Written by guest blogger Nick Buckley.

I’ve started noticing a nagging, familiar feeling whilst online.  It took me a while to recognise as something from over a decade ago – not just déjà vu.

 I don’t know where I am!

Not literally of course. But it’s with reason that we call the means to find our way around websites “navigation”. It’s hard to remember exactly what it felt like not to be able to find your way around a load of hyperlinked content on the web. The BBCs and the Amazons did such a good job that decent navigation is now taken for granted. Many of you won’t remember anything else anyway. It was almost physically disorientating not know what section you were in, what the menu items meant, or what the ‘Back’ button would really do this time. Often the only cure was to lunge for the “site map”.

All in the past now though… ?

So why the familiar feeling? The answer is some kind of new emergent lost-ness. It’s not about individual services, Apps, profiles or identities – each constructed to new heights of self-explanatory genius. It’s about the interactions between them, and the complex consequences of stacked simplicity. It’s about synchronising, sharing, importing and backing-up.

Your new blog post triggers a LinkedIn update…. automatically or by checking a one-off button  in HootSuite. You tweet that same bit of news and it appears in a feed on the same blog. The image you capture on your Android phone is quickly shared – another single click – perhaps with Facebook, creating knock-on consequences in a number of Facebook Apps, some of which you may not have reviewed recently for settings. Synchronising that phone with your PC backs up these images to Dropbox… the same Dropbox account with which you already share some phone images, at the point of capture, to use them later for a blog post, or to add to Evernote notebooks. If you also use an iPad, your contact list and address books (Google, Apple, Outlook) may be synchronised in asymmetrical ways between the cloud and local devices – including some profile information which is now piped straight from LinkedIn or Google Circles.

I’m overstating this in a couple of ways. I probably have abnormally many  of these interactions because Social Media is my profession and my religion. Over and above things that I really need, there are the things I really need to try – for knowledge or for clients. Because of this, I also spend more time than I can really afford ensuring that I actually do understand most interactions and ramifications.

But I still recognise that odd moment of disorientation – like when I discovered a second gallery on my GalaxyS and couldn’t figure out for a while whether some default setting had actually shared every single image and video I had shot to date, or simply staged it here for one click sharing with Circles. Or when I started experimenting with Zeebox and found it was checking me in to every programme I explored, and sharing this via Twitter.

My guess is that people who have binged on novel services, beguiled by easy quick-starts and Apps with lovely wizards, following videos in reassuring West Coast accents, signing in with Twitter or Facebook… are experiencing more and more moments of dizziness some time later.

This isn’t new in all its aspects. As a privacy concern it has been expressed for a few years. That is, are you inadvertently sharing information with others, or less than intimate others, as a result of your Facebook settings themselves, or of hasty radio button checking on new Apps?

But my disorientation or anxiety has other dimensions. A key one is physical location. I can understand what it means for data to be backed-up to an optical disk, or to a hard drive attached to my router. But once it disappears through a tiny hole in the wall, and heads off to the Cloud, I can no longer use instinctive models to reassure myself about where it is. This is daft but human. I can’t actually visualise the electromagnetic transformations when my cat photo is stored on the humming box next to me, any better than I can visualise the multiple copies of it winging their way to data centres surrounded by crocodile-filled moats. Nonetheless, there’s something primitively reassuring about seeing the box. Flashback a couple of million years. I put my apple in my bag. I know my apple’s in my bag and will still be there when I open it again. If I open my bag and the apple is gone, I go looking for a very clever thief, or I start a religion. The days of short-selling apple-in-bag futures were still far in the future. This instinct for tangibles still underpins a lot of our contentedness, or lack of it, at knowing where we are and what’s going on.

The anxieties are about – “where’s my stuff?”, and “when I put something in here, does it only come out over there?”. We don’t want to lose our best and newest lists and copies. We don’t want to look like technically naïve mugs when our friends receive three copies of the same thing via different routes, in inappropriate formats. We don’t want old images and profiles of ourselves to be the most accessible, or to inadvertently spam our loved ones on behalf of clunky services we tried out once.

If I’m right about all that – and if the discomfort grows as the services and connections proliferate, and as people become more aware and concerned about the outcomes – here are some important questions.

  • How can the online flow of users’ information, content and actions be made visible to them?
  • How can they be made more simply and informatively visible?
  • If this is a function of interaction between services, and not of the services themselves – who is responsible for making the gaps more usable?
  • If nobody’s responsible – who still stands to gain from solving these problem(s)?
  • Conversely, who stands to gain from playing down the complications and side effects, encouraging users to focus only on the immediate benefits and gratification?
  • Is this like an anti-virus, anti-malware, challenge – to use technologies and skills which scan devices and networks for the consequences of inter-operation?
  • Is it soluble – or an example of irreducible complexity, to which the only response is more chaste use and more conscious maintenance?
  • Or should we just chill?

I set great store by instincts, those feelings of disorientation and unease which set in, like sea-sickness, when you can’t see the horizon any more. I think they are worth heeding… as the pioneers of web navigation heeded them… if only because there’s usually honest money to be made from alleviating the symptoms.

I respect those instincts enough that I’m going to spend some time gathering better examples, speculating about the solutions, and casting around for those who might help.

It’s a new dimension to user experience. But it’s called ‘experience’ for a reason… and an improved experience… is an improved experience.

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