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The Real World: Children

Lon Barfield

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It is late in the evening. I am sitting on the sofa in my sitting room with a lovely redhead. We have just finished a delicious, candle-lit meal. She looks at me with come-to-bed eyes and I open my mouth and say `shall we go up the wooden hill to the land of beddly bobos?'.

What on earth is going on? Well, it's called convergence. The woman in question is my partner and the strange language I am uttering is baby-talk, and I'm still uttering it even though the baby was in bed 5 hours ago. Readers with young children will be intimately familiar with the effect and user interface designers with toddlers will also know what a wealth of interesting observations they can give rise to.

Back to convergence; it is the linguistic effect where party A (Morgan) starts picking up the language used by party B (her parents) and vice-versa party B starts using terms from the vocabulary of party A. The end result is that party A starts improving her language at an alarming rate while the language of party B degenerates into a sort of pidgin English mixed with silly baby talk and animal noises. Other examples are `cockanellie' which we use because it sounds far nicer than cockerel and `toothy-peggies'. However, my two favourites are `tell 'em phone' for telephone, and `biayer' -- a word whose meaning is uncertain but, judging by the frequency with which it is used, is vital in day-to-day communication. In fact I sometimes wonder how we grown-ups can possibly communicate without it.

A user interface designer experiences pleasure in the strangest of things; going up and down in lifts, copying just one sheet of double-sided paper on a complex copier, getting lost in airports, and they will positively drool to try out the latest drinks vending machine. A new addition to my list is the fascination when, in the middle of a television program, the baby begins to adjust the volume and brightness controls. The question of what Sam will do with the passage to America is immediately dwarfed by the question of whether the baby realises the results of her actions? Has she a preference for bright or dull pictures? Does she turn the controls both ways? And she also changes the channels. What channels does she prefer? A brief, and totally unscientific study yielded the surprising result that she liked watching rugby; a game similar to American football but with less padding and less rules.

One can learn a lot from a baby performing even an act as simple as screwing tops on and off (in the approximate ratio 10% to 90%). She has a definite preference for using hands in one direction only, in other words if she wants to turn something clockwise she uses her right hand and if she wants to turn it anti-clockwise she uses her left hand. Could this have anything to do with the origins of our conventions for clockwise screw-up anti-clockwise unscrew?

Living with a baby makes you more aware of the detail of your surroundings. Morgan continually notices minute details that grown-ups tend to skip. One evening she suddenly began shrieking `teddy' at the top of her voice in a restaurant, it was only after a detailed reconnaissance of the surroundings that we discovered one of the guests was wearing a jumper with a very small teddy motif on it. This awareness of detail extends to other senses as well. With grown-ups, sound seems to be easier to screen out than visual information, but with a baby both seem to be on the same level. When Morgan hears a dog she will say `doggy' in the same way as when she sees one. Often we will be looking round for a doggy before tuning in to the audio channel and realising that there is a dog barking in the background. This importance of sound in the babies world is further exemplified by the sound-naming that babies use for things. A choo-choo train, a bow-wow, a baa-lamb, a moo-cow.

Knobs, buttons and noises are pretty low-level stuff, a higher level example was the use of metaphors, bumping into a field full of Aberdeen reds, Morgan referred to them as `mummy cow, daddy cow and Morgan cow', using our family as a pretty direct metaphor for describing the cow family.

Well that's it for now, all that remains is for me to say; bye-bye, see ya, daddy gone!

Lon Barfield is the author of `The User Interface, Concepts and Design' (Addison Wesley) and is an associate director of General Design (http://www.design.nl). He can be contacted at lon@design.nl.

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