Notes Information Apocalypse

The Age of Frameworks

Many of us are still conditioned to think of design frameworks in terms of grid systems, Swiss graphic design, and rigid corporate identity systems. The problems with these are similar to the problems programmers face with software frameworks - they are prescribed, explicit, artificial, too rigidly defined. In The Age of Frameworks, Liz Danzico proposed an alternative model, starting by considering how unwritten physical and social constructs affect the way that people interact and adapt their behaviour within architectural spaces. The key point about these frameworks is that they are implied rather than explicit, yet formed through detectable patterns.

Frameworks contribute to action by encouraging performance. Most of the time, performance is conscious, self-directed, and improvised. Liz introduced the story of modal jazz as a background to reinforce this. Modal jazz is a framework that makes a distinct departure from the classical approach to music where everything is rigidly documented - down to every last note, even the emphasis on the way each note is played - and there is no room for improvisation or interpretation. It departs from bebop in emphasizing a different kind of template for improvisation. Where previously, jazz musicians were expected to stick to the repeating chord progressions of the prescribed composition in their solos, modal jazz substituted musical modes instead of chords, freeing players from the restriction of having to jump between the same important notes over and over again. By restricting players to a scale, modal jazz freed them to play any notes they wanted within the scale, allowing them to create much more innovative melodies than were previously possible. As designers, we can learn from looking at modal jazz as a framework, and considering how to create structures on the web that allow users to improvise.

But what exactly is improvisation? In modal jazz, it is a spontaneously created melody based on a musical scale, within the boundaries of which, musicians can go virtually anywhere. However, improvisation in free jazz goes much further, so far in fact, that musical scales are discarded altogether. But what happens when we discard the framework altogether (in this case, the framework is tonality based on a harmonic mathematical series)? It's pretty obvious if I played Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity to my mother, which one she would demand that I turned the volume down on first! Although the roots of free jazz can be traced back to the 1940's, its emergence in the 1960's was largely due to the fact that there were solid and popular existing traditions already in place for how to play jazz. So the very existence of the frameworks is actually a major shaping influence on those who try to push beyond them.

In hiphop, improvisation is more associative than structural. There are few restrictions on harmony and tonality, and the range of the human voice is so great that many rappers diverge into their own distinct and unique style and flow. If there is a framework here, it is totally open ended - anything within a pattern of repeating rhythmic syllables - and unlike modal jazz, there isn't necessarily a global order or a direction to go in. Usually the accepted rules of diction and rhyming are relaxed for improvised freestyle performances. So there seems to be quite a wide divergence between improvisation within a framework and free improvisation. I'm not quite sure what we can draw from this, but I do think it's important to recognize that modal jazz is just one small (though extremely influential) part of a much wider spectrum of approaches to improvisation. We're still in the early days of user centered design as a craft, so perhaps we will see the web equivalent to free jazz and freestyle hiphop emerge one day.

From a usability perspective, one of the interesting themes of Liz's talk (again, in stark contrast to Damian Conway's Morlock 2.0dium) was the increasing sophistication and understanding of web users and their intentions to do more with the features available to them. One of the major things I took away from Webstock is that information architecture is no longer purely about how to organize information and provide navigation through logical and intuitive structures. Web interfaces are becoming increasingly reactive and context driven; on the read-write web, the distinction between editing tools and content presentation is fast evaporating.

Traditional wisdom in UX has been that users are starting from a blank slate, confused and afraid of the unknown, and our job as designers is to pacify them, to wrap interfaces in unambiguity and homogeneity, so as to push users towards the one true way. Designing for improvisation treats people with more respect, encouraging them to be intelligent, creative and versatile. This approach could also help design teams become unstuck, giving us a way to think about design that gets outside a narrow and boredom inducing focus on requirements. One of the stand-out points of Kelly Goto's talk was her emphasis on approaching design problems with an attitude of fearlessness. This will definitely help.

Kathy Sierra's discussion of the legacy brain also reinforced a lot of these ideas. Since most of us don't have abstract design processes embedded in our basic physical makeup, we need to focus more on tools and techniques that connect to the basic rhythmical patterns of thinking and writing that we all share. Real people don't care about becoming experts in a tool or a framework. They care about what the tool or framework enables them to do. We need to get away from our collective obsession with pre-determined workflow and 'content management', to design systems that facilitate flow (in the Csikszentmihalyi sense) through detectable patterns that encourage people to participate and perform through incremental editing and exploration.