Data, capta and astonishment

I’m starting today with a digression about data and a slightly mind-boggling quote.
The quote is from an article by Richard L. Lanigan, “Capta versus data: Method and evidence in
communicology”, Human Studies 17: 109-130, 1994. (If nothing else, doing an MSc teaches you to cite, cite, and cite again.)

“Like most other human practices, research is largely a symbolic activity
in which “evidence” is mediated by converting experience (“observation”)
into consciousness (“measurement”) and calling it “humanistic” or
“naturalistic.” Postmodernity has come to favor this methodology and
names the evidence thus produced as capta (quod erat inveniendum; which
was to be found out). Capta is that which is taken as evidence; it is the
methodology of discovery (Lanigan, 1992:215).”

OK. Have you recovered? Basically, I can summarise his position as data only has meaning once it has been organised, whereupon we call it capta (not a term that has made much headway in the world, as far as I know). Organised data, plus significance, equals knowledge.

So,  a string of numbers is data. An organised string of numbers can identify your bank account.

Letters can be organised into random arrangements, into words, into sentences, into this blog. But they only have meaning if you have the knowledge, the mass of education and culture and abilities and humanity to read them. And they only have value to you if they stimulate some response. Interest, amusement, anger, whatever…

It is your emotional response that matters here. Boop boop a doop
Why did the turkey cross the road? It was the chicken’s day off….
Arise, ye starvelings from your slumber, arise….
My country, tis of thee

And so on and so on and so on. Maybe each one of those organised clumps of data triggered some sort of response in you. And from our shared culture, I might have a pretty good idea about what they might be. Perhaps I’m even toying with you, setting up one expectation to enjoy watching it crash and burn.

And I can hear quote my favourite user experience recommendation (wherever I roam, I get back to UX eventually) by Harold Thimbleby “the principle of least astonishment”.

In normal life, we love being astounded, amazed and delighted. It’s rare that this is a good scheme in user interface design. Much like the rubber chocolate biscuit or the exploding cigar, an user interface that thwarts our expectations makes us feel that the world is a little less to be trusted, that our understanding of how it works is not as reliable as we wished.

I’m not going to say anything more about it.

It’s been a long week

First of all, have I name checked Dekker’s Just Culture book in this blog? “Just”, in this case, doesn’t mean merely culture, or only culture, but a cultural environment that is fair, based on justice. My mind has gone off at a tangent here – it’s Friday and I no longer have to pretend that I am a serious person. I merely cross-referenced to Robert Hughes “The Culture of Complaint” and then to C.P. Snow’s two cultures and then culture vultures and then the culture of herbaceous borders and so it goes on.

Culture appears very much of a buzzword at the moment. There’s a little bit that we covered in the MSc about it, about designing for different cultures, which covered how university websites present different aspects in Greece, China and the US, depending on what is seen as important to students and/or their parents.

That in itself is an amazing question. Is it the student or the parent who chooses the university? Behind that lie a whole set of assumptions and values that are tagged with the word “culture”. Then there is the idea of someone being “cultured” which has a faintly superior air to it. we don’t talk about people being cultured if they talk about Jay-Zee and the chip shop, but if it’s Liszt and Chez Panisse, then that is cultured. But it isn’t culture as in cultured pearls – though in both senses there is an implication of it being created rather than emerging naturally.

Our culture can be summarised as the totality of the external experience which we have internalised and trigger our emotions and inform our values. Some of it will be common – for example, western music conventions are widely recognised across the world, and some will be more particular to our own experience (such as breakfast choice).

When you create an interface, it is informed by your culture. What matters is whether understanding it requires an understanding of the culture or merely of the interface. A famous example of this, is the different meaning of a red light, which can mean a live socket or a problem (or an invitation, or a veto). Just because you know what you mean by it doesn’t mean the user will. But luckily, most of the time they don’t have to.

Oh, and the Dekker book? That basically says, that if you get punished for making for mistakes or discovering errors, you’re going to hide the fact you make them, and this will lead to some very big problems