Making the Abstract Experiential

It’s difficult for many lay users who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of how the internet works to make assessments of risk or to secure their communications. One way that design can help is by making abstract concepts understandable. There’s exciting work in understanding existing models of security and ways to leverage them in design, such as Rick Wash’s "Folk Models of Home Computer Security", but there’s still so much to be done.

As an inspirational example of how design can contribute to making abstract concepts accessible to a lay audience, here’s a 1977 video from designers Charles and Ray Eames. It makes the abstract topic of exponential growth experiential by relating it to the scale of the human body. Having admired the Eames’ work since my days in architecture school, I think starting with the scale of the human body is a great way to approach problems. The whole 9 minutes is worth a watch to get a sense of the pacing, since timed transitions between views illustrate scale.

Video: Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames

The strong narrative structure of the video connects abstract mathematical concepts to personal experience. Viewers learn by relating powers of ten to concrete things they can see or imagine, but the video feels more inspirational than educational. The inspirational tone is more powerful than a neutral explanation for increasing engagement, and I’m eager to see more inspiration in discussion of privacy.

Sarah Gold’s Alternet video is one example of an experiential narrative that makes risks to privacy accessible to a mass audience. Similarly, the Do Not Track episodes are personalized videos that let people experience what various groups know about their online behavior. They are engaging and pleasurable to watch, even if the information in the video upsets people learning it for the first time. Like Powers of Ten, Episode 1 of Do Not Track also uses time to help viewers experience the scale of large numbers, with Do Not Track showing how much revenue technology companies and the US internet advertising market make every second.

When designers approach privacy, we look beyond education and into action. Making abstract privacy topics experiential can motivate a broader group of end users to get involved in making better tools to protect privacy and security. It’s already pleasurable to relax at a picnic gazing at the sky, but Powers of Ten makes knowledge of exponents so compelling that gazing at the sky gets even better. I believe that understanding the mechanics of the internet can let people enjoy it more.

Charles and Ray Eames are legends of modern American design, famous for making products people welcome into their lives. As a community, let’s work to help end users embrace privacy and security by making challenging ideas accessible and easy to integrate into their daily lives.

US Postage
Stamps Commemorating Charles and Ray Eames. Photo by Ame Elliott

US Postage Stamps Commemorating Charles and Ray Eames.


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