Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Evolution, the eye and communication design

Whilst on holiday (this fact is not superfluous, it crops up later!) I finished reading Richard Dawkin's fascinating and insightful book, "The Greatest Show on Earth" which outlined the evidence for evolution.

Dawkins says that the eye is an amazing, if oddly put together piece of kit and he uses this as an argument against an 'intelligent creator'. He points out that the optic nerve gobbles up quite a lot of important retinal real estate and would most likely not be made in such a way by an intelligent designer of an eye. Amazingly, however, we don't perceive this 'hole' nor do we generally see the gap between our eyes as our brains do an amazing job of working out the 'puzzle' in front of us and rendering us pretty seamless vision. I am aware of this more than most as my wife suffers from a condition which has caused her to lose some sight near her macula but, as her consultant tells her, the brain does an amazing job of compensating and under normal circumstances she sees no 'gap', despite the disease's progress.

I was first put on to the amazing visual processing power of the brain after listening to the 2003 Reith lectures called 'The Emerging Mind' given by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. He details the workings of the mind and notably touches on art: "Are there such things as artistic universals?", he asks.

The lecture is well worth a listen but one point I want to dwell on here which struck a chord with me after my holiday at the coast (aha!) was the story about the seagulls. On holiday I saw plenty of seagulls and I love to hear them 'squaaaaaww'. As they fly past I often point out the red spot under the beak to my children and tell them the following story.

Experiments on seagull chicks by N. Tinbergen at Oxford University showed that this spot is not only a very important signal for the chick to peck at for food, but by abstracting it further researchers found that a chick would peck for food at a red spot painted on two two long sticks!

Photo (taken on holiday!) by PG.

Furthermore, Tinbergen found out that the higher the contrast of the red spot the more the chick will peck for food and this high contrast is what the chick perceives as 'motherness'. Ramachandran emphasises that this is intellignet rationalisation of the brain processing of a chick: the goal of vision, he points out, is to do as little as is needed to get the job done. Evolution has taught the chick that all it needs to do is peck at the high contrast red spot in order to be fed, because this is 'mother'. It cares not that the mother has a head, wings, feathers or legs because it's saving energy! The red spot will do.

The analogy I see with interface design is clear: we need to use visual clues and the processing power of humans' brains to streamline our interaction design and icon development. Use what is hard-wired within us all to make that interactive process a seamless one for the user so that they are helped along the process by the mother within them. Why use complex invented icons when our innate feelings can show us a simpler way. We don't however need the blatancy of red panic buttons for simpler operations (although occasionally this might help!). We can do better than this with more subtle colour palettes, intelligent photographic choices and visual clues in order to smooth the passage from operation to operation.

So designers: before you use your pencils, use your brains.

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