My mom and the iPhone: a love story

When we think about what we’ve read so far on the concept of modularity and modular design, we can get overwhelmed by the knowledge of how much actual thinking happens before actually doing or designing something. Of course, by last week’s readings we learned that most of the technological development happens in the mind before it “comes to life” as a combination of different technologies or systems. But when I say a lot of “thinking” before “doing” I don’t mean it in the explicit way; I’m alluding to the amount of self awareness and awareness of others that might interact with what you’re doing.

But how does a modular system work?

In Modularity in Technology and Organization (2002), Langlois briefly describes three key components of modularity:

  • Design architecture: what is part of the module and what is its function,
  • Interfaces for connecting modules: how they interact, fit together and communicate and
  • Standards: its own design rules to measure it and compare its performance to other modules.

For this particular analysis I will focus on interfaces in relation to the concepts of affordances and mental models expressed in Universal Principles of Design (2003) by Lidwell, Holden and Butler to illustrate how my mom’s relationship with technology changed drastically after the iPhone.

Not an actual picture of my mom.

These three concepts stuck with me through and shed a light on user interaction. First, I have to set the context. My mom is a 64 year old lawyer who has never had a good relationship with technology. She has somewhat adapted through the years, but it has been a slow process: from typewriters to computers, from actual letters to emails, from photocopies to scanning and then the sorcery that is the internet. Overall she gets there, just a few years later than everybody else, and interacting at least 50% less than everybody else. For many years she went through a very long and very varied selection of mobile phones, and she struggled through them all. Frustrated, she would realize that, just as she was getting used to them, something better, faster and smarter was already making its way to her hands, thus starting the process all over again. This was the pattern until, reluctantly, she succumbed to my pressure and got an iPhone.

As the “technological” person in the house (which basically consisted of turning things off and on again) I thought I would have to give my mom the regular crash course of “how do you use this thing again? and where are my contacts?” like I did many times before. To my surprise, I barely had to guide her because, as she looked at it, she instinctively knew where to go and how to do most of the things. Not only that, but the need to use most of the smartphone functions to communicate with family abroad forced her to learn, by herself, how to do it. In a very short time she was using Whatsapp efficiently, Facetiming, sending voice notes, videos, pictures and I kept hearing “do you think there’s an app for…?”. I believe this is related to the concepts of affordances and mental models.

In Universal Principles of Design affordances is defined as “a property in which the physical characteristics of an object or environment influence its function” (pag. 20) and the authors give an specific example that goes beyond the physical designs. They mention that the design of common physical objects in a screen helps us associate its function with those of the real world such as buttons, folders and trashcans. Which made me wonder, what are the affordances in the design of the icons, buttons and other graphic designs on iOS that makes it so easy for my mom to understand their intended function and not use them improperly?

I’m old enough to know these are floppy disks and to have used them.

The “save” button.








Side question: what happens when the design of the icon no longer holds the concept it used to in the real world? for example, the “save” button is a floppy disk. Most people younger than me had never used one or even know what it is, so the icon is mainly recognized as a “save” button.

But going back to my mom’s enlightening with iOS. Besides the concept of affordances to explain part of this interaction, I also see a connection with the concept of mental models. In Universal Principles of Design the authors express that “people understand and interact with systems and environments based on mental representations developed from experience” (pag. 131) and they make a clear distinction in between how the system works and how people interact with it. They even affirm that, most of the time, designers know much about how a system works, but little about how people interact with it, while the users know very little or sometimes inaccurately things about the system but, by use and experience, are able to attain interaction models better than the designers.

Based on this description, and my mom’s experience, it would be safe to say that the use of both mental models was very well thought and applied in the design of both iPhone and iOS. At the end of the day, as it was mentioned last week, my mom doesn’t care about how it works but that it works. In this case it doesn’t only work but it does easily and efficiently for her. I thought about this while reading Modularity in Technology and Organization in which Langlois illustrates the benefits and the costs of both decomposable and non-decomposable systems in relation to interdependence. Langlois cites Alexander who was referring to architecture and urban design when he said “the most attractive and durable systems are those ones develop through an unselfconscious process” (pag. 23). I might be wrong but I think this could be applied to my mom’s interaction with iOS.

Who taught her how to use that?

I’m not saying this particular characteristic pertains solely to iOS or Apple. We see it with almost every device and operating system. We describe this experience as “user friendly” and we see this interaction on everyone: from our technology-allergic parents/grandparents to toddlers ordering things from amazon. However, it’s interesting to think about this bridge between not knowing how it works but knowing perfectly how to interact with it.



  • Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Butler, J. (2003). Universal Principles of Design. Rockport.
  • Langlois, R. (2002). Modularity in technology and organization. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Vol. 49.
  • Images: stock photos. Google.


Things I still don’t understand very well: layers, symbolic abstraction and hierarchy.