Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

Dec 2018

Deep Thought As A UI Paradigm

Avanceé has elevated many discussions and topics throughout this first year. Much of this is overflow from projects, but, occasionally, there’s some expanding on ideas which are expressed in other channels. The latest of these has been a consideration about a user interface (UI) and overall experience pattern for the type of work described as “deep thought.” We’ll start from the tweet which questioned, the response which proposed one, and how we can perhaps develop on that idea of what a UI looks like from there.

We still haven’t quite figured out the right UI paradigms for deep work… But for close collaboration on a deadline, technology is now great. AirDrop, Slack, WhatsApp, Google Drive, Google Docs, Zoom. Things are so much better than they were a decade ago.

Deep Thought should be put into a different bucket than collaborative or even task-based work as its definition, even if its results end up contributing to those and other types of productivity/computational moments. The issue — well identified by Stripe’s CEO — is that the shift of perspective and intention of deep work is harder to pin down as much of what’s monetized about work is transactional. Deep work is transactional primarly for the individual doing it, not for the entities the individual is supporting.

Deep work UI paradigm (thoughts based around my iOS-as-workstation self):

  • goals: immersion, flow, focus
  • analogy: Etch-A-Sketch controls, not Photoshop’s
  • behaviors: liberty inside frame (create, cut, mix/remix, etc), structured export to outside (validate, handoff, etc.)

The approach proposed here isn’t an answer, but does start to bend the definition of deep work away from the (better understood) characteristics associated with collaborative and transactional software. The interfaces for collaborative software is established probably in looking at what’s being done:

  • multiple persons as audience
  • decrease in time/space between those persons
  • breakdown of siloed files/conversations into threads
  • leveraging bandwidth connectivity in multiple modes (AJAX, high/low-fidelity, stream/asynchronous, etc.)

Deep work, our proposal for looking at it, runs counter to these. The goal isn’t to make anything tenable to another audience, for the entirety of the opportunity is found in focus and immersion. This doesn’t mean that it would not eventually be shared, but that sharing or co-working is a “broken” model for this kind of UI paradigm to aspire towards.

The analogy of Etch-A-Sketch controls versus Photoshop (PS) plants into the frame of mind what is and isn’t possible. In PS, one can control the interface using mice, keyboards, and pens; then navigate the interface using points, clicks, double-clicks, mouse-overs, keyboard shortcuts, gestures, programmable scripts (macros), and speech. This endows the creator with a myriad of possibilities; and also forces them to ignore what they will not use in order to be totally immersed within the project. On the other hand, the Etch-A-Sketch proposes two dial controls, and a vigorous, physical control to reset the canvas. It is simple, and at the same time powerful. Mastery of the horizontal and vertical dials isn’t so much the aim, as much as it becomes a goal of focusing on what it can do best. For a deep thought UI, this is more important than being able to do anything.

Lastly, what are the behaviors promoted within an application or service which espouses deep thought principles? It might be framed best by two phrases: “liberty inside the frame” and “structured export outside of it.” Maybe better stated with the question many persons who purchase Field Notes tend to answer: “what am I going to do with these when they are filled? Nothing. Everything.” Inside of a Field Notes notebook, one draws, writes, scribbles, rips, etc. Anything the paper and writing instrument allow, these are executed within the frame, and nothing more is expected of it. At the same time, if it needs to go elsewhere, rip or photograph and go… it doesn’t change the fidelity of thought which went into it, but it does enable another audience to gain a piece of what had been “internal only.”

Understandably, this doesn’t answer the original premise of what a deep thought UI paradigm would look like. And its not the only approach taken towards answering what that would look like (Basecamp’s It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy At Work as another take). However, it does invite the question of what making space for contemplation and deep though could look like if the tools appropriated the lessons from this behavior also. And if it took onto those lessons, would not only software change, but would the industries crafted by that software also become more introspective to their outcomes?

We tend to think so…

…over the coming year, we plan on clarifying what that would look like from our end; passing the lessons here to what might be better served outside of a thought.