This was a self-running interactive conversation about Interaction and Interface Design. It was given at the Intermedia conversation in 1995 as an interactive experience for the audience. It was self-running with a human attendant so that audience members could yell out their choices at any time to change the conversation or topic track. No instructions were given to the audience to test their reaction and initiative, but they were quick to figure out their options and the interface to the presentation and “drove” the experience as they would if they were using the product alone. The authors were present under the screen playing cards and drinking beer to represent how detached developers were once their interactive products were in the hands of audience members (consumers). They had no contact with the audience until the question and answer period after the presentation.

The presentation is now distributed in its self-running form and still performs its purpose outside the large audience presentation context. It is meant to be a thought-provoking exploration of many issues regarding interactivity.


Peter Spreenberg (IDEO) and Nathan Shedroff


In place of a transcript, this is the conversation, via email, that started it all:

This is so eerie. I have been kindof sick since Monday and I couldn’t sleep well Monday evening and all night I keep dreaming of this great presentation you and I gave at Intermedia where our whole talked was combined into a non-linear discussion. You and I picked up on each other’s “hot words” and continued on in this seemless, but slightly non-sequitor, discussion of navigation issues and organizing info. That is all I remember about it so we would have to write all of the dialog anew, but I still like the idea. Then again, I am not fully well.

What do you think?

Sounds good! I will send them some kind of serious blurb for the synopsis that at least seems to cover the topic. Then we could go ahead and do the presentation “rambling-non-linear-seamless (or was that “seemless” ?) -hot-list style.” I will also get hold of Jeet and get him in on it. I think it could be good fun. If you want to contact them yourself, the name I have is Stacey Snider, 203/840-5422. I will take care of most of this other stuff though, so fear not. I’m sorry you had to be sick to get inspired, but hope you get well soon.


Pete and Jeet:

Here is my idea to start things off. I think we should begin an online discussion between the three of us about navigation in general (and “Non-Linear” navigation in particular) via email and just hash out the issues. Sorta our own mini listserv. Then, we can take what we’ve discussed (hopefully with lots of contradictions and disagreements) and see if there are any natural divisions into three for our talk at Intermedia. At least we’ll get a bunch of it on paper (as it were).



>Sounds good. Okay, here we go:
>Thought #1
>Is the term “non-linear navigation” redundant? Is navigation an issue when we’re
>perusing linear information? The term “navigation” suggests “finding your way”
>and it seems this is most important when dealing with information that occupies
>more dimensions than “forward” and “back.”
>Thought #2
>I think there is a difference between:
>a) Linear and non-linear media (objects) and
>b) Linear and non-linear behavior (actions)
>For example, we can skip pages and jump to sections (non-linear action) of a
>conventional printed book (linear object). Or we can step sequentially (linear
>action) through a web site (non-linear object). We can listen to an audio CD
>(semi-non-linear object) from start to finish (linear action).
>I guess the point is that whether dealing with linear or non-linear media, it is
>still up to the user/audience to decide how to peruse it. The most successful
>non-linear media enables the user to perceive it effectively in either a linear
>or non-linear manner.
>Thought #3
>Perhaps it’s worth identifying where familar media can be positioned on a scale
>of linearity —> non-linearity. Are audio CDs more non-linear (random access)
>than vinyl? Is a web page more or less linear than a motion picture film? hmmm…



I saw Stuart McBride at the WIRED party last night and told him we were discussing the talk via email. He asked to be cut in and suggested we add someone new since Jeet bowed out. Either that or maybe you and I could just handle it and speak longer. If we get a third, I suggest Gitta Salomon or Abbe Don if they are available. Do you have anyone in mind? Stuart?

Thought #1, Reaction 1:
Yeah, I guess it’s important to realize that navigation is nothing new. We do it already just about everywhere and almost always non-linearly. In fact, I think that it is only with technological devices that we seem to interact linearly.

Well, maybe that isn’t necessarily so. We experience time linearly but we can make jumps forward (sleep) and backward (memories). Most stories and narrative structures are linear (operas, story books, soap operas, musical compositions, etc.) but even these have their non-linear forms. We can certainly jump around when reading books (skip to the back to see how it ends) and, like you suggested, you can skip around an audio CD and rearrange a symphony (although this is admittedly difficult to do while sitting in the audience at the symphony hall). While it might not make a lot of sense to view a soap opera out of sequence (perhaps it might explain a lot after all), sitcoms and serials are a kind of non-linear narrative (it doesn’t matter which episode of Star Trek you see when because they all function as separate stories but build a larger narrative in the process). We see this in certain books as well where the text is chunked into separate and internally consistent pieces.

