Ben Scofield

me. still on a blog.

On Levels of Description

I’ve been fascinated by levels of description for as long as I can remember:

  • physics, chemistry, and biology as a kid – with both expected and emergent properties at each level
  • neurology to consciousness as an undergrad
  • different levels of selection in (and beyond) evolutionary theory in grad school
  • abstraction and realism in comics during my brief tenure as a web designer
  • low- to high-fidelity with user interface design (wireframes, mockups, etc.)
  • methods, classes, libraries, applications, and ecosystems, and how similar design patterns can be applied at each over the past couple of years
  • requirements, implementation plans, and code in my daily work

I think the impact of choosing the right level to discuss a particular problem can’t be overstated – to paraphrase Einstein: discuss things as generally as possible, but no more generally. Check out any work on wireframing or paper prototyping and you’ll hear exactly why this is important: discussion tends to happen at the finest-level of grain you provide.

If you give someone a wireframe with actual user interface elements, they’ll argue over whether checkboxes or radio buttons are appropriate – not whether there’s more or less information on the page than there should be. If you give someone a mockup in color, they’ll debate over the shade of blue you used – not over whether the elements of the page are in the correct relationship to each other. If you present a new project by showing code, they’ll argue over database schemas and method names instead of whether you’ve actually solved the problem at hand. 

So: be aware and intentional about how you communicate, and make sure you’re talking about things at the right level.