Tryin’ to make it real compared to what? *

How do we experience the world around us through visual communications? With user experience, branding, personal relationships — we filter all of the information that comes flying at us from so many sources. We filter. We try to put it in context— consciously and reflexively. We sort it and try to make sense of it.  We sometimes struggle to understand the underlying meaning or how to use it. When I thought about the content focus of my blog,  this song lyric popped into my head, “Tryin’ to make it real compared to what?” Song snippets often punctuate my day. A phrase that encapsulates a moment, made memorable by the melody and rhythm. This one had staying power.

As a designer of virtual experiences, I need to understand “how to make it real” for a variety of users coming from different life experiences, with different needs, using a particular website or application in different contexts. One of the quickest ways to make something virtual or conceptual “real” is to compare it to something that’s instantly understandable, as a starting point of reference. Often when describing the intangible qualities of a brand we can use a simile to help, an “it’s like” phrase. “It’s like using a outboard motor to whip up some scrambled eggs” immediately conjures up an image with clear associations to excessive power, mess and more.

Another shortcut to understanding is to use comparison with data. Comparisons are really useful in conveying information and quantifying things. I owe this insight to Edward Tufte. I attended one of his workshops many years ago and took away a lot of good insights. But the one that really stuck was “compared to what”; the notion that data in isolation is not relevant or quickly understood. But if you compare it to something else, it becomes exponentially easier to understand. Great info graphics provide this at-a-glance understanding: How big is Africa? As a user of this information I know roughly how big my country – the USA– is and to see it as a fraction of the size of Africa provides me with an instant gauge of the big scale of the African continent.

It’s human nature, take something you’re familiar with and compare it to the new thing you’re trying to understand.

  • “It tastes like chicken, only chewier.”
  • In the optometrist office hooked up to the helpful and scary looking technology, is this line of letters clearer than that?  You gradually hone in on just how damaged your eyesight is from staring at the computer screen for all these years…. but I digress.

Comparisons take random information out in the universe and locate it in the ballpark. From that smaller more understandable space we can triangulate meaning and put information in context. Comparisons allow us to apply some meaning to the new thing we don’t  yet understand because it’s similar to another thing we  do  understand.

Comparison becomes our shortcut to understanding.

So when your mother-in-law says “Comparisons are odious”. You may politely say, “Perhaps, in some social circumstances. But when translating concepts into understandable user experience, they are the magic sauce to let us quickly find meaning and take action.”

* Thanks to Eddie Harris and Les McCann…for the inspiration.