Thought #2, Reaction 1:

Yes, you are right there is a difference between non-linear behavior, and non-linear media (those media that allow some form of non-linear experiences). But is there such a thing as a medium that is only linear? It seems that even the most passive medium can be used interactively (and non-linearly) if desired (this talk may be a case in point). Where do you draw the line between actions that are linear through intent of the creator and actions that are linear through behavior of the audience?

For example, the television is a “typically” linear device. However, teenagers instinctively learned to channel surf even before remote controls (probably a transferred behavior from car radio surfing). This transform watching a television show into a non-linear experience, although it relies more heavily on the audience to make the connections between the snippets of experience. Like conceptual art, the experience is a bit more abstract and the meaning may be more ethereal. You run the risk of losing your audience (are you all following this) but you gain the richness that people can begin to make the experience more personal (or at least, personally appropriate) because they can read into it more of their own experiences.

I don’t shop linearly, I don’t carry on a conversation linearly, and I don’t necessarily think linearly (much to the bane of my 9th grade English teacher). Maybe no one was meant to function linearly at all. What do you do that is truly linear?

Thought #3, Reaction #1:

I think you’re onto something with the linear vs. non-linear spectrum, but where are the lines drawn again? It seems like a relative notion depending on the interests and state of the viewer. Perhaps this is finally the expression of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity applied to the design of experiences. Does Experience = Media times the square of Communication?

As in relativity theory, how things behave depends on where you are standing, what you are perceiving, and how fast you are moving. Different people may experience different meanings of the same content and event and neither is invalid.

It seems that linearity tends to fit more naturally with narratives that involve controlled presentations: storytelling, lectures, and seminars, while non-linearity tends to fit more naturally with more randomly accessed information. If so, then the rule of thumb might be that non-linear navigation is great for databases, reference works, and situations that call for information-on-demand, while linear forms of navigation best fit entertainment and stories presented for those who want to sit back and experience someone else’s point of view for awhile.

But then, how do we account for some wonderful exceptions to this rough rule? Improv comedy is wonderfully non-linear but can develop a cogent linear story. The play “Tamara” in Los Angeles is a non-linear experience of a linear narrative (much like how we experience our lives). There are traditional linear structures: Stories, some organizations of information, and lectures, while there are traditional non-linear experiences such as conversations and making love (excepting teenage boys). Does non-linearity function on a more abstract and conceptual level, while linearity functions on a more structural, possible physical, level? If so, then it makes sense that audiences might prefer linearity when in coach-potato mode, and non-linearity when they feel like taking some initiative or when they have a goal in mind.

Thought #4:

Maybe I am cheating. It seems that I unintentionally drew these three thoughts together so that they now read as parts of the same related whole. Have I linearized this conversation (or topic)? Perhaps that is all we do in our lives anyway: linearize things based on our experiences over time; draw patterns through our experiences that help us explain them. If so, how do we help people do this? What can our interactions (or interactive products) do to help people find their own personal meaning? And where is the “story” once we do?



>b) I think either Gitta or Abbe would be great, a woman’s viewpoint would be
>refreshing! I spoke to Gitta, she seems interested, but the fact that we’re both
>from IDEO might make it a bit biased? How about Pamela Mead from FitchRS in
>Boston? Or Jessica Helfand with Interactive Bureau in New York?

But I LIKE Gitta. It’s also probably the only way I’ll get to see her. I’ve heard Pamela’s name but know nothing about her. Same goes for Jessica. I kinda assumed that it would have to be someone out here since Intermedia doesn’t pay travel expenses, but if they are already coming out…

>A supportive psuedo-interactive (canned) browser??? Ideas?

I love it. The name alone is worth the price of admission. I was envisioning us talking and interrupting each other with points and possible things being shown on the screen, even moving around. I also thought it might be fun for one of us to be in the audience at the start, loudly dissagree, stand up and join the discussion on the stage. Ideally I would love to just get the conversation going and have the audience step in and particiapate but maybe this is too much to expect to pull off well. Perhaps the things on the screen have no relation (or only partially related) to the things we are saying (allowing people to draw their own non-linear conclusions). I have obviously been thinking more along the performance art lines than the presentation lines.


