Three stories about ants

Here are three stories about ants. The first two are from brilliant people and were both originally published in 01968 (oddly); the third is from me, today.

As behaving systems

Herb Simon’s “The Psychology of Thinking” opens with a little ditty about an ant, picking its way across a wind-swept beach. The ant’s path is weaving, irregular, non-geometric. Where is the ant going?

Old ‘Uncle’ Simon sketches the ant’s path and shows the sketch to a friend, who sees in its jagged course a skier’s slalom, a dodgy sloop, or (abstractly) a student working out a problem.

But it was just an ant crawling the beach, not doing anything complicated. It encountered a problem, it changed course, it moved along. Simon writes:

“An ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of its behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which it finds itself.”

For the balance of the essay, he explores that hypothesis, but with the word “human being” replacing “ant”. Human beings have these basic characteristics: We remember a little bit. We forget almost everything. We do one thing at a time, mostly, and slowly. And from this you can explain a lot of behavior.

As creatures doing their best

Near the beginning of Stanislaw Lem’s awesome novel “His Master’s Voice”, our narrator finds himself as part of a team of scientists tasked with making sense of a deep space transmission, a signal (message?) from way out there. (I’ve heard “His Master’s Voice” described as Carl Sagan’s “Contact” for adults.) He describes the task thus:

“We stood at the feet of a gigantic find, as unprepared, but also as sure of ourselves, as we could possibly be. We clambered up on it from every side, quickly, hungrily, and cleverly, with our time-honored skill, like ants. I was one of them. This is the story of an ant.”

Because, of course, “ants that encounter in their path a dead philosopher may make good use of him.”

It’s probably not much of a surprise to know that Lem’s ants eat well, but they don’t really learn anything.

This story ends with a nagging question: for the ant, this is no great loss, is it?

As people grubbing at iPads

You want to make a compelling experience for people. Maybe you want them to do something, or buy something, or learn something. You can see the whole happy path. They’ll come in here, and work their way over there, and everybody gets what they want.

And then you let people into your system and things fall apart immediately. People are using the wrong device. They can’t hear your video on the train, or at all. They signed up but don’t remember where. They don’t get your e-mail. The commercial break ends, a drink spills, or (let’s hope not!) the traffic light turns green. These individuals have fallen off the happy path.

If a task has two steps, some people will fail to make it to the next step. If a task has one step, some people will fail to even begin. Some people will complete the task, forget they’ve done so, and start it again.

But that’s all fine. Because, when you start to design an experience, and as you’re developing it, and as you watch and change it over time, you aren’t just thinking about that happy path — the perfect, meaningful interaction you imagine people having in a comfortable seat and in good lighting.

Certainly you start with that happy path, by defining what should happen in an ideal scenario. But you’ll surround and buttress that path through designs that can recover from failures, mistakes, and interruptions.

To create a great experience, you must put together an environment, not just an interaction. And when somebody crawls off the path, you’ll have put something there to help them wiggle their little feelers and find their way back on.

“Three stories about ants” was originally published in the Different Chairs journal.