Monthly Archives: January 2007

Use and the User

I’m gonna try to beat Gardner to the blogosphere with this pointer to Jon Udell, but I’ll bet he’ll have more interesting thoughts on the posting. The title, First have a great use experience, then have a great user experience, is pretty eye-catching (and exemplifies Udell’s gift for concise packaging of complexities, yet again), and the opening story (about giving his convalescent dad an mp3 player “to give him an alternative to the in-room TV”) is a nice hook to get the reader involved… but then in paragraph 3 he slugs us with what is for me the real message of the piece:

In the tech industry, though, I think we often pretend that the mop-up operation is the battle. We talk obsessively about the user experience, and we recognize that we invariably fail to make it as crisp and coherent as it should be. But user experience is an overloaded term. I propose that we unpack it into (at least) two separate concepts. One is the basis of the “aha” moment. For now I’ll call it the use experience

As I read this and the two following paragraphs, my fevered brain substituted education for tech, and thus exposed a grand challenge to those who aspire to Teach:

How do you engineer a great use experience, as opposed to a great user experience?

Context for this substitution is surely Gardner’s pointer to George Steiner on teachers and students, which provoked my purchase of Steiner’s Lessons of the Masters, a book I’m reading with a mixture of awe [of Steiner’s erudition], regret [at my own trail of missed opportunities], and irritation [mostly at Steiner’s Olympian tone]. Steiner and Udell and Campbell are all onto something really profound. One bit of Steiner will suffice as an example:

Computation, information theory and retrieval, the ubiquity of the internet and the global web enact far more than a technological revolution. They entail transformations of awareness, of habits of perception and articulation, of reciprocal sensibility which we are scarcely beginning to gauge. At manifold terminals and synapses they will connect with our (possibly analogous) nervous system and cerebral structures. Software will become, as it were, internalized and consciousness may have to grow a second skin.

The impact on the learning process is already momentous. At his console, the schoolchild branches into new worlds. As does the student with his laptop and the researcher searching the web. Conditions of collaborative exchange and debate, of memory storage, of immediate transmission and graphic representation have already reorganized numerous aspects of Wissenschaft. The screen can teach, examine, demonstrate, interact with a precision, a clarity, and a patience exceeding that of a human instructor. Its resources can be disseminated and enlisted at will. It knows neither prejudice nor fatigue. In turn, the apprentice can question, object, answer back in a dialectic whose pedagogic value may come to surpass that of spoken discourse. (pg. 180)

A lot to chew on for a Sunday morning… and see Wikiquote for some more succulent Steiner quotations.

On John B. Stetson hats

A posting a few days ago at Old Blue Bus pointed me to a piece of sheer genius by Derek McCulloch & Shepherd Hendrix, Stagger Lee –a graphic novel, which was delivered last night by good old (well, good old UPS brought it up the drive last night) and inhaled by me in a couple of hours. Friends, this one is really worth your time on the folklore account (and probably other accounts as well). The basic story is pretty well known, and has been recorded in who-knows-how-many variants by …well, just about everybody you can think of. The authors have a blog to trace the unfolding saga of the book, and various other bloggers have weighed in with praise and commentary. Today there’s an interesting extension providing details on the list of versions of the song that the authors listened to as they wrote and drew the book:

When setting out to write this story, the logical thing for me to do was to collect as many different versions of the song as I could lay hands on. I’m still collecting versions today, but by the time I was ready to write my book, I had 36 versions, filling up two full hours on a pair of CDs. I listened to these two discs continuously as I wrote. When I was finished, I passed the script and the discs on to my collaborator, Shepherd Hendrix, who listened to them as he drew. These are the songs from Disc One of the literal soundtrack for our work on this book…

The one I really wish I’d found in time to put on the disc is an improvised performance by Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Memphis Slim off a disc called Blues in the Mississippi Night. That’s one that should be tracked down by any serious aficionado of Stagger Lee.

There’s lots more on the legend at James P. Hauser’s site, including his essay Stagger Lee: From Mythic Blues Ballad to Ultimate Rock ‘n’ Roll Record. He points to the forthcoming film Black Snake Moan, in which Samuel Jackson performs a [NSFW] version of the song.

Leonard Woolf sums it up

I’ve been skipping around in the volumes of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography (ordered used from various Amazon sellers), charmed by his starchy octogenarian British chattiness. Here’s an arresting bit, especially in consideration of one’s own legacies of commission and omission:

Looking back at the age of eighty-eight over the fifty-seven years of my political work in England, knowing what I aimed at and the results, meditating on the history of Britain and the world since 1914, I see clearly that I have achieved practically nothing. the world today [1968] and the history of the human anthill during the last fifty-seven years would be exactly the same as it is if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make the rather ignominious confession to myself and to anyone who may read this book that I must have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work… (pg 158)

Woolf does conclude the chapter on a less bleak note:

…in a wider context, though all that I tried to do politically was completely futile and ineffective and unimportant, for me personally it was right and important that I should do it, even though at the back of my mind I was well aware that it was ineffective and unimportant. To say this is to say that I agree with what Montaigne, the first civilized modern man, says somewhere: “It is not the arrival, it is the journey which matters”.
(The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, pg 172)

links for 2007-01-16