Web Adaptability, Social Media, and Bears

Posted on Jul 26, 2009

Originally posted in Indirect Manipulation June 26 2009.

Leave it to me to read three completely unrelated articles in the past 24 hours, then locate some sort of connection among them. Today’s theme is adaptability.

From the excellent blog of STC AccessAbility SIG, I learned that the University of Bath will release a paper titled “From Web Accessibility to Web Adaptability” in June 2010. An excellent summary can be found on the website UK Web Focus, which describes how the term web accessibility interoperates between media attribute (such as describing the “accessibility” of a website) and holistic principle (describing a top-level strategy that informs the design process).

The summary describes Web Accessibility 3.0 as the point where access to information, services and products can be customized to individual preferences, while earlier “versions” of Web Accessibility refer to content designed to be accessible for users of all abilities. While this evolution may appear to sidebar (if not outright reject) the purpose of the WCAG and other initiatives, the authors are quick to avoid deprecating earlier applications where value is maintained:

The paper accepts that the labelling of these different approaches (which has parallels with the ‘Web 2.0′ and ‘Web 3.0′ terms) can be confusing: for many it would imply that Web accessibility 1.0 and 2.0 are now obsolete. This is not the case: there will still be a need for certain types of informational resources (a bus timetable, for example) to conform with WCAG guidelines and the Web accessibility 2.0 and 3.0 approaches describe different approaches which can complement each other.

We have therefore coined the term ‘Web adaptability‘ to described an approach which attempts to support the “interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

The second article has to do with the uneasy relationship explored between companies and their employees via the use of Facebook and Twitter. In the latest issue of Government Technology, Chad Vander Veen describes the convergence of professional/personal interests and the peculiar dynamic that’s created when a boss wants to be your Facebook friend:

In addition to making the 1970s “Me Decade” seem like the height of altruism, social networking is transforming the Web 2.0 experience into a bizarre, hybridized journal of our personal and professional lives. As corporations and organizations commandeer Twitter and Facebook to suit their own purposes, these oases of personal expression are now fraught with potential for making career-ending gaffes.

According to Vander Veen, what has begun to occur is that people are starting to look at Facebook as less of a social in-joke and more of a digital address book or personal marketing vehicle. Many users have begun to realize that once introduced to public viewing, the content publishing model evolves from that of “sharing photos with my friends” to “this is how I want to be perceived.”

I have written before in this space on decorporealization — the level at which a media object is at once representative and interchangeable with the identity of the self. Usually I have applied this term to avatars in such virtual worlds as Second Life, but I think the idea applies equally to Facebook profiles and Twitter posts. We cultivate these individual personae from both shared and revealed experiences. We should not be surprised to see the use of social media affected by organizations and individuals cohabiting the same digital space.

Finally, I read something in the New York Times yesterday about smart bears. A product called the BearVault 500 was designed with a double-tabbed lid made from “super rugged transparent polycarbonate housing” to keep bears from getting to campers’ food.

Somewhat analogous to childproof medicine caps, the design has proven to be amply successful in Yellowstone National Park and other areas. Before being introduced to market, all BearVault products are “zoo-tested” and the field results prove these findings to be accurate; the number of negative bear incidents last year decreased to a fifth of the total from 2005.

In the Adirondack mountains of New York State, however, a black bear named Yellow-Yellow has apparently devised a way to open the container by pressing the tabs with her teeth. Investigators suspect she is either twisting the jar sideways with her paws, or she bites down and rotates her head until the capsule relinquishes. While the existence of a “genius bear” represents a spike in the graph, researchers are concerned that this may lead to greater adaptability among others Yellow-Yellow’s clan:

“She’s quite talented,” said Jamie Hogan, owner of BearVault, based in San Diego. “I’m an engineer, and if one genius bear can do it, sooner or later there might be two genius bears. We’re trying to work on a new design that we can hopefully test on her.”

Mr. Hogan is working on a prototype of a new model, the 550, for next year. State officials have agreed to test it by filling it with aromatic food and depositing it on Yellow-Yellow’s turf. “She’s the whole reason we’re doing this,” he said.

Anyone familiar with the prototyping process can relate to this story: concept is developed, prototype is executed, design is tested, product goes to market, unforeseen results emerge, concept evolves. This iterative cycle is based upon the adaptability not only of the product itself, but the marketplace for which it is intended.

What these three stories have in common is the way each demonstrates the importance of learning from authentic practice. As technologists and architects, we hope to create user experiences that are derived from and will (hopefully) dissolve into behavior. Regardless of the intention — whether it’s to provide accessible content, put forward our best image, or adapt a product to shifting trends — we must be empathetic to the evolutionary aspects that ultimately define our success.