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Now that we know that computers process information through a strict adherence to logic principles, it's time to look at humans. Because as we've already seen, humans are not logical creatures. In the very beginning of this course, I used the example of a tree. I asked you to draw one and showed you examples of other trees that other people have drawn. Now I can take a closer look at what actually happens when I say a word like tree. From the perspective of the communicator, the following happens. First, I have the thought, what I imagine and what I want to communicate to you.
Next, I figure out what this is by, identifying the referent definition of that idea. In our case, the definition is a woody perennial plant that normally has a single trunk, grows to a considerable height, and bears lateral branches. Once I have the referent, I pick a symbol or word to represent the referent and the thought, in our case, tree. Now let's see the same process from the recipient's perspective. First, we receive the word tree.
This points to the referent, which is the same definition of a tree. And from the referent, we get the thoughts that encompasses the recipient's understanding of the word in relation to her other thoughts and the world as a whole. As you can see, the symbol and the referent are at the same in both cases. So why do we end up with such different drawings of a tree. To answer to that question, is the very crux of human communication. Meaning. Our personal understanding of the meaning of words is never identical.
And though they are usually close to each other, there are many examples when they are not. And to complicate matters further, our language is rife with examples of words, sentences or sentence structures where the words change their reference. Or the true meaning can only be derived, through looking at the word, or sentence in a larger context. A word like match, has multiple different meanings. It can mean a slender piece of material that can produce a flame or a person or thing that equals or resembles another.
Or a formal game or sports event. Or a person or thing able to provide competition to another or fit together, or compare. The meaning of the word can only be derived from the context in which it was presented. Without that context, you are leaving the recipient to interpret it as she wants. So, if I say, draw what you think of when you hear the word match. I'd llikely get a lot of matches. But, also some soccer games and maybe even a pair of turtle doves.
This phenomenom, when a word has several different referents is known as Lexical Ambiguity. We also have semantic ambiguity, when a sentence has an ambiguous word or phrase that can change its meaning. The sentence, is he going to make it, may either refer to the success of a tight rope walker. Or whether or not somebody is going to actually make something. And top of that, we have syntactic ambiguity. In which the structure or punctuation in a sentence, makes the meaning unclear.
I put some chocolate in the bowl that I melted in the microwave. Historically, we have gotten around this issue by communicating directly. Speaking to another person, we observe her body language and share a physical context. But as we started communicating more and more in print and now on the Web, the body language is no longer there. And there's a good chance we don't share the same physical or even cultural context. This lack of shared context, is a breeding ground for misunderstanding.
Luckily, we have tools at our disposal that can remedy some of this. Prime among them, organization, causation, and logic. And by understanding them and applying them to our language, we can create clear and direct communication. Which is the very foundation of a good user experience.
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