Thoughts on the Model of Attraction
If you are reading this and are not familiar with Thomas Vanderwal as of yet you need to start paying attention to him and his body of work. I have known Thomas since mid 1999 when we met through the local Company of Friends in Washington, D.C. It seems kind of strange that some 6 years later here we are doing very similar work, but on the other hand it makes sense since we are both huge fans of user foucsed information architecture and experience design.
In preparation for speaking to him after his recent talk on the Personal InfoCloud at WebVisions 2005, I finally read most of his body of work which includes the Model of Attraction. We are in relative agreement on the major points he addresses, especially in regards to what he calls our Attraction Receptors, though I do have one additional metaphor which Thomas addresses indirectly.
I believe that in addition to the scent of information attracting and repulsing us, the information needs to taste good to us as we consume it. It must tickle the fancy of our minds by dancing on our own unique palate in order for us to really appreciate and assimilate the knowledge it contains fully. While the presentation must appeal to us visually, and the descriptors/summaries must sound good, it is the tonality, perspective and spine which must taste good.
From qualified research and even more anecdotal evidence, we know that some people require statistical data, others need stories and others are more balanced in order to best absorb knowledge. Further, we know some people want to get right to the point and others want to meander around the edges and get a broader feel for it. Additionally, we have to consider that some people are more emotional, ruled by their hearts and others are more judicious, ruled by their minds and logic. I first encountered this concept in the business world when selling advertising for New Times in Miami, FL. Patrick Flood was our ad director and he loved the numbers. I on the other hand, as you can tell by reading me, am a story lover. Patrick pointed this out to me in regards to reading people and adapting a sales pitch as necessary to get to the sale. I also have read a great deal about this in the works of Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar and Selling Power magazine. This is what I am referring to when I speak of information needing to taste good to our palate in order for us to get the most from it.
If a person does not like the taste of the information, they may simply stop consuming it, regardless of the intrinsic value. This is the brussel sprouts metaphor of knowledge - if you dont like the taste of brussel sprouts, then you wont consume it and you wont get those important nutrients contained inside. Just as if a particular post or article does not taste good and you can not suffer through it, you will not get the most from the valuable insights it offers.
Getting back to the Model of Attraction, I wanted to point out what I believe to be a fundamental error in perspective. As I understand it, Thomas speaks about the Personal InfoCloud following us, being attracted to us, which I only partially feel is true. I see it more as having the Personal InfoCloud available to us, carried around by us rather than seeing it as following us - but this is minute as I can easily concede that either would be correct though I am more fond of thinking as it being something we can carry around with us and access remotely.
He, and other Information Architects in the know, often speak about the need to put the user at the center of our focus and to think about the user's needs. However, in some of Thomas' work I have read and what I have heard in speaking with him, he refers to the information as being attracted to us rather than us being attracted to it. It seems to be me that this approach is information centric rather than user centric. To this end, I contend that the perspective for the Model Of Attraction, and the discussion about it, needs to shift to think of the user as being attracted to the information rather than the other way around.
I contend that the process actually should be thought of in different stages. First, we seek to discover information/knowledge based on our situational needs. Then in scanning through the available choices, we are attracted to certain items more than others based on a multitiude of factors. This includes first and foremost our current situation, then our past experience, levels of trust in the source, visual appeal of presentation and in the act of consuming/reading, how it tastes to us. We are attracted to information, which is the remote object of attention, the information is out there waiting for us to retrieve it and if we so choose to keep it within our Personal InfoCloud. While we do have quite a few ways in which the information now comes to us, rather than us going to get it, I contend that RSS feed aggregators and services like PubSub are merely serving as our agents, retrieving information on our behalf rather than thinking of it as information being attracted to us.
This is a relatively simple semantic argument, because I know Thomas means that the attraction is akin to magnetic attraction meaning that the user and the information become attracted to each other. Yet it is important for us to always think about such matters by being the user looking out rather than the other way around. All too often companies make this mistake with their information architectures and outbound communications. They are so entrenched in their organizational viewpoint, that the communications they create are reflective of how the organization looks at their world not how the world looks at their organization.
I make this argument, because we, as information presenters need to be mindful at all times of wearing the users shoes and not being so focused on the information itself. We must be consistent in order to truly embrace user centered design, and the power of language is one of the most telling and powerful tools in this endeavour. To this end, I contend that with a minor and consistent adjustment in semantics and perspective, that Thomas Vanderwal's Model of Attraction will be a foundational aspect of best practices in information architecture philosophy for many years to come.