Intermedia Blatherings


Sorry it took so long for me to respond. I’ve talked to Gitta about joining us and although she was resistant at the start, she seems to be warming to the idea. Maybe it will take a bit more persuasion from YOU! I’m still thinking about what sort of visual stuff we prepare for this. I only have sketchy ideas at the moment, a browser like thing might be fun. Here’s more stuff:

Thought #4:

Maybe I am cheating. It seems that I unintentionally drew these three thoughts together so that they now read as parts of the same related whole. Have I linearized this conversation (or topic)? Perhaps that is all we do in our lives anyway: linearize things based on our experiences over time; draw patterns through our experiences that help us explain them. If so, how do we help people do this? What can our interactions (or interactive products) do to help people find their own personal meaning? And where is the “story” once we do?

Thought #4, Reaction 1:

Human inventions are usually created to amplify basic human abilities, give abilities where there currently are none or realize fantasies. Airplanes let us fly (a fantasy?), computer technology augments human brain power for some things like number crunching.

In most real events in our lives we eventually come to a point where we need to make a decision. Sometimes these decisions are simple and fun, like when traveling (do you want to visit the Louvre today or the Palace of Versailles?). Other times they have more effect on our lives and strongly influence future directions (job changes, marriage, etc.). In any case, we may often fantasize about “what might’ve happened if I’d done X instead of Y?”

In life, we’re continually presented with non-linear experiences, it is up to us to make choices about which path to proceed on. What we end up doing is applying a linear construct to the events in our life (time?, memory?) based on the decisions we make. Time is the “great linear equalizer” that affects all our lives. Because it is unidirectional for us, time forces us to choose a path and go with it, come what may.

Maybe multimedia is another type of human-ability-amplifier. Perhaps the promise of multimedia is that it allows us to traverse multiple paths of experience without consequence. (What if we could do this in real life?) It suggests that in this virtual world, you can turn back and try a different route without any loss. However, the “presence” of the performance needs to be vivid (how ’bout that!), satisfying and all those other things that make for a powerful experience. Maybe this is adding a temporal quality to our existing spatial notions of virtual reality.

Much current interactive media presents some chunk of generic information (devoted to some theme or topic) and let’s the user explore it in a non-linear way. This is okay and is mildly interesting/useful if it lets us get at specific information quickly or let’s us make unexpected and insightful connections between information. I think what is useful here (building on your ideas) might be to give the user more of a feeling of ownership over “their path” through the information. This may not be very satisfying when we know that the information space is finite as with a CD-ROM, but could be very meaningful when browsing an open space that has other people in it, as with www/internet stuff.

A hot list in a web browser already does this to some degree, but it only takes you directly to your desired site. Maybe what’s needed is a richer experience. A way of remembering your browsing choices, why you made the decisions you did, what were the consequences, did you see anything else along the way.

People already know about recording life experiences they care about. You can take photos from a trip and re-live the moments somewhat. You can rearrange the photos (non-linear) in any way you want for a more meaningful experience for yourself or to tell a more lively story when you’re showing your snapshots to others. Maybe what’s important here is that people like to do this because THEY CARE ABOUT THE EVENTS and THEY REALLY LIVED THE EXPERIENCES.

I don’t know where this is going, I seem to have gone down some clouded and ambiguous path and I can’t find my way back. But maybe the things I touched on along the way are worth remembering for myself. I wish I had a way of retracing my steps to see if there were any tangential paths worth exploring for another conference…

Visual Adjunct Idea #1

Maybe this “browser” we have on the screen behind us is a browser of our lives. Nathan has a path, Gitta has a path and Pete has a path. We can look at our pasts and see the thread of our lives, what decisions we made and why, what were the alternatives to those decisions. This could be kind of fun if it weren’t too involved. (Do we really want complete strangers looking at our lives?) We might also consider a mocked-up “future browser” as well, to look at what upcoming decisions need to be made. We could even do some self-referential stuff like, what the consequences of doing the intermedia conference are…

All for now,



>Any ideas on visual stuff to present? I would really like to work on it with
>you, if you have the time. Perhaps we should get together soon and spend some
>time organizing our thoughts and preparing. Talk to you soon.

Good idea (about getting together). Next week sometime.

I have reread your last email a couple times yet. I really don’t know where to go next (I guess there are times when the navigation is unclear–linear or not). Perhaps it isn’t the navigation but the goal. I know that I have been inundated with work for the past three weeks and I can’t really think straight at this point anyway. Your comment near the end of the note is especially important. How much people care about what they are doing and dealing with changes everything about the experience, including the navigation. Perhaps we could use some fresh blood on this one (unless you have some other thoughts).

I spoke with Stuart a little yesterday and he didn’t seem too keen on Gitta since she works at the same company as you (big deal). I’ll speak with you, I guess, on Thursday morning and maybe we can settle things out. Talk to you then,