“The digital place you love is gone” – Joe Sokohl at EuroIA

I’ve been at EuroIA in Edinburgh, taking notes at a furious pace as usual. Here is what I made of Joe Sokohl’s rather wistful talk about place and loss.

Euroia 2013 logo

“The digital place you love is gone”

“The space belongs to everyone. The place belongs to you” – Bogdan Stanciu

Joe Sokohl used this tweet from Bogdan as one of the central motifs of his talk, illustrating the extent to which our sense of self is tied to place. “Place”, as opposed to a location, is the intersection and amalgamation of time, memory and physical space. It is easy to get sucked into just thinking about geography and maps when we use the word “place”, but it is much more than that.

When something alters that place radically, Joe said “the place you love so much is broken.” He illustrated this point with a series of family photographs through the years that showed one corner of a family home, and as the people aged and fashions changed, the furniture and layout remained the same. Until the last photo. When it had changed, and although it was the same space, it wasn’t the same “place”.

Joe said that we should recognise that this effect also applies to digital products and services. Cognitive maps, he said, once formed, really don’t liked to be disturbed. And to illustrate the point he referenced a viral video of a child crying because he doesn’t like the changes that iOS7 brings. “It’s all different. Make it go away!” the child screams. Joe says that it is a common desire to want things to “go back the way they were.”

He thinks we need to be more mindful of the effects that our design changes have on users. We all scoff at AOL now, and the cheesy screenshots of chunky mid-90s icons and the landfills full of CDs. But Joe reminded us that AOL was so familiar, so much part of the public consciousness, that the movie “You’ve got m@il” took its title from it. Producers in Hollywood were so convinced that phrase would resonate that they made it the calling card of a multi-million dollar venture.

He also showed an old homepage of thefacebook.com, from when it was first rolling out to different universities. There are people in their thirties, Joe said, who will still talk about how exciting it was when their university got added to the list, and suddenly they had a “place” to go to online, and it became their “place”.

Typically, as time has gone on, layer upon layer of complexity has been added to AOL and Facebook. It reminded me of the “Featuritis” curve slide by Carrie Buckingham and Erica Drecker that was doing the rounds on Twitter from another talk. As time passes, users go through an adoption curve of “This is new”, “Yes! I can do this”, “Woah, where did they put that thing?” to something like “Sweet Holy Jeebus I can’t even find out how to do the one simple task I bought this bunch of crap for! What is wrong with you guys? Did you let the work experience kid design it?”

“I’m not saying that we should not redesign anything,” Joe emphasised, “but I’m saying that as designers we need to take these things into account. Keep in mind the idea that you’re renovating, not destroying.”

I think probably out of all of the audience at EuroIA, I was one of the cases where Joe was most preaching to the converted. I’ve been on the receiving end during my career of plenty of personal abuse from people unhappy with design changes I’ve been involved with at the Guardian and BBC, particularly when closing down services or migrating them across technical platforms. Closing the Guardian Talkboards was especially difficult, and if you want a view on just how much digital places can mean to an audience, I suggest you read “Closing Mustardland”, my report on an account by Nigel Smith of the BBC about closing The Archers messageboard earlier this year.