That Old Time Gestalt Experience

By Tom Peters |

Tom Peters (not David Pogue)In today's online New York Times (no-cost subscription required), David Pogue has an interesting article ('Almost iPod, but in the End a Samsung') about the Samsung Z5 MP3 player as a pretender to the throne currently occupied by the iPod Nano.

If you're having a hard time imagining how a newspaper article about such a tight, techie topic could be interesting, let me tell you that I think this article really is about the gestalt experience of using any personal, portable infotainment / communication appliance, be it an MP3 player, cell phone, PDA, tablet PC, or anything else you can imagine.

The principle of totality within Gestalt theory, as defined in the Wikipedia entry on this topic, is particularly pertinent here: "The conscious experience must be considered globally (by taking into account all the physical and mental aspects of the individual simultaneously) because the nature of the mind demands that each component be considered as part of a system of dynamic relationships."

Pogue lists several factors that make the iPod a hit with end-users. The words in parentheses are my senses of the broader and perhaps deeper meanings of his factors:

  • "cool-looking hardware" (Hardware that engages the individual's sense of beauty and rightness as well as the individual's sense of functionality);
  • "a fun-to-use" (Using the device is pleasing and does not cause undue amounts of cognitive stress, not to mention muscular and skeletal stress.) "variable-speed control wheel" (The buttons and controls in general are well designed);
  • "ultrasimple software menu" (ultrasimple software menu);
  • "effortless song syncrhonization with Mac or Windows" (It's easy to move content onto and off of the device. BTW, what's up with Pogue listing the Mac first? Just kidding...);
  • "rock-solid integration with an online music store (iTunes)" (It's easy to find and download compelling content for this device.); and
  • "a universe of accessories." (Accessories are available to enhance the most common situations in which the device is actually used by real people.)

There's nothing magical about these factors. In fact, I think we can boil them all down to one dictum: Using any personal, portable infotainment / communication appliance is a gestalt experience. The great chain of this information-retrieval and use experience is only as strong—and enjoyable—as its weakest link. If the content is not very compelling, or if the synchronization process is not intuitive, or if I cannot find the connector cord, or if the ear buds are uncomfortable, that affects my overall sense of the gestalt experience.

Sir Philip Sidney (not David Pogue)If the "gestalt experience" factor indeed exists, it certainly existed long before computers were created and eons before the iPod became the apple of Apple's eye. The admonition delivered to poets centuries ago (by Sir Philip Sidney, who you see at the right), "to teach and delight," applies equally well to designers of Internet-based digital information systems.

Even during the user's experience of a bricks-and-mortar library, the weakest link in the experience chain can cloud that user's opinion of the entire experience. If the user cannot find a convenient place to park her car, her bike, or her carcass, that's a problem. If the signage is poorly designed—although the service point, once she finds it, is great—that's a problem that negatively affects her sense and value of the entire experience. It doesn't matter to the user that the library cannot control all the factors that coalesce in mysterious ways to form, in each user, a sense of a complete experience. Most users form a sense of the gestalt experience first, then look for responsible parties second—if ever.

Let me add one complicating lemma to this reductionist blog entry. In my experience, the adoption and sustained use of any infotainment / communication technology involves three stages. First, I somehow need to convince myself that I want and/or need to learn how to use a technological system. It may stem from some primal urge rising deep from within my being, from something I read, from a recommendation from a respected colleague, or from something I ate that motivates me. Second, I need to take the plunge—I need to explore the procedural and technological unknown and actually learn how to do something I didn't know how to do before. Third, I need to make using the technology an acceptable, pleasant routine that fits well into my overall daily activities.

Each day is a gestalt experience in its own right. Somehow Apple has been able to achieve that pleasant gestalt state of mind with millions of users; however, Apple does not—and cannot—have a monoply on gestalt infotainment experiences. There is no reason why libraries, other MP3-device manufacturers, and other providers of digital-information content and related services cannot make a good gestalt digital experience achievable by millions of users.

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