice 3: I could've told you that.

Joe: Then Uncle Rico comes out, and Uncle Rico doesn't come out and say, "I could've told you that." Uncle Rico comes out like this, "I could've told you that."

Why? Because he really wanted to go back in time. For those of you who don't know or remember the movie, he was a glory-days guy, and he wanted to go back in that time, that moment, when if he had only made that pass, then he would've been the hero. It's an old meme in American movies, rom-coms.

At the end of every hard-working day, people find some reason to believe. Uncle Rico suspends his own belief because he wants to go back in time. He wants to capture that thing, that place. I think we do that with our experiences. I think that we as people do want to go back, because we find meaning in who we are, who we are now and who we have been.

That meaning is based on that continuum. When we as designers don't design or take that into account, I think we do a disservice to our users. Very quickly, thinking about some things, four design principles. This is my listicle. Realize the effect that design changes have. Realize those things. Mitigate those. If you have to write them down, that's where scenarios are great, using scenario-based design, what happens if this does?

Normally, especially those of us who are consultants, we always design the happy path. Nobody says, "If we do this, we build this thing you're asking us to build, it will fail and people will hate it and they will bring the pitchforks and torches."

Andy Ihnatko, some of you may know him, he said on Twitter, "Write software that sticks with people. We react to software the same way we react to movies, music, the language of our lives." Back to thinking about Marsha Haverty, thinking of the Haverty scale. Sorry. I had to. It was on the rim. I just tapped it in. I didn't even get credit for a full score.

I was thinking about where language sits. Language is not just words. That's one of the things I love about her talk and the work that she and others have been doing. It's understanding context, as Andrew talks about. As Melissa Elbert Pearson says, "What we are is where we have been."

Avoid the unintended. How do you avoid the unintended? By forecasting, by modeling. Understand how loss affects people. Understand it's not just about getting the project done and converting users, or getting people to fill out expense reports more accurately. Those are important.

But understand, on that corporate intranet, Conway Twitty, country star from the '50s '60s and to the '70s, when I saw him in review, "Hey Joe. There's a tangent." Conway Twitty is a name that some of you may know, or you could look him up.

He used to be a rockabilly guy, just like Carl Perkins or Elvis Presley, until he went to see Elvis play live. He came into rehearsal the next day and he said, "Boys. We're going country." Be careful if you say, "We're going country," by having the people in your audience expecting you to be singing, "Sitting here and wondering whether a matchbox will hold my clothes."

Then remember that we will all want to go home. We still want to go back in time. We want to go home. Home is a great place. I'm certainly not going to read this, but at the end of Melissa's book she has this thing, a commonplace book of home.

I love this. Winston Churchill's, "We shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape us," a little Christopher Alexander thing happening there, I think.

The last one up here, "One breaks camp. In the morning he looks back." I love this, just thinking about camping, and he looks back on the camp, where he hung his coat on the tree. Chills. Slept on the baluster and made his coffee. He looks back. He has left what he cannot bring with him, the flame and the ashes of himself.

When we think about the shadows and the flickering that we're creating in this platonic cave that we're doing. To our users, who tend to be prisoners chained to the wall and only seeing the ambient reflections of reality, if we take that into account, maybe we can design their experience a little bit better.


Joe: Many thanks. [inaudible 21:49] says many thanks for the time. If there are any comments [inaudible 21:56].


Joe: We have a question in the back. Huey Lewis? [inaudible 22:21] here real quick.

Woman 1: I don't necessarily have a realization. Just recently, my client had, for historical reasons, not followed my direction. They ended up in a place where users were very unhappy. They came back to me and said, "We didn't follow your directions. Help."

What ended up happening, because they veered so far off course, in essence, was almost a redesign. It wasn't, but to the user, it was. Clearly it was very different. There was a backlash. The backlash was very similar to the first backlash. From the first time I gave them direction to the environment they had before. They had this double backlash.

What I think now, after listening to your talk, is that I didn't have a contingency for creating the language that the client would understand, and that the users would understand, in terms of this idea of trying to cling onto a space that is no longer there.

I think that's where in the future, I'm going to add this contingency to make sure that we not only have the discussion around how much of the change is this, so that nostalgia doesn't come into the picture to the point where there is some kind of a push-back from the users. Some users, they said literally, "I'm not coming back."

