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Boys and buttons
Contributor: Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable®

Reflections on the fascination of gadgets, the power of the visual, and the politics of creativity

One thing leads to another
When I began writing this article I thought the words would flow with ease but I soon realised the strengths and reasons for the development of the 'visual-Internet' and 'text-Internet' (more of the use of these terms in a moment) required a lot more investigation and thought than I'd anticipated. It seemed the deceptively simple premise I began with was about to fork out into a thousand pathways.

The 'visual internet' I referred to above refers to visual design, style, and technologies. The 'text Internet' refers to web page text, message boards, e-mail etc. This article reflects my own observations and opinions about a point of interest close to my heart: the almost compulsive behaviour the male species in particular exhibits when placed in close proximity to a device with any of the following: buttons; blinking lights; slider controls; keyboards; screen interfaces; moving machine parts; etc...

Forgive me if at times I veer from one issue to another. I hope at the least this article serves as food for thought...

I just can't help it
For so many the undeniable magnetic attraction buttons and the like have is a powerful force in driving people towards certain career avenues and areas of interest.
Perhaps the seemingly involuntary affect the sight of a brushed aluminium button has on so much of the male population in particular tells us something about the way we are hard wired to respond to visual stimuli. What's interesting here is that the representation of a button seems to trigger as powerful a response as a real-life button. I've no doubt those that enjoy the prospect of sitting in an aeroplane cockpit with an overdose of sliders and rocker switches can't prevent their internal chemistry taking off.

The benefits of seeing
As well as the pure aesthetic pleasure of a well rendered button, visual elements can help considerably in supporting text on a web page by conveying meaning quickly. There are many instances when visual elements have a profound psychological effect because of associations of colour, form and composition. Add to this the pleasure humans take from visual stimuli and it's not difficult to see why the Internet has grown immeasurably since the introduction of a visual interface.

This page for instance, has certain visual elements that attempt to aid the users reading experience: the width of the text area is fixed and allows 13 to 15 words on each line (the optimum length of line to maintain reading focus), it has a left margin with a tiled contrasting background image that is chosen to be attractive yet undistracting, and a thin right vertical orange column designed to constrain and focus the movement of the eye towards the text area. Although the colours of the two vertical columns have been chosen to reflect the brand colours of AbleStable®, the colour saturation levels have been decreased, again with the purpose of aiding reading.

The technology that delivers the interactive visual elements (the JavaScript 'buttons' on the upper and lower rows and left hand column of this page) provide simple consistent navigational aids which can be distinguished by position, text, colour and design. Using text-only links would make it more difficult for users to quickly locate the link they wanted to visit, as links would only be distinguishable by text content.

The advantage of text
There are many instances however when text-only interfaces carry distinct advantages over their visual equivalents. Broadband is still out of reach of the vast majority of Internet users, and visual elements are expensive in terms of download time. Add to this the community of people who are visually impaired, and the visual confusion that characterises many web pages, and it's not difficult to see why so many choose text-only options on their browsers.

Chat and message boards are also suited to text-only communication in preference to visual or aural communication. Text communication allows users to read and respond to messages without the complexity and/or distraction visual and aural messages often carry with them. This allows the text-only author a more controlling and independent standpoint.

Boys will be boys
Woman use the Internet as much as men. OK, there may be a couple of percentage points difference depending on the study you want to quote, but generally speaking there's a parity of how many use the Internet in terms of gender (men spend more time on-line but that's a different issue). The point here is that regardless of gender, the Internet (if you have Internet access and it's wise to keep in mind the majority of mankind doesn't) is a significant communications medium.

Woman generally encourage, develop, and participate far more in non-commerce based Internet communities than men. This seems the most significant difference between the genders in relation to the Internet as most computer software is developed in the context of selling products and/or services (capitalism) although some software is generously offered as feeware to the Internet community. Generally speaking the non-commerce based Internet is more text based than visual.

The prevailing influence of visual stimuli
Computer interfaces have in the main been developed by males for males. This was not a planned or conscious act. Woman were not in general purposefully excluded from the process because of political manoeuvring (although this seems to be often argued in some quarters). The dominance of developing computer interfaces from a male perspective came about because those involved in the early development of personal computer software were mostly men (including the first generation of Apple Macintosh developers who had a profound effect on the direction personal computer screen interfaces took).

Programming and coding computer software is generally a male dominated occupation. Perhaps it is that these activities are often solitary rather than social, and that women are generally less inclined to develop skills in areas where there social and co-operational skills are not employed.

An intrinsic process in the development of software is the design and integration of a visual interface. Decisions about the effectiveness of the visual interface will in most cases be under the authority of higher management (usually male). Therefore the resulting visual software interface reflects the company's internal demographic make-up as much as the purpose the software will be put to. The software interface develops as a result of political circumstances.

The disadvantage of women
The purpose of software is not necessarily best served by a single user interface. Women generally behave differently to men. The most immediate differences being that they are more willing to ask questions of their peers and seek collaboration. Software that exploits these qualities will be more effectively used by woman rather than the task oriented approach of most software applications.

My hunch is that it is probable that small to medium sized software companies place little emphases on external user interface research, usability issues, or independent usability testing. There's little doubt however that software's visual style and interface affects the performance of it, and that software which has interface options for different demographic groups would increase its' effectiveness.

Hearing is believing
Voice interaction, translation, and collaborative interactivity in the software of the future will encourage a more even skill base between genders and cultures. Different cultural traditions have distinct visual references, for instance the colour white in the West is associated with purity, while in China it is associated with death. These differing references need to be formalised into a central database for software developers to take on board.

Software support forums could be viewed as an attempt to address the issue of co-operation and communal problem solving in the context of using software. It seems from where I'm standing however these facilities are more often provided by companies to reduce the number of support requests rather than to broaden the user interface. Perhaps as the Internet matures and software Internet applications become the norm we'll hear more of 'collaborative interfaces'. It would be like turning to a friend sitting on the desk next to you for advice. There's no doubt we'll hear more of this in years to come.

Visual politics
Someone once said to me 'everything is political'. I resisted this notion for a long time. There are plenty of occasions I thought where politics doesn't enter into the scenario. As I grow I realise there's more truth in that statement than I first recognised.

Boys and buttons touches on many political agreements. The propensity men have for competition and the pleasure of visual stimuli results in software that conforms to a certain world view and restricts the development of new and productive interactive interfaces.

The male model of the world as a place where competition is the predominant driving force in the exchange of goods and services is restrictive and stunts our potentials. When we realise a more fluid and flexible approach to interaction benefits all of us, our progress as a species will take a giant leap forward.

Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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