There’s a funny thing that I’ve noticed when I’ve watched my friends or family dig into a steaming bowl of ramen, or scoop up a delicious morsel of sushi: everyone seems to hold their chopsticks in their own unique way. It’s not that their hands are too big, or fingers too long, but rather out of habit they have made the tool an extension of their own hands in a bizarre and perhaps clumsy way. But it works for them.
Photo by Stewart Butterfield
I guess the same thing could be said about myself. Being left-handed, I’m often found to be the butt of most jokes (my last name doesn’t help either) when it comes to holding a pair of scissors or a knife, but I have a legitimate excuse: most of these tools were built with the right-handed user in mind. It’s comparable to North Americans watching people everywhere else in the world drive on the “wrong side of the road”.
But getting back to chopsticks, there shouldn’t be a reason why everyone holds them different… Is there? They aren’t dependent on if your left or right handed, or what your ethnic background is. They are a universal tool for anyone with a prehensile, multi-fingered extremity. I actually tend to view the multitude of chopstick handling the same way we deal with any type of tool and software isn’t any different.
A recent example of unintentional software use happened to be recently while reviewing my Path timeline. For those of you who are unaware of Path, it’s a social network for close friends where you share, privately, what you are doing or interesting moments in your life as they happen. Although, not everyone figured that out. My sister-in-law treats path as a sort-of Tumblr substitute, posting “clever” memes she finds amusing from across the Internet. None of these postings have any relevance to what is happening with her and to make matters worse, she posts them in large bursts at a time (one day she posted up to 9 memes). Frustrated, I un-friended her for what I deemed as “Path pollution”, and It’s these types of actions for which the spam folder was invented in our email boxes. Very few people actually enjoy getting those chain-emails claiming that if you forward a particular message to all your friends, some sort of change will be enacted because some mysterious force can track whenever an email is sent to all your friends. Fortunately, you can always throw that email into your spam folder and be rid of it. Unfortunately, Path doesn’t have (or really need) any filtering tools to block pollution, because of a simple baked in design belief: you should follow your close friends and you are encouraged to share small moments in your life with those friends.
Now you can argue that sharing funny memes on Path is actually sharing an experience you’re having, so it might belong there, right? But the problem with this argument is that the meme might be an expression of how you view something, or something you find funny at a point in time, but it isn’t moment you created by taking a photo, sharing a thought, or any of the other categories Path’s design encourages you to use. To me, posting irrelevant content on Path is that person’s way of forcing me to try to experience that small moment of humor before they moved onto yet another forgettable small moment, not sharing anything of real substance or meaning.
But since we’re on the subject of user driven habits changing software, we have a different situation that evolved out of Twitter. Originally designed for SMS messaging for alerting a small group of important information, Twitter’s users changed the way the tool ended up being used and paved the way to the feature set we know today. The original version of twitter didn’t have features like re-tweets or hash tags and it was users who first brought these features before Twitter officially supported their use. These types of features didn’t change Twitter’s purpose, but rather enhanced the existing features to organize the information in a more useful way. Even the simplistic design of Twitter left room for these types of ideas to be born on the service due to the 140 character interface users had to work with.
So while my friends’ funky handling of chopsticks is probably more analogous to Twitter’s users enhancing the service, it will always be a fascinating thing for me to witness when people take to a service and use it in new and different ways, sometimes by augmenting brilliant new features, and sometimes changing the intended purpose with detrimental effects. I’m sure designers would say that “good design” is aware of this type of usage and tries to nudge users towards the appropriate direction, but when that happens, do we end up with something more like Path, or something similar to Twitter?
There’s no way to accurately predict how users will use your creation until you set it loose and watch them use it.
And even though I’ve seen some major finger-mangled finger positions to hold chopsticks, the design of the chopstick is such that as long as you can hold them and use them to deliver that tasty goodness into your mouth, who am I to say it’s the wrong way. Perhaps that’s the cleverness and simplicity of the design.