It's not about the technology, it's about the space - and about changing that space.

I've been designing websites and similar virtual spaces for almost 15 years now, so I'm not totally naive about this web design lark. But for a few years now I've had this growing doubt in my mind about what it was I was working on - and I've come to the realisation that I no longer 'believe' in web sites. Now what the hell does that mean?

It came to be a few years ago I think, and has been spreading deeper into my consciousness over the months that have followed. I stopped looking at websites as simply collections of pages, images and links, and started to see them as virtual spaces in their own right. I'm not talking here about spaces like Second Life - they're clearly designed to be simulated virtual spaces - but your average everyday website like Amazon or Google. I started to build sites on a more modular level, following a user-centered approach that was focused around the individual explorer, and not my own view of how the overall site architecture should work. Following the work of people like Pirolli, and the ideas of Information Foraging, the centralised hierarchical approach was just making less and less sense, I'd been studying the user paths behind the scenes, watching what people actually did rather than what I thought they did, and the traditional model just wasn't working for me any more.

I think my own ideas are quite well formed now, and from a UI point of view centre around the three key concepts of Perceive, Move and Change. These three actions can be used to summarise any user experience, at least at the top level, and I find are a good way to analyse your space from the user perspective in terms of what someone can actually do at any one point in time. I believe they build on other work in user experience design, such as the work of Gibson and Norman, but exist at a more abstract level of experience, above specific concepts such as affordance. I define my three as:
  • Perceive - what information can the user deduce from simply looking at the space
  • Move - How can the user move from one point in the space to another point in the space
  • Change - how can the user change the space to suit their own needs
These three states continuously exist in every moment of time that a user experiences in virtual space. Every time they complete an action, then the three questions can be asked again - and a new set of answers will apply.

Of course these three states map closely into the real world, but in the real world  perception, movement and change are rather simple affairs - I see a pencil and paper across a room (both P), walk over to it (M), pick it up and write with it (both C). In the virtual world this is not so simple - any one of these states may be allowed/restricted/altered by the creator of that space in ways which will change how much or how little a user can connect into the virtual world. And the truth of the matter is that this type of alteration is incredibly common, and also almost exclusively unconsciously arrived at - but that's another blog post.

For me as someone working in education the most critical point of these three is the last one - change. It is the most critical thing that you can do in order to learn, yet is almost always either completely missing or at least seriously restricted in virtual space. So a quick answer for me as to how we can make better use of ICT in education is simple - enable change. My own research is trying to look deeper into the virtual world, and try and comprehend unique properties, but in the meantime if only we'd allow a little more virtual change in our students virtual lives I'm convinced it would make a big impact in their learning.

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