Other writings by the authors of
The Social Life of Information:
Keeping it simple
Bringing Design to Software
ed. T. Winograd
New York, 1996: 129-145
About the authors
About the site
Keeping It Simple:
Investigating Resources in the Periphery
(c) ACM, 1995
Well-designed media provide peripheral clues that subtly direct
users along particular interpretive paths by invoking social and cultural
understandings. Context and content work efficiently together as
an ensemble, sharing the burden of communication. If the relationship between
the two is honored, their interaction can make potentially complex practices of
communication, interpretation, and response much easier for designers and users
alike. Honoring this relationship is the key to keeping things simple, and it
suggests that the truly revolutionary impact of the information revolution will
be not in the new ways that technology can separate message from medium by
making everything digital, but rather in the continually new ways it finds to
creatively recombine message and medium. Software design, ambiguously
straddling divisions between form and content, will need to develop a fine
sense of the redistribution of resources made possible by emerging technologies
and their uses.
Everything seemed insubstantial. The only solid evidence he had was a
lump the size of a dodo's egg with a pain that bourbon couldn't kill. He had
enough information to sail a ship on, but no clues to navigate by. Only a raft
of words taking him nowhere, very, very slowly. They offered to tell him
everything, but so did the dictionary. The victim was more eloquent. And
those crumpled sheets on the bed spoke volumes that those flat white sheets of
paper could never match. On those there was only words, words, words.
We are confident that you did not think that this chapter was
embarking on a detective story. But why? No doubt our pastiche is not very
good, but there is enough bad detective fiction around to cover our blushes.
So why would no one expect that reading on would reveal "who did it"?
To find that out, we need to shift the question from "who did it?" to "what did
it?" What made it clear, before all the pastiche we could muster, that this
was never going to be a detective story? The simple answer is the physical
book itself. Its heft, its shape, its cover, its paper, and innumerable other
things about it tell you well before you read a word that the book you are
holding is not going to contain a detective novel. Even if a photocopy or a
fax has stripped away much of the book's integrity, the remaining page layout,
running heads, typography, shape of the chapter heading, indentations, and a
tumult of other features implicitly insist that this is not the place for a
This is not just true for books. Well-designed media provide peripheral clues
that subtly direct users along particular interpretive paths by invoking social
and cultural understandings. Context and content work
efficiently together as an ensemble, sharing the burden of communication. If
the relationship between the two is honored, their interaction can make
potentially complex practices of communication, interpretation, and response
much easier for designers and users alike. This is the essence of keeping
Taking account of context involves more, however, than crafting a
well-integrated interface. It also requires taking account of the continually
evolving social conventions carried by context. As we suggest in this chapter,
it is not enough to design an on-line newspaper that looks like a conventional
newspaper or magazine. Designers have to take account of the complex social
understanding engaged by the newspaper and underwritten by its physical form.
This understanding goes beyond the objects themselves, to the social practices
that are-in Gibson's (1979) term-afforded by those objects and that might no
longer be afforded if the objects changed. The resources for design are not
all in the designer's hands. Many are developed in use. The challenge, then,
is not just to design an interface that looks like a book, a newspaper, a
magazine, a library catalog, or whatever. It is to engage and develop, in a
new medium, the ever-changing social understanding that emerged first around
these artifacts and still draws on their material properties.
There are two reasons why it is important to bring the attention of software
designers to the interactions between content and context--or between other
related divisions, such as center and periphery, content and form, message and
medium, or information and noise.
First, the greatest challenge designers and users face is achieving clarity and
simplicity. Yet many discussions of design overlook ways in which peripheral
resources can help clarify and simplify.
Second, the truly revolutionary impact of the information revolution will be
not in the new ways that technology can separate message from medium by making
everything digital, but rather in the continually new ways it finds to
creatively recombine message and medium. Software design, in particular,
ambiguously straddles divisions of form and content. If we are to go beyond
designs that remain heavily dependent on older technologies and forms,
designers need to develop a fine sense of the redistribution of resources made
possible by software technologies.