Thank you for that. That was very cool.

Joe: One of the things I've seen is Square, the application Square receipts. The thing that made craft fairs actually work for purchasing, and bands, to actually be able to service stuff and say, "Sorry. No exact change."

When you get a receipt from them, it's not a faux-skeuomorphic receipt, but the information design of it is receipt-y. There is a traceability. A cognitive traceability to this is a receipt.

Again, the whole Plato thing. The Heraclitus is the other thing. Marsha made me think about Heraclitus, especially his Pantara, which is one of his fragments, that all things flow in the universe. Heraclitus is the guy you could never step into the same river because every time you step in it, it's a different river, because it's flowing. Our experience is very much that.

Every time you go to Facebook, it is a new experience. There also was a German laxative in the 19th century called Pantaray, an inside joke. Jokes sometimes work and puns work because of that. It is an analogue. Any other questions, comments?

Man 1: This is a really important thing. Especially, as you mentioned, in practical ways like redesigning an intranet. I carry questions in to talk to the people who, I'm going to throw out their baby, are they going to miss them? What are you going to miss? It's a really hard question for people to answer.

It's the same way as like, "What did you like about a certain museum you went to?" It's really hard to answer that question. That's how architecture is. It's 99 percent invisible. You really only notice it when your head's too high or your feet kick things.

I try to get them to observe. I try to observe how they use a new thing, a mock up, or paper design. What do you do? Is there any tips you can give us as far as talking to those people we're going to effect?

Joe: That's a really good question. What do I do? How do we do that?

One of the things I try to do is comparisons, even if it's just screenshots to new things in a scenario basis. Here's how they do things now. Let's map this scenario. Here's how they do things in the future. What are the potential disjoints, the pain points, the different ways to map that? Also, what are the, "I never thought of that."?

Architecture, one of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright stories, when he designed Falling Water. Lillian and Edgar Caughman saw the plans. Lillian said to him, "My God Frank. I thought you were going to build us a house near the waterfall, not on top of it." He said, "Lillian. In time you would grow tired of the view, but you'll never grow tired of the sound."

Sometimes what we do has to be thinking, it's Bob Dylan. "Your debutante knows what you need, but I know what you want." We do need to practice those things.

What we need to do is have the understanding of how we can communicate that. First to our stakeholders and the team members that are deciding these things, that are paying for our projects. The second thing is whether it's the graceful degradation of a current experience, instead of turning the switch.

Jesus Christ, there's all these God-damned, sorry. This thing is on.


Joe: I just get wrapped up in this stuff.

There are these people who just say, "No, man. We can't do that because it's competitive advantage. Our competitors will see that we're doing this." Or, "Well, we can't do that internally because billing. If they see that we're starting to do this, then they'll all..."

No. Sorry. You're wrong. We're going to do this. Gradualism is better than sudden shock. To boil the lobster, the frog, or the human, put them in lukewarm water. Then gradually increase the temperature, and you can have a nice stew. That's generally what I try to do.

One last question, Gail.

Gail: To expand on that topic, one of the things I was having a conversation about yesterday, was this idea of, if you're doing this gradual change over time, step by step, so that you don't have that big shock. You're not changing somebody's world entirely in one fell swoop. Are you also, though, degrading their trust?

Because they feel like every time they come back, "Damn it, they've changed it again." You hear that about Facebook.

Joe: I think that the problem with that is what they're changing, how they're changing is not gradualism. Maybe it's in that small thing, that window. "I went to do this thing and my muscle memory had it in the upper right." I think there's a different way to do that.

I'm blanking. Some of these applications, Flickr, that say, "We have a new experience that's going to come. Do you want to try it over time? At some point, we are flipping the switch," because you have to. You can't keep 300 code basis. It is that gradualism.

In Facebook's benefit, in that one where they were changing who can send you direct messages, maybe they were peppering you too much with messages. Yes. As I am Joe Sokohl, I used to be a technical writer. There is that sense that documentation equals design failure.

I get that, but how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How many pin heads can dance on an angel? We have to think about being practical. I think part of that is notification, warning, selling, and then acting.

So, yes, there always is loss. Absolutely, otherwise we could never change anything. I think that's about it. It's about four minutes until the top of the hour. Thank you very much for engaging and putting up with me.


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