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April 16, 2004
The ickiness factor
In the process of unpacking my frustration with privacy issues (in the context of Gmail and A9)
, i started addressing a a key concept that i believe applies to all social software: the ickiness factor. Ickiness is the guttural reaction that makes you cringe, scrunch your nose or gasp "ick" simply because there's something slightly off, something disconcerting, something not socially right about an interaction. The interaction may involv a person, a situation or a piece of technology. The ickiness factor is tightly coupled with issues feeling vulnerable or getting the sense that someone else is vulnerable because of a given situation. (Think sketchy guy or the feeling that you get when you've been asked for far too much invasive data.)
The thing about the ickiness factor is that either it fades (if the feeling of potential vulnerability disappears) or you completely avoid the situation that causes it. As designers, we are so numbed by familiarity that we're unable to experience the associated shudder of ick. This is where a process of 'making the familiar strange' is necessary in design. In order to do this, it's imperative to consider how a technology will affect various relevant social groups. Will any aspect of the technology incite the ick factor? For whom? If the answer is 'yes', a deep understanding of why is necessary. Applying one's own values onto others won't work (a.k.a. "they should just get over it" never works).
This is one of the key reasons that we, as designers, must get out of our tech bubble if we want to design things that sit well with everyone. We're too acculturated to technology, too particular about how we react to things. In other words, we're not the norm. Usually, when i think about how designers attempt to configure the users, they're trying to force users to deal with their ickiness feeling by inserting foreign values into the mix. This will always be problematic.
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