Chris Anderson and I were having lunch this week...
Not at the same table, mind you. He was at the VIP table at the front of the room and I was sitting half a football field away. But I did get to hear Chris speak at the Technology Association of Georgia conference, Innovation 2.0. Mr. Anderson is the editor of Wired magazine and creator of the long tail view of market distributions. Just as Lynyrd Skynyrd cannot do a concert without doing "Sweet Home Alabama" Chris did his obligatory spiel on the long tail. But then he got into his latest passion, the econonomy of abundance.
Scarcity vs. Abundance
Old thinking is about scarcity; new thinking is about abundance. Scarcity thinking told us bandwidth was scarce (so we kept web page content free of bandwidth hogs like graphics and video). New thinking says bandwidth is abundant (can you say "YouTube?").
At any rate, before it too late to say "to make a long story short," I pondered what kind of scarcity thinking might I be engaged in that was limiting my user experience and user assistance designs. I realized that I have always operated on the assumption that real estate on the user interface was limited. If I were to think in terms of abundance, I should consider the real estate on the user interface as being infinite. As I was chuckling to myself over that in my worldly-wise chuckle (hard to convey in text but imagine listening to a cynical Jack Nicholson playing a curmudgeonly tech comm professor just hearing a fresh-eyed, perky student say that improved instructions on the sides of shampoo bottles could make the world a better place) when it occurred to me--duh, the real estate on the UI is infinite! I apologize to my esteemed colleague at CheckFree, Jeff Zimmerman, who spent the better part of two years trying to teach me this for my presenting this realization as if I thought it up in my own little brain. I didn't. But I just got it.
Technologies such as AJAX and techniques such as using portions of the screen that we know the user doesn't need at that moment and progressively disclosing information to a user on an as-needed basis can essentially remove the artificial boundaries of a display's two-dimensional space.
But Chris Anderson points out that a new abundance creates a new scarcity. User attention is the new scarcity that I now worry about. It's not about fitting text into a two-dimensional space (that's the old scarcity thinking); it's now about metering information to the user on an as-needed basis.
Forget about book metaphors--arranging and sequencing information within 'pages'-- the new user assistance metaphor is the carburetor, that device in our cars that mixes fuel and air to maximize combustion and the amount of work we get out of the engine. How can we best meter information to the user so that their performance-on-task is maximized?