This chapter directs attention away from central information and functionality
to the peripheral clues that crucially help shape understanding and use. In
the future, the role of the designer may lie as much in enabling and seeding
new practices and new interpretive strategies as in building new technologies.
In opening the chapter with an example drawn from books, typography, and page
layout, we may at first appear lost in the Gutenberg revolution rather than
concerned with its information successor. The dramatic proliferation of the
World Wide Web, however, indicates that both the document metaphor and
documents themselves may be as significant to the information galaxy of
cyberspace as they were to its Gutenberg equivalent. Furthermore, documents
are a powerful example of the way people use peripheral resources to underwrite
the efficient use of all sorts of technologies. We offer document-based
examples, then, for two reasons: First, it is still important to understand
documents and document use. Second, documents are a specific instance of a
more general phenomenon: People read and interconnect artifacts much as they
read and interconnect documents, taking into account not just the established
text or functionality, but also the clues provided by context.
Consider, for instance, something as simple as a telephone-answering machine.
Its use is not quite self-explanatory. A moment's thought reveals that the
common message "I'm not here now" is, in the abstract, nonsense. Whomever "I"
refers to should be "here," wherever here is, "now," whenever the phrase is
uttered. Yet in practice, despite its formal incoherence, the phrase turns out
to be much more efficient than attempts at formal coherence, such as "If you're
hearing this message, then I will not be at home at the time at which you will
What gives the more pithy phrase its effectiveness? Clearly, the words alone
do not clinch the matter. To be understood, they rely on peripheral clues for
interpretation. Background clicks and whirs, hisses from the tape, and the
recorded quality of the voice itself all help callers realize that they are
hearing a recorded message, and thus prepare them for a message's
particular--if in the abstract peculiar--logic. These peripheral
resources are not usually regarded as part of the information with which
information technology is concerned. Yet, appearing unproblematically in the
hiss of a recorded message, peripheral contributions can nevertheless be quite
informative, allowing someone leaving a message and someone hearing it to
communicate with a simple efficiency.
Important though they may be for design, these peripheral resources are not
necessarily designed themselves. More usually, they evolve, as people--often
quite unreflectively--enlist the support of contingent properties of a
technology to keep things simple. Answering-machine messages once included the
clumsy announcement, "This is a recording." As the quality of telephone lines
rose relative to the quality of tape recordings, people found they could drop
the introductory phrase. The distinctive tone of the message made the fact
that it was a message self-evident. Further changes can render these evolving
resources extinct. Now that the quality of the recorded message is again level
with that of the live voice, useful peripheral resources have been lost.
Callers find themselves addressing a recorded voice as though it were live, and
consequently clumsy introductory phrases such as "Hi, this is a recorded
message . . ." are returning.
The idea that there is a clear boundary between information and noise, of
course, is not a product of new information technologies. Standard accounts of
the Gutenberg revolution portray the book as a radically new way to liberate
information from contextual constraints that accompanied spoken language. The
information revolution is portrayed as a continuation of this process,
providing better ways to free information from restraining material
In attempting to rid communication of peripheral resources, such accounts evoke
the old game in which children challenge one another to describe something
awkward like a spiral staircase without using their hands. As a game, this
challenge is amusing, but, in practice, if you actually have to show someone
what a spiral staircase is, it is almost always much more efficient to use your
hands--particularly if you can point to an example. The material world is rich
with explanatory resources, in part because most of our explanations involve
the material world. Abandoning it, therefore, is not only a difficult task,
but one unlikely to make things simpler.
