Persuasion by Arrangement: Intended and Unintended Consequences

Arrangement persuades every day.  Lots of us pop into the grocery store for a bottle of milk.  So why is milk always at the back of the store?  That arrangement persuades us to hike through aisles of food that we only just now realize we need.  Got cookies?

The arrangement of concepts also persuades.  At the simplest level, alphabetical order implies equality and chronology implies time.  An intentional arrangement considers the needs of both user and designer to influence effective use of information.  An unintentional arrangement risks influencing users in unintended ways.

In his book Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do, B. J. Fogg defines persuasion as “an attempt to change attitudes or behaviors or both” (p. 15).  By placing milk at the back of the store, the grocer attempts to influence buying behavior.  In the arrangement of concepts, I expand Fogg’s definition to include persuasion as reflecting a point of view.  If I use alphabetical order, I may persuade you that each item has equal value, at least in terms of the list.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial demonstrates one of the most elegant examples of persuasive arrangement.  She organized names on The Wall by date of injury, not date of death.  A soldier who died later of wounds inflicted in battle is therefore listed on the date of the battle.  His name is in alphabetical order with others who died on that day, so he is included among his buddies.  The survivors of the battle can visit TheWall and, in one section, see the names of their comrades.  This intentional arrangement persuades survivors and tourists alike to consider the fellowship of fallen soldiers.  It is one reason The Wall inspires more emotion than other memorial structures.

Maya Lin likes circles, so her chronology begins with a tall center panel and proceeds to the right as the panels descend in height.  It begins again at the farthest left of the panels, which grow to the tallest center point and the final names.  The name at the farthest right is Jessie C. Alba.  The others who died on his day are at the farthest left.

This may be an example of an unintentional arrangement decision with unintended consequences.  A theme of The Wall is comradeship among those who died together and among their friends who survived.  Because it is primarily an intentional arrangement, it obeys its own rules. Each name follows the previous name.  Last names beginning with an A signal a new day.  It is this rule that places Jessie C. Alba at the farthest end.  The others on his day are at the opposite end of The Wall, separated by 138 panels.  This separation implies the loneliness of death, which is the antithesis of The Wall’s theme of comradeship.

In the design process, it would have been a simple adjustment to move Alba’s name one place over to the farthest left panel, with the others on his day.  We do not know if that was contemplated.  The Wall is a work of art.  Each detail allows us to ponder its meaning.  Dying on a battlefield is a lonely experience, even if you are surrounded by your comrades.  But that is the opposite message from the other details on the Wall, which purposefully gather together those who died and the visitors who survived.  Intentional or not, in this one detail for Jessie C. Alba, the rules were more important than the theme.

Native Americans place one error in their artwork because only God can be perfect.  It is an intended error with an intended consequence.  Arrangement errors that go unrecognized have unintended consequences, possibly negative consequences that may defeat mission goals until the error is discovered.  Information arrangement is part of an entire message.  Take as much care with its details as you would with any other communication.

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Jan 2009

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