Sunday, November 06, 2005


user agency

The longer I ponder the question of how the motivation of users affect their behavior, the more I ponder the question of agency. Agency is very related to motivation, but at the same time different. People are motivated based on their perception of how much in control they are, and how that shapes their expectations of what will happen. Agency is a psychological construct, defining how much people believe outcomes are the result of what they do. Agency is defined by the individual, but shaped also by society, and human computer interaction is being shaped by both ends.

Garden variety psychologists -- the kind who write advice columns, rather than study rats and undergraduates -- often talk about attribution. Is the consequence of my action the result of my skill, or some external factor? Some people are very "me" focused, others see wider circumstances as determining outcomes. We can see parallels in the wider contemporary debate about human and social nature. Some commentators talk about our (often genetic) drives, others talk about chaos, connections and non-linear determined external events.

In the computer realm, agency has been most clearly articulated in gaming. Their are games of skill, and games of chance. Agency in gaming is often a function of the amount of feedback a game offers, or the lack of it or lag in it.

What I sense is that interaction design is starting to shift away from the notion that users define outcomes. Compared with a decade or two ago, users may be more willing to give up control to their computer. Live is too complex to be a control freak.

The organizational psychologist Yiannis Gabriel has talked about the increasing tendency for workers to desire to "be discovered." Previously, hard steady work was the recipe for advancement. Now, "luck, self promotion, image and find[ing] oneself in the right place at the right time" are the formula.

We can see the shift from self-agency to reliance on externals reflected in computer applications. The old ideas of user control -- WIMPs, for example -- seems a bit old fashion now. Software, especially web applications, promise the benefits of luck and opportunity over user control. We roll the die awaiting "personalized" recommendations based on impersonal data mining techniques. We sign up for networking schemes online, hoping to make useful connections. A raft of social software and ambient computing solutions is being developed to fulfill our desire that the wider world will know what we want, and respond accordingly.

Will our hopes be gratified, or will we be disappointed? If the later, we will demand more control again, and focus on how we should be telling computers what we want, instead of the reverse.

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