From app to app

As I was trying to ‘decode’ the writing questions for this week and going through the material I was trying to think of a good example of a software feature that represents a symbolic-cognitive function that we basically take for granted. I realized that the concept of “space” in terms of interface is something so abstract when it comes to our phone and computers. I was on my phone switching from one app to another without comprehending what I’m actually doing, but I’m most definitely expecting for the apps to automatically open one after the other or switch from one to the next in no time. We have taken this movement and change from app to app or one tab to the next, opening and closing programs like it is no big deal. But in reality what we are doing is switching from one understanding of a specific room, space, concept to the next as if we are going from one physical store location to another store, from one room of our house to another. Each store in town and each room in your house have a different use/meaning/understand that you or your community have attributed to it. Similarly, every app for example represents something else, one is a game, another is an online store, another holds your stocks.  We are changing one space to the next because that is what we also do in real life. You have to go to a different place to see your doctor that you would go to buy a piece of furniture. Different spaces and different rooms satisfy different needs and wants the same way each app we swap from does. 

C.S. Pierce explains how a sign structure is basically a medium that “enables cognitive agents to go beyond the physical and perceptible properties of representations to their uses for interpretations which are not physical properties of representations themselves” (Irvine). We have an understanding of what it means to switch between apps, and when you have made that switches let’s say from your Canvas app to Instagram you have, most likely, completely unconsciously also switched your head-space, your behavior, your goals and expectations because each app represents and stands for something else. There is also a lot to be said about the symbolic representation of each app and the meaning behind their specific shape, frame, coloring etc. that even that has become so installed in us that whenever they make a change of there is an software update most of us are left shocked by the new appearance of an app because of your previous association with the past appearance i.e. Google changing all it’s icons, going from the older Instagram icon with the brown polaroid camera to the current one (and everything in between). 

We use technology for a more simplified version of our lives where everything becomes easier because everything truly is so easily accessible with just simple movements of our fingertips. However, these versions exist because we have taken much more complicated physical and real-life representations and decode them into an electronic, computational form because they mean something to us: “All symbolic forms from speech to images in any medium must have perceptible features that “afford” consistent inferences for recognizing the sign patterns that can be correlated with the meanings and uses understood by a community” (Irvine). And so we have taken this concept of a physical space and a physical human action and turned them into a digital world that unfolds itself without being second guessed. You don’t really sit and think “hmm I wonder how I’m going to get to his app…”, “I wonder how long it is going to take me to get to the library app…”. In non digital life, we would probably be thinking “hmm what time do i need to leave my house to go the clothing store and then the library? What if there is an accident on the way?”. We have mastered this interface of basically being able to switch locations and tasks so fast without realizing that in that moment we are also mentally going from one concept to the next, from being in school on Zoom to shopping for food on Amazon Fresh, representations of what would be a physical classrooms and all of its associations and an actual physical grocery store. 




Martin Irvine, Introduction to Symbolic-Cognitive Interfaces: History of Design Principles 

Martin Irvine, (new) From Cognitive Interfaces to Interaction Designs with Touch Screens

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Excerpts from Introduction and Chapter 2.