As an example, consider the library. At least since Vannevar Bush (1945)
described his idea of Memex (a proto-hypertext system), people have sought to
distill out of libraries the information they contain. Attempts to do this
have been problematic, because Bush and many of his followers see libraries and
books themselves as little more than antiquated storage devices. Transferring
their content to hypertext databases has left behind elaborate and important
For instance, the piece of information "George Washington said, 'I cannot tell
a lie'" would probably be stored in many different contexts in any conventional
American library. Among others, it would be stored in later editions of Mason
Locke Weems's biography of George Washington, in Mark Twain's works, in books
with titles as varied as History and Ideology, Our Presidents, or
Every Child's Own Encyclopedia, (and perhaps in a book about software
design). These different locations are not irrelevant. Where it is stored,
how it is stored, and even that it is stored provide important resources for
assessing what is stored.
On its own, the sentence cannot tell us how it should be interpreted and
valued. The range of possible interpretation goes well beyond a simple
assessment that some of the books contain correct information and others false.
Historical fables, after all, whether true or false, may be highly
illuminating. But the reader still has to work out whether this is a fable,
and if it is, what kind of fable it might be: sincere, ironic, humorous;
popular, local, widespread, and so forth.
In practice, readers rarely have to consider all available options. Before
they come to the sentence, the particular bound book and unfolding linear
narrative will have significantly narrowed the interpretive options. One book
will provide reliable indicators of what Washington is likely to have said;
another what Twain wrote; yet another what Weems said Washington said, and so
People need to know more than what something means. They also want to know why
it matters. This is quite as important as the internal semantics of the
information, but is not itself an internal property. Evaluation requires more
than the information itself, which cannot validate itself any more than writing
"good" on its face can validate a bad check.
All books and all the bits of information they contain are not equal.
Different kinds of books efficiently provide different kinds of warrant for the
information they offer. With book technology, society has developed
conventions that allow both writers and readers to use the material objects
themselves to limit interpretation, warrant information, and simultaneously to
keep communication relatively simple.
Designers of digital libraries, or even just designers of other document forms
such as World Wide Web pages, will need to find and create alternative
resources for the interpretive reliability and simplicity provided by older
Picking up clues
Schooling may stress abstract information, but students learn a great deal more
than schooling explicitly stresses. As they read comics, novels, biographies,
mysteries, true crime stories, and textbooks, they learn to distinguish
different types of books and the types of information contained within them.
With the help of external clues to interpretation, readers confidently learn to
distinguish fiction from nonfiction, to distinguish books of detective fiction
from books about detective fiction, and to recognize irony, parody, and
pastiche as distinct from the forms on which they are based.
Moreover, people approach more than books in this way. They seek interpretive
clues in the periphery of all sorts of communicative interactions. They
distinguish different kinds of movies, videos, and TV programs, and can usually
flick unerringly from news breaks to soap operas, docudramas to movies, ads to
MTV videos, navigating as much by the context as the content. They learn to
distinguish almost on sight consumer products from commercial appliances,
personal media from professional media, educational software from entertainment
software, and so on.
In learning to recognize and distinguish information, people behave like good
detectives, continually working with the clues they find at the scene,
extrapolating from partial evidence to the whole story. To engage these
practices, good designers, by contrast, need to be more like bad criminals than
good ones, always leaving behind a traceable array of clues.
Of course, designers and users are not always in cahoots. While some designers
and users' have corresponding interests, there are others who for a variety of
reasons set out to penetrate users' defenses by scattering misleading clues.
We see this in junk mail that imitates personal mail, in ads that imitate rock
videos, or in bogus software that imitates genuine programs. In each case, if
the center looks authentic (and if it does not, the subterfuge fails
immediately) wary users continually look for more and more refined clues in the
periphery to distinguish the genuine. Their protagonists, meanwhile, are
equally trying to craft a more perfect subterfuge.
Attempts to separate the material form from an informational content appear
highly problematic, both in theory and in practice. To take a practical
example, consider the daily newspaper. At first glance, it certainly seems
reasonable to think of separating the material form from the information, the
paper from the news. Yet, though attempts have been made (Knight-Ridder
abandoned Viewtron, the most energetic attempt by a major newspaper publisher
to produce an online paper, after loosing $50 million (DeGeorge & Byrd,
1994)), to date the conventional newspaper survives, despite the arrival over
the years of radio, newsreels, television, or news databases, each of which was
thought likely to make newspapers irrelevant. The material contribution of the
medium helps explain why the paper survives.
