The Executive Director and the Carpenter
This post is also available in: Nederlands (Dutch)
In a small village in the rural part of the Netherlands lived a simple carpenter. In his life he had only enjoyed the most basic education, having learned the job from his father who in turn had learned it from his father.
This carpenter had a most peculiar way of organising his work. Early in the morning he would go to his workshop on the other side of the street from where he lived. He did not like to work following some plan, so he entered the workshop and started the day by looking around. Everywhere he had stacked wood. He would take some piece of wood, sometimes raw and sometimes a piece he had been working on but never finished. He would take it in his hands, smell it, feel it, weigh it. And when the wood told him it could be used for something, that something would flash into his mind and he would start working on it, attempting to make what he saw in his mind.
When he finished his work, he would place the product near the entrance of the workshop, to repeat the process or to take a small break.
Customers or orders from customers did not play a role in this process. Customers would enter the workshop, in need of a door or a window. The carpenter would rummage through his finished or sometimes half-finished work, and would proceed to place the door or window in the house of the customer. Since this would rarely fit properly, some hacking was usually involved to make it fit. This was clearly seen everywhere in the village, especially since his father and father’s father followed the same procedure.
A simple man, a man of little words, barely able to make a living with his work.
There was another man. He was managing director of one of the largest companies in this same country. He had enjoyed a fine education in some of the best national and international educational institutes. His salary was commensurate of his stature. The organisation he was ultimately responsible for was large, with departments all over the world, with a cash flow of billions of euros.
This man would go to work every morning, often driven by his chauffeur from his estate to the headquarters of his company, and would start his working day by entering his office, and reading a memo. This memo was typically a one page drill-down of reports from his subordinate directors, comprising developments in the company over the past period. In fact this man insisted on this format; he wanted to have all the information compressed on one page. Otherwise he would not be able to understand the complexity of the information. He would then proceed to make his decisions and formulate his strategy based on the information he had received.
So much for the story.
The question I would like to ask is this: which of the two characters works with the more complex information?
It is the carpenter. He takes a piece of wood. He looks at it, smells it, weighs it in his hands, hands experienced and imbued with an intelligence of their own by years and years of working with wood. And he then proceeds with a task suited for this specific piece of wood. He did not have a very impressing education, and his income would certainly not enable him to live on an estate.
The managing director needs to work with the form, on one page of text. There is almost no complexity there. It consists of a discrete number of information elements that can easily be counted in a few minutes. The carpenter on the other hand works with a piece of wood of which the complexity is staggering, and impossible to count where we able to reduce it to a discrete list of properties.
The carpenter had acquired some form of mastery. The managing director never had the opportunity to acquire mastery, at least not with respect to this aspect of his work. The format of the provided information was fundamentally incompatible with mastery. My statement is that modern computer user interfaces, the format we use to present information to our users, is well suited for imbeciles.
It consists of a discrete number of elements, which we need to limit, according to laws formulated in the “science” of user interface design and cognitive psychology, to 5-7. This has become known as the Law of Miller.
The human mind, in contrast with many cognitive theories, is able to cope with virtually infinite complexity. However we need to employ completely different presentation metaphors in order to address and activate this intelligence. The user interfaces of the future, or indeed those we need to start designing and building right now, should enable the use of this remarkable faculty of cognition, and not force us to downgrade our intelligence in the insult modern user interfaces deal on us.
How should the user interface for the managing director look like? I would like to provide you with the following links, to explore and enjoy. They need mastery before they can be used to the full, admittedly. But then they can tap on the infinite source of intelligence that all humans are imbued with.
- Xaos – real time fractal generator
This is hypothetical of course, but just envision a fractal as a visual representation of very complex information, that needs learning to understand, but then … well the possibilities are endless. Literally in this case.
Addendum: the project seems to be revived in ChaosPro: http://www.chaospro.de.
- OpenCroquet – explorations in new user interfaces
- CodeCrawler – visualisation of code
This interesting project, part of a series of projects on the University of Bern concerning metamodelling, visualises code, which is of course an interesting example of complexity.