|Review of In the Bubble (John Thackara)|
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By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – May 5, 2009
Some readers may already have had the suspicion that I am currently not in my office. They are correct: At the moment, I am recovering from hip surgery. Thankfully, my colleague and former team member Christine Wiegand is keeping the SAP Design Guild up and running in the meantime. This leads me to the starter for this editorial, namely my slow walking speed before and after my surgery. While the starter is not the "real" issue that I want to discuss in my editorial, it made me aware of the one that I would like to write about: "living in a bubble," actually "living in many bubbles." With this phrase (see note 1), I intend to point out that we often live in closed, separate "worlds" of our own or of a specific community. Typically, we are not even aware of this fact – that is the "dangerous" aspect of these bubbles.
Frog spawn may serve as an illustration of "living in bubbles:" Much like frog embryos we live next to each other in our small bubbles (see figure 1). In a way, we are "self-contained" in our bubble and do not look much beyond it.
Figure 1: Frog spawn may also be an analogy demonstrating the many bubbles we are living in... (section taken from cdn.fotocommunity.com/photos/11982799.jpg)
However, this analogy is only an incomplete view of reality: We do not live in just one bubble. We typically inhabit a multitude of overlapping bubbles at the same time, even though one or the other bubble may dominate at a specific moment, according to which issue we are currently engaged in. Maybe, soap bubbles are a somewhat better visualization of the bubbles that we live in because they seem to overlap and transcend each other (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Soap bubbles (from www.experimentalchemie.de/versuch-020.htm)
Let me return to my recent hip surgery for a moment. Already long before the surgery I had started to inhabit a very special bubble: the "slow walking" bubble – and I will still stay there for a while. I realized the presence of this bubble only when I was already recovering from my surgery and did a number of walking exercises. While I found my walking speed quite "normal," everybody was passing me by – the only exception being my wife who had learned to adapt her speed to mine over time, compensating the waiting times by taking numerous photos. When I started to think over this bubble I now live in, I realized that I have adapted to it in many ways. For example, when I approach a constricted opening and see a colleague rushing by from the distance, I always wait for the colleague, because he or she is usually so much faster than me und thus reaches the opening before me. Having realized the bubble, I now try to walk faster to return to "normal" walking speed and to be able to leave the bubble one day...
While the "slow walking" bubble may be regarded as a fairly harmless one, it struck me nevertheless when I discovered it. I seem to live in a different world than other people with my own "surrounding ether" and perception of speed. Soon, however, I realized that I live in a multitude of bubbles of different sorts – sometimes more or less alone, sometimes sharing the bubble with a lot of other people. One bubble that I share with a number of people, even though these form a minority, is my preference for Apple Macintosh computers. There are a number of related bubbles, such as the Windows bubble, and the Unix and Linux bubbles, but I do not care much about them. In the early days, I even fought small "wars" with inhabitants of other bubbles such as Windows users, but that is long ago. Moreover, it seems to me that most inhabitants of "related" bubbles simply do the same – more or less ignore the other bubbles. Such a "harmony" may not last forever, though: From time to time, there are disturbances such as Apple's switcher campaign (now Microsoft is doing a similar thing), trying to "absorb" inhabitants of the Windows bubble and add them to their own one.
Nevertheless, one characteristic of bubbles seems to be a certain degree of self-sufficiency and a lack of communication and exchange with the outside (or other related bubbles). For example, I am not even interested to learn that there may be zillions of Windows applications which might serve me better than the ones I own (or lack). In a similar vein, in the digital camera domain there sprout a lot of discussion boards for digicam users. Typically these arranged "by brand," which is just a synonym for "by bubble." Rarely, I find posts in "my" Ricoh forum from people who get lost in a forum for the wrong brand. There are some trolls, though, but these are expelled soon – and there are, of course, a few potential "switchers."
Before I list countless examples of bubbles from all areas of life, let me turn to my own profession, namely user interface design in a large software company. Of course, we can identify lots of bubbles here, too: User interface designers live in their own "UI bubble," focused on users and screen design, while developers inhabit another one, focused on technology, data bases and structures, release schedules, and other nice issues (that UI designers prefer to ignore...). In addition, a lot of bubbles can be found that do not include user experience at all. Instead, they focus on issues such as profit margins, customer support, or technical visions. This is by no means bad news. However, the problem with all the various bubbles is that they hinder communication, the exchange of ideas, and the awareness of issues beyond one's own (bubble's) scope. As already said, bubbles are mainly "closed shops." Agreed, there are times where we need the security of bubbles in order to focus on certain issues – they are a sort of "comfort zone." But bubbles may turn to the negative if we forget that we live inside them and if we forget or ignore that they exclude numerous aspects of the "outer world" that might be relevant for us. Thus, we need to be aware of our bubbles in order to overcome their limitations and to extend our personal views and experiences – just like the people did in the Middle Ages, when they discovered a new, extended view of the world (see figure 3 and also note 2).
Figure 3: Wood cut by Camille Flammarion from 1888 in the fashion of the 15th century showing how the mediaeval world view was imagined at later times. (from wapedia.mobi/de/Flache_Erde)
After all these arguments, we might come to the conclusion that there might also be some "SAP Design Guild bubbles." Indeed, there are, and some of them make perfectly sense for a SAP User Experience organ, for example, to focus on the SAP application environment as well as on user experience and user interface design issues. On the other hand, this Website also is a perfect place to leave and transcend bubbles by connecting users, developers, and user interface designers and by striving for a common goal, namely usable SAP software that is easy and fun to use. The SAP Design Guild team tries to extend its antennae to all members of the UI community, be they students, UI and design professionals, or interested people. We do so by publishing articles, reviewing books, or announcing UI events. And we also direct our antennae to the feedback of our visitors. Their feedback may indicate bubbles that should be avoided or taken special care of, but this is helpful news for us. Only transcending the bubbles in both directions will help us improve this site and make it more useful for our visitors.