SXSW 2013 Q&A: Erin Abler

Rachel Lovinger   March 4, 2013


The Breakout: As we close in on SXSW, we chatted with our own Erin Abler (@connotes), an Information Architect and Content Strategist out of our Philadelphia office, Razorfish Healthware (and is also a contributor to Scatter/Gather). In Erin’s Future15 talk, “Interaction Literacy & Participatory Design,” she’ll be discussing a broader view of literacy that will help us think about – and design for – a much wider range of human experiences.

Scatter/Gather: What is “interaction literacy”?

Erin: “Interaction literacy” is a term I’m using to refer to the ability to recognize and respond to the sensory, experiential, integrative, and interactive elements that comprise a human experience. It’s the day-to-day business of being aware in the world, of interacting with your surroundings and stimuli, making sense of them, and acting in a way that allows you to complete discrete tasks and develop specialized skill sets. As a capability, it means successfully negotiating an interaction – basically, to what degree we’re aided or hampered by the things we’re experiencing. The concept has an inherent focus on how the different parts of an experience help support the skills that build other types of literacy, including textual literacy. From a user research or design perspective, it’s a way to look at what kinds of experiences support or comprise various skill sets, and how best to engage someone based on that knowledge.

I started thinking about this years ago, but with a focus on the different skills involved in storytelling. Most definitions of literacy tend to focus on successful manipulation of specific media – an approach that limits the use of literacy as a concept extending across platforms or types of interactions. (There is something called “transliteracy,” but I find it to be more of a catch-all than a coherent concept, and I couldn’t really get behind it.) Because narrative and participation both involve qualities so fundamental to human experience, and because they are able to cross so many different platforms, I wanted to set down the elements common to any interaction – the better to compare them across various media. Only after months of reading did I start getting a handle on how various literacies really all point back to formative elements of experience. Interaction literacy offers us a way to understand what underlies any form of literacy, regardless of the mode of expression.

S/G: Presumably, like reading literacy, this is a learned skill. How do people become interaction literate?

Erin: Interaction literacy is definitely learned, though I think much less formally than other kinds of literacy. When people tell stories – and when they engage their audience in multiple ways in the process – they are distilling their experiences through narrative. Anytime we choose to tell a story instead of listing facts, we are communicating in a way that is meant to be evocative of experience, and not merely documentary. Storytelling means sharing an experience in a way that allows it to continue to exist as an experience, for both the storyteller and for the audience. If we’re truly going to understand the relationship between the YouTubes of the world and our long history of interacting with one another, we need to develop a better vocabulary for discussing the experience of participation, and the different roles we choose as participants in a given context. That, to me, is the start of a different understanding of the way we build interaction skills – whether with people or with technology.

S/G: You work with both information architecture and content strategy. How do these two disciplines complement each other to address the unique challenges of designing for greater interaction literacy?

Erin: I don’t think I would’ve traveled this path at all if I hadn’t been deeply invested in both areas of work. I started out with a heavy content strategy focus, thinking about traditional literacy, how text fits with other kinds of content, and what kinds of content ultimately compel people to act. But of course content is so intimately connected to its form and its context that it’s almost impossible to think of it as something that exists on its own terms. (I should point out that I’m using the word “content” very broadly here, to include just about anything that’s created for consumption or communication.) So the broader design picture – of how to explore interaction literacy through elements of experience – necessitates an appreciation for user experience as well as an awareness of what good content is and how it travels.

S/G: Have you seen any examples of great design that address these kinds of issues? If so, what? And if not, why do you think we haven’t seen much of this yet?

Erin: I think we’re headed toward an explosion of content that will underscore the relevance of interaction literacy. At the session I’ll be talking about how powerful creator cultures are in the development of rich interactions. Part of that conversation focuses on participatory design – and not just making your own little tweaks to something here and there, but having component parts that you can recombine infinitely to fit your own needs.

Wikipedia is probably the most recognizable example of a participatory design culture. Roles developed over time based on people’s interests and areas of expertise. Subject area experts adopted oversight of areas they were qualified to review. Over time, a range of capabilities sorted itself out because the setup encouraged iteration. YouTube is another huge platform that people can contribute content to. There you see less emphasis on textual literacy and more on other types of sensory and integrative elements. YouTube has, for the most part, made it easy to launch content that is either original, remixed, or a response to other content.

We’re starting to see more progressive examples now, ones that I think already take aspects of interaction literacy into consideration. Even if not in a very systematic way, these designers are thinking of their users’ skill sets when they devise ways to engage through innovation. One of my favorite examples of this is Twine, which is a device that detects physical inputs like vibration. That’s the total physical product: a little square that you put down wherever you want it to “sense” its environment. Then you go online and set up very basic instructions for it, so that it will communicate in some way when certain events occur. It’s a lovely use of IFTTT: You put Twine on top of your dryer and set up the rule “When vibration stops, text me the message ‘Your laundry is done.'” And there’s a whole online community where you can browse and borrow other people’s rules, or contribute your own, which just raises the bar for more and more innovative uses. What the user is capable of doing is supported on every scale, from the most basic instructions to some pretty complex logic.

Once it hits mainstream, 3D (and thanks to MIT, even 4D) printing is also going to open up some incredible opportunities for people to adapt original inventions for their own specific uses. We just haven’t created a structured way of thinking about those opportunities yet. I don’t think interaction literacy is the whole answer, but it might help frame our thinking about the current proliferation of highly targeted content and customized experiences.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW?

Erin: There’s a diagram I created as part of this project that shows four basic levels of experience. There’s the “sensory,” which corresponds to direct sensory inputs, and the “experiential,” which is more about the cognitive processing of sensory stimuli. An “integrative” experience takes another layer of awareness, incorporating situational, social, linguistic, and interpretive elements. At the “interactive” level, we take all these components and resolves them in some form of action.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent researching and shaping that model. And in the end, it looks very simple – almost self-explanatory. That’s both encouraging to me and a little unnerving – encouraging because I think it should be as simple as possible, and unnerving because I don’t want people to think I’m suggesting something complete or finished. I am not a psychologist or a behaviorist, though I have some education in those areas. I’ll also say for the record that none of these concepts, in and of themselves, is new. It’s the framework that makes them important. So it’s not done, and I’m sure I’m missing some things; but that’s a big part of what’s so exciting about going to SXSW with this. I can absolutely rely on people to take these ideas apart, ask hard questions, and make it better if they think it’s worth their time.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki


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