How Have We Mastered Navigation?

Back when I was 18, I still remember the first time I downloaded an app on my tablet device that my mother had bought for me. One of the things I was very easily able to do was navigate the app with great ease, something that my mother (then 45 years) was able to get a hang of only after a few teething issues.

A decade later, interacting with any interface and making optimal utilization of its functionality is almost second nature to all of us. With the learning curve becoming shorter, I often find myself being enamored by our innate abilities to learn and adopt newer technologies.

Put semiotically – ‘How have we managed to understand, internalize and memorize the meanings and functionality of almost any UI/UX ?’ Semiotics has a few answers – 

1)  By tapping into the ‘Collective Imaginary’

Remember how every tech device used to come with an instructional manual that explained the product’s features and their uses? The collective imaginary is one such meta instruction manual that contains various complex meaning systems embedded into it. As members of collectives, we begin to learn the contents of the imaginary (values, symbols, narratives) early in our childhood and as we move through our lives, the imaginary also evolves to include new meaning systems.

In a typical UI/UX case, the earliest adopters of the technology tapped into their collective imaginary which must’ve already contained meanings learnt from interacting with the world wide web interface

Which brings us to our second answer 

2)  Symbolism and Iconicity are key to learning signs

A sign in simple terms is a representation of something else and each sign is made up of two entities – a signifier (visual or verbal unit that stands for something else) and a signified (meaning of the signifier). The signified / meanings of a sign are apparent because they are either symbolic in nature i.e., established by convention or they bear visual similarity with the object they are representing.

For e.g. An ‘X’ sign is a negation and basis its placement in multiple contexts its meaning changes. In the user interface space, the ‘x’ sign was already well learnt by us from our use of the web and various Microsoft applications. Therefore, while the idea of ‘x’ being a negation may have been symbolically established by convention and culture, it bearing visual similarity with existing tech-based applications had made it easier for us to apply the same to apps UI/UX design

3)  Codes establish norms, that further solidifies meanings and our interpretation

There is a reason why it is said that repetition is key to learning. For humans to be able to navigate the complex nature of the world, codes come in handy. A code is a culmination of signs that all mean the same thing and that are adopted by members of the collective as a standard. For a code to come into existence, it has to be used by all members of the collective. For e.g. The usage of white as a background color in most UI is a well-established code because most app developers endorse it.

Any UI/UX is a complex and dynamic sign system that is made up of multiple signifiers, signifieds and codes. While designers and developers may not be aware of why they make certain design choices, semiotics takes UI/UX design insights to the next level by deconstructing the collective imaginary that drives the usage of each signifying entity. This further paves way towards a rich user friendly approach to design.

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