The newspaper does not just report news, it makes it. The underlying paper has
a significant role in that making. First, only certain items can fit within
the bounds that paper provides. In general, what gets in is news, what does
not is not. Second, the circulation of unchanging newsprint through a society
(ensuring that the same news is available to everyone at roughly the same time)
turns those items into social facts--common to a broad readership.
Politicians are disturbed to find their scandalous behavior splashed under the
headline not because the story is news to them, but because it has become
front-page news to 100,000 other people. The newspaper has been described as a
"one-day best seller"--and, as with best-sellers, the point is that everyone is
reading it. It is the collective selection, presentation, and circulation of
information that turns it into news. And these are all carefully underwritten
by the materiality of newsprint.
Consequently, the idea that readers should gather items individually out of a
vast database misses the point. Although the resulting copy might look like a
conventional newspaper, the items included would lack the social status and
warrants that comes from the combination of editorial selection, location on
the page, and wide distribution. The personally tailored, genuinely unique
newspaper, selected privately from a database, offers neither physical nor
social continuity. Each individual output would be no more than that,
individual, with little or no indication of its social significance.
In recognition of the newspaper as a maker of news, both broadcast and on-line
news services tend to defer to and often to report what major papers carry.
Furthermore, in acknowledgment of the significance of the newspaper's physical
structure, these secondary sources often note if the story they report was on
the front page or in the business section and, occasionally, if it was above or
below the fold. In relaying news in this way, broadcast forms indicate that,
even though they too make news, they lack the resources to structure news in
similarly informative ways. On-line sources, in general, make it clear that
they do not even make news. What they carry as news comes from other sources,
primarily print media. As yet, however, they have not developed ways to
provide and warrant information on their own. Their dependence on the
conventional press strikes us as an instance of a significant, more general
point. If designers fail to understand how to encode and warrant information
within new technologies, they and their new designs will remain unnecessarily
dependent on old technologies.
To allow information to be socially encoded and decoded, as the newspaper does,
the peripheral clues must inevitably circulate with the information. The
extent to which peripheral objects are shared varies considerably with the type
of social interaction and the type of technology. In face-to-face
communication, a speaker can use words such as I, you, here, or
that, knowing that listeners have access to the same periphery.
Similarly, with fixed objects, people can fairly confidently predict what clues
will be available for future participants to draw on. For example, a building
remains in a fairly continuous relation to its periphery. As you approach a
building, you meet an array of architectural strategies designed to refine
these expectations: the landscaping, the relation to neighboring buildings, the
massing, the color all tell you about the building. The ways in which pathways
lead you to the building--to the front, around the side, through the
middle--further develop your sense of the interior spatial relations and even
of the interior social relations. An architect can rely on the presence of
these fairly stable objects in the periphery to give a visitor much of the code
required to read the building itself.
When interaction is no longer face to face or when objects no longer have a
fixed periphery, using the periphery is inevitably more complex. When objects
travel across space and time, only certain aspects of the original context
travel with them. Instead of working in juxtaposition to a relatively
unchanging, broad periphery, users have to rely on a far narrower band of
unchanging features. We call this area the border. Although partial,
it can be very helpful, nonetheless. For instance, at the opening of this
chapter, we were able to use words such as "we," knowing that the names of the
joint authors would be evident and "this," to refer to the book in your hands.
Of course, the border has its limits. We cannot use "now," or "over there,"
because we have no idea when or where the chapter might be read.
Book covers provide a well-used example of a border resource becoming
established. Before the nineteenth century, booksellers bound most books for
individual customers, so readers of a book did not all see the same cover.
