08 December 2010

The ideal workspace - online and off

Scientific American Mind (1-year auto-renewal) A recent article in Scientific American Mind features research into how the decoration of office space can make people more productive. Is it inspiration posters, indoor camp grounds and an in-house beer fridge vs. the veneer cubicle?

And what can this tell us about online spaces for work and learning?

The feature article in the October issue of Scientific American Mind entitled "Cubicle, Sweet Cubicle" looks at new research comparing bland, enriched and empowering office spaces. Researchers S. Alexander Haslam and Craig Knight refer to the start-up trend beginning in the 90's that saw the introduction of "fun" and "exciting" things into the office, like brightly colored inflatable furniture and game rooms. This approach didn't stay in the 90's; a colleague recently revealed to me that the Sydney Google office has an indoor campground where you can go play in a tent on your coffee break. It's certainly better then those inspirational posters with eagles and golf players generously providing us with deep words of wisdom a la Jack Handy. But its probably the free food anytime at the Google company restaurant that makes them stay put and do their work. Or is it?

In a nutshell... the research compared four office spaces: a boring/minimalist/undecorated office ("lean"), an office deocrated with imagrey and flowers ("enriched"), an office in which people could arrange these flowers and paintings as they chose ("empowered") and, finally, one in which the experimenter came in and undid their arrangements ("disempowered", or what I would call "evil").

The result? It's not so much the enrichment but the empowerment that makes the difference. Coming back to Google, the article's example cites their strategy to allow workers to decorate their cubicles with their own geeky (ahem), I mean "individual" paraphernalia from light sabers to vintage lunch boxes. It becomes a game of who can make the quirkiest cleverest cubicle. Think how happy ThinkGeek became with this arrangement. But more importantly, what can this tell us about the design of online workspaces?

I couldn't keep down flashbacks of the zillions clamouring to complain to me about the dyscfunctionality of learning environments like Blackboard and WebCT (the latter absorbed but still in use). One teacher lamented "this new Blackboard won't even let me add pictures to the menu!".

The message for learning interface designers from this research seems to be, its better to focus on designing possibilities for users to customise, then it is to focus on making a beautifully decroated and "enriched" interface. Admittedly, this can lead a designer like me to visions of harakiri, because I am forced to face the heinous reality: "As ugly as I know some users will make it, I have to let them because they'll be happier and more productive". And yes, someone somewhere will upload an animated gif. Sure, there are limitations that need to be in place, but its a balance that we have to make sure we're basing on the research and not on our strong (albeit superior) preferences.

In quick translation: "If I give them options (colors, images, flowers) this is good. If I let them bring in (upload) their own things (light sabers, lunchboxes, photos) this may be even better. The ability to make something our own via customization seems to motivate us in a dull working environment. But of course "empowerment" over the interface is nothing new - and in fact, practically defines the design of products in the 21st century.

I would add that interface-based reward mechanisms used more and more frequently in learning programs (like "get 10 right and you can buy yourself a toy" or "pass the level and unlock a wardrobe for your avatar") fit right in here, because they allow the user to feel they are creating something uniquely them.

So an empowering online learning space might allow you to upload your own photos and objects to decorate it, or choose from a shelf of freebies or reward-based objects as you move along. It might also use avatars that can be dressed and accessorized. If we're thinking Learning Management Systems, it needs to allow a teacher to customize the information design, which includes the way menus and files are presented onscreen. Of course, what you use where and how has to depend on what kind of space you're designing, what kind of learning will happen there, who your audience is and what will support the learning goals.  D-uh.  But the trick for designers is remembering we need to relinquish some control over the design if we really want to be user-centered. Come on, just a little.