‘Very’ Direct Manipulation – cut and paste

A tongue in cheek comment from @scotthelot about very direct manipulation prompted me to share some brief thoughts about thinking with our body – taking as an example the tangible method of editing that I use on large pieces of writing. I print everything out and literally cut and paste the chapter together with sticky tape. (Usually paper length articles I can do on screen. It’s definitely something about scale.) Instead of using word processing tools like word or outlining tools like omni outliner, – everything that relates to a topic is printed out and cut up into individual ideas – sometimes single sentences, sometimes paragraphs. Then they are ordered and reordered until they represent a draft structure that makes enough sense to start transferring it back into digital format. This tangible form of analysis, structuring, thinking and ‘meaning making’ is not possible with current computing tools.

Scott suggested we might think of this of this as –  ‘very’ direct manipulation’. I have to say I like the idea of VDM as an objective for future interfaces and modes of interaction.

cuting and pastingcuting and pasting

For me this kind of physical cut and paste process is necessary to sort, structure and think through a large amount of information – like a thesis chapter. It works pretty much in the same manner and for the same reasons that other physical sorting/analysis and spatial thinking techniques do (i.e post it notes and index cards). I’ve not seen the theory behind why covered in any detail in literature on analysis methods that I can recall, so without further research and a more in-depth literature search I can only speculate on why it is important based on my own experience and brief conversations with colleaguesˆ.

[edit]- after publishing this I read Jon Kolko’s article Information Architecture and Design Strategy presented at the 2007 Industrial Designers Society of America Conference which actually covers this well, I have inserted a relevant quote from it below about this important process of “externalising data”:

Thus, one of the most basic principles of making meaning out of data is to externalize the entire meaning-creation process. By taking the gathered data out of the digital realm (the computer) and into the physical (the wall) – and by including it all on one cohesive visual structure – the designer is freed of the artificial limitations of technology. Content can now be freely moved and manipulated, and the entire set of data can be seen at one time. Implicit and hidden meanings are uncovered simply by relating otherwise discrete chunks of data to one-another.

[As Jon suggests in his paper] the combination of physical manipulation and moving ideas around in space is important, as is the ability to to see everything at once. There is a relationship between the objects we are working with and the space we are working within and our physical body. These relationships aren’t available when working through interfaces of keyboard and mouse. The physicality and tangibility of the representations, the fact that we can pick them up and manipulate them with our hands, allows us to make sense of things (and share things with others) in ways that aren’t possible on current computer monitors or tools like spreadsheets.

It is possible that gestural interfaces and tangible interfaces like shiftables will be places and tools where digital data and this kind of ‘VDM’ cross over. I look forward to being able to provide a better articulation of these issues and the related potentials in the future – tbc…

ˆOne of these conversations was with Dr Toni Robertson on how data analysis can be a visceral and felt experience, this makes it hard to explain and hard to teach, but something the philosophy of phenomenology and Merleau-Ponty could assist us in articulating.


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