Consequently, a shelf of eighteenth-century books, although it may look
beautiful, is usually not informative; it is just a row of large books in
calfskin bindings, which tell you more about their owner than about the books'
content. By the twentieth century, publishers had taken over the process of
bookbinding, and all copies of a particular edition had the same cover. Book
covers developed into a highly informative social resource. Look along a shelf
of contemporary books, even without reading the titles or cover copy, and it is
relatively easy to recognize the types of books--to distinguish the adult
encyclopedia from the children's, the political-science treatise from the pot
boiler, or whatever.
People learn to interpret the information within buildings or books according
to the type of building or book in which they find it. Drawing on
literary terms, we call these types genres. Just as in literature,
deciding whether a piece is a short story or an essay makes a great difference
to interpretation, so more generally, recognizing the genre of a communication
or of an object is important. To return to an early example, the genre
established by the hiss of the answering machine allow one to leave a simple
salutation that another can decode despite its problematic logic.
Genres also allow similar information to have very different interpretations.
The request "don't miss this event" has a quite different ring on a softball
invitation than it does on a memorandum from the boss. Indeed, people are
implicitly considering these differences whenever they choose a particular type
of communication: telephone for an informal chat; electronic-mail for a
reminder; a memorandum for a message with authority; a business letter for a
formal bid, and so forth. By choosing a certain border for their message, they
are attempting to constrain the interpretation of the message they will
Genre is an important concept in software design for three reasons.
First, in any form of communication, genres engage socially shared knowledge.
Establishing the genre for a particular communication--whether it be academic
essays, collegial e-mail notes, film noire, music videos, or computer
games--draws on knowledge shared within the groups that use these particular
forms. The more that a level of shared expectation can be assumed, the less
needs to be said explicitly about how the information should be read.
Conversely, the less that is shared, the more that needs to be said, and the
harder communication becomes. The borders of genres provide sturdy yet light
scaffolding for the simple coproduction of complex structures. In this way,
they are central to the task of keeping things simple.
Second, because information is always formed with regard to one genre or
another, understanding genres is crucially important to the challenge of
dealing with the demands of the information age. So, for example, one way to
make knowbots more efficient at navigating through databases is to make
them responsive to genre cues. They can then distinguish (as readers do) the
different values of the same sentence occurring in The National Review,
The Nation, The National Inquirer, or The National
Lampoon, using broad generic clues rather than specific and particular
knowledge of periodicals and magazines.
Third, as we argue in the final two sections, to fulfill their potential, new
technologies require new genres.
Breaking the law
So far, the picture of genres we have painted is inherently conservative. We
have primarily noted ways in which it is either important or helpful to stay
within the bounds set by genres and their borders. This, of course, is not the
whole story. Design evolves and innovates to a significant extent by crossing
boundaries, not by respecting them; by flouting conventions, not by heeding
them. In breaking through the old, new frontiers are opened.
Breaking the bounds is particularly familiar to good artists, who continually
push at the constraints of their chosen forms. Their transgressions often
involve a two-step process, for as unseen boundaries are crossed, they are
simultaneously brought to light. In raising the condemnation that "this is not
art," for instance, artists force people to think about what art is, what its
conventions are, and the benefits of conforming or not conforming to them.
Crossing boundaries is not always beneficial. Staying within the old forms
certainly may fail to engage and develop new types of interpretation. But
paying no heed to established conventions may fail to engage any coherent
interpretation at all. It takes a fine sense of genre to negotiate a path
between these two extremes, and the right path is often the subject of much
debate over the development of new expressive forms.
In jazz, for instance, Miles Davis claimed that Wynton Marsalis was too
respectful of old forms to go anywhere new. Others, however, criticized Davis
for moving too far beyond conventional forms to be understood. Almost every
time he moved across musical boundaries, Davis was charged with incoherence.
