Recently I ran across a fantastic documentary called Digital Nation. An hour long look at the changes hat have occurred over the last ten to fifteen years it seeks to answer the question of what technology has done to our lives. Put under the lens of the user experience it raises some very thought provoking threads for designers of all interfaces (web, mobile, desktop, and others).
Is there a time to unplug?
One of the key messages of this documentary is that we may simply be driving ourselves to distraction with all the devices around us. From laptop computers in the classroom to smartphones in our pockets and tablet computers in our hands it is hard to avoid the feeling of connectedness. There may some benefits to being able to have information at our fingertips. There is also an undesired side effect. For many people it is exceptionally difficult to unplug without some feeling of withdrawal.
This lack of downtime can have some major consequences. For me I do some of my best thinking when not surrounding by screens. Given some pencils, paper, and a quiet location I feel free to brainstorm without the urge to change tasks. If a great idea pops into my idea I can simply jot it down for later. Some people will claim they are more efficient because they can multitask (jumping between Google, Microsoft Word, the latest baseball scores, and text messages from friends). My feeling is that this is an illusion. In reality people are doing more but accomplishing less - is there really much achievement in answering 150 emails over producing a working prototype?
The loss of experience
Another theme touched on over the course of the documentary was the amount of information readily accessible. High school students that were interviewed loved sites like Wikipedia and Sparknotes. They allowed them to get the gist of the required reading without having to sit down and actually experience the book themselves. After all "books are boring" right?
This false sense of knowing cheats people out of the learning that happens during the process. The same thing is true for building technical skills as well. Tutorials, code libraries, and "X for Dummies" are not a problem on their own. However they can lead to people using them as a crutch instead of learning how to think critically through a problem. Much like an instant recipe ("just add water") it leads to a situation where solving the inevitable problems is made incredibly difficult.
A hot trend in user experience these days is the concept of Gamification. This is the idea that you can draw people in to an activity by using game mechanics such as rewards. Personally I fall into the "not convinced" crowd. Certain activities have their own rewards (like exercise and losing weight). Others are not interesting no matter how much you try - I am thinking here of things like cleaning the house or doing taxes.
Digital Nation explores how these ideas have been applied to education. It is somewhat inconclusive on the outcomes. I would love to see the outcomes from these experiments when the data becomes available. I have a sneaking suspicion that while it may work for some people the majority leave with only a shallow understanding of the lessons. I know that I personally do not really "get" something until I have the chance to work with it hands on. Reading all the API documentation, tutorials, and boks in the world does not transfer that experience to my head.
10,000 foot overview
Digital Nation is a great look at the problems facing us today. With wireless technologies and access expanding more each day I can only imagine the problem will be getting worse. On the other hand it is not a new one. Rewind to the 1920s and I envision the same conversations were taking place about the radio. Go back to the 16th century and you probably heard how disruptive the printed book was. Eventually we will adapt and incorporate this new reality into our lives. That doesn't mean we should stop thinking about the implications on design, lifestyle, and culture. It means we actually need to be more aware of the social and cultural implications of the digital experience.