Friday, October 27, 2006

No one wants truly random play lists

Say we’re developing an MP3 player and want it to be able to mix up the order it plays songs. What comes to mind is a randomness -- having a random-play feature. But in fact, what we would really like is not literal randomness, but something more subtle.

A truly random playlist would do things like play the same song a twice in close proximity, or even twice in a row. What people really want is a subjective sense of variety. They want the songs jumbled up, but with repeats a bit more ‘evenly spaced’ so they don’t tend to come across the same song again until most of the other's have already been played.

When we first think of the feature we want, ‘random’ just seems to jumps into our head. Even if we wanted to deliberately think through exactly what we wanted in the feature, the notion of random would come to us well before we were finished.

The seems to happen through some sort of automatic assocition process. Our brains just seems to pick the closest general concept. It seems to be a kind of heuristic.

In such situations, I think you need to expect such things to just come to mind, and to be mindful that they’re often only approximations. And that means not just accepting it as true, and thinking about whether it really fits the situation.

If we do that for the MP3 player example, we can see that we’re after a feature that affects the listener’s listening experience. And if we have that in mind, and think about randomness, and how it will include sequences of same item more than once in a row, and reflect on this in terms of the listener’s experience, we can see that they are unlikely to want that.

This means not just considering what the player is doing, and that feature itself, but also the perception of it -- which is a key consideration here. That’s harder to do, as our thinking is usually directed at what’s there in the world, and it takes effort to also consider the perception of what’s out there.

What I’ve talked about here is an example of the ‘laddered skills’ I spoke a bit about a number of months back. It’s an example of how mental capabilities are laddered.

Skills are ‘laddered’ in the sense that in developing a particular skill, you have to pass through various ‘rungs’ that are pretty inherent to that skill. I had been intending to write about mental capabilities as laddered skills, but that turned out to be a far larger task that I’d expected, and I just haven’t had the time to work on it.

It's an example of it because, at one skill rung, there is just accepting whatever concept jumps to mind, and rung up there is recognising that this concept may be only an approximation and thus in need of evaluation. Also a rung up, is realising that the concepts that jump to mind tend to overlook roles that perception may play in the situation.

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