(One reason Davis disliked the reverence paid to older jazz forms was that he
had played them when they were new and judged unintelligible: "Don't tell me
the way it was. Hell, I was there . . . no one wanted to hear us when we were
playing jazz," he once complained.) Before long, however, it usually became
apparent that he had built a new audience for his work and a new frontier for
musicians--often led by Davis himself--to try to cross.
In a time of changing technologies, it is not surprising to see a profusion of
new genres. Through techniques of mixing, dubbing, cutting, and sampling made
much easier by the wider availability of recording equipment, hip hop has
revolutionized older forms of contemporary music. Hypertext technologies,
poaching strategies, and Internet zines have innovatively disrupted
conventional ways of writing and reading. And cheap editing technology, on the
one hand, and the disruption of linear control provided by video players and CD
recordings, on the other, have creatively changed both video and film. When
technology forces the pace like this, designers, like artists, need to keep an
eye not just on emerging technologies but on the interpretive genres emerging
with them. The most responsive will, like Davis, be capable of developing new
forms and bringing new audiences into being.
New forms of escape
In new media as in old, the general context crafted by designers provides
individual producers and consumers with key resources for coproducing the
content. Media are clearly no longer neutral carriers. As new genres evolve,
old boundaries are being erased, what was once the border is absorbed into
content, and new borders emerge elsewhere.
Theories of design, however, sometimes shy away from blurred distinctions.
Computer design clung too long to an oversimple division between software and
hardware. Apple, for example, may have been fatally indecisive in failing to
make up its mind whether it was dealing in hardware or software and failing to
discover how to avoid the dilemma. Now, new shifts in software are making
previously clear distinctions even trickier to maintain. Classic applications
such as spreadsheets and word-processing programs make software appear as form
or content provider. But in computer games, in MOOs (a game based, shared
virtual environment in which on-line participants working on individual
computers can communicate and program collectively in real time), in HTML
documents and SGML documents (a more sophisticated mark-up language than HTML
which some bibliographic scholars (e.g. McGann, 1995) believe offers a better
way to represent the properties of the physical book in digital form), and so
forth the software is more intricately a part of the content.
As this happens, the distinction between software design and other forms of
design is becoming harder to maintain. With games, is it possible to ask where
software ends and content begins? In MOOs, are participants building a room
engaged in design of content or collaborative programming? Is designing a home
page for the Web a matter of document design, multimedia design, or software
design? Can the task of design in cases like these be simply divided between
software designers and content designers? If not, does software design teach
the skills required for this sort of work?
As the technology shifts, software designers will need to acquire many of the
skills and intuitions of other designers. (And conversely, other designers
will need the software designer's skills.) Both will have to develop a sense
of the continual evolution of genres and of the way in which people's changing
understandings of what is peripheral, what is part of the border, and what is
at the heart of a design help drive that evolution. Given an understanding of
these interrelations, designers can help choose the direction of evolution by
seeding new genres, creating new audiences, and establishing new repertoires,
very much as artists do.
This, in our view, is the way to approach design today. New technologies are
proliferating, as is the ocean of information with which they have to deal.
New forms, genres, and conventions to accommodate the two to human use seem, by
comparison, seem to be lagging behind. The challenge for the future may be to
develop not new technologies, on the one hand, and new sources of information,
on the other, but simultaneously to seed and develop new interpretive
conventions to make both the emerging technology and the information more
The future of design in information technologies lies not in developing means
of increasingly full re-presentation, but rather in allowing increasing amounts
to be underrepresented; not by increasing what is said, but rather by helping
people to leave more unsaid; not in refining abstractions, but rather by making
use of their inevitable impurity; not by making more explicit, but rather, by
leaving as much as possible implicit, and in the process keeping things
V. Bush, As We May Think, Atlantic, 1945 (July): 101-108.
G. DeGeorge & V. Byrd. Knight Ridder: Once Burned and the Memory Lingers.
Business Week 1994 (April 11): 74-76.
Gibson, J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New York: Houghton
J. McGann, "The Rational of Hypertext," 1995