Sense-Making Machines

Once, on our way to the movies our tram stopped at “Heinrich-Heine-Alley”. It’s a popular tram stop in Düsseldorf, especially for tourists. One such (German!) tourist exited there with his family and remarked: “Ah, Heinrich-Heine-Alley, he was mayor here once.”

That tourist was making sense of his surroundings and “previous mayor” seemed like a reasonable reason to name a street and station after. It is reasonable. It is also wrong. Most Germans (and surprisingly Russians) know that Heinrich Heine was a poet. (I think Heine was born in Düsseldorf, but I don’t really know. I’m just sense-making here ;))

Humans are sense-making machines in search of a narrative. If facts are missing, we’ll often make them up. Once we got the narrative established it’s hard to let go. It’s why we keep going in the wrong direction, despite disagreeing signage. I love this episode as a reminder of how (made-up) context is everything in Usability. There’s no telling where users end up if they start with a warped context and it’s not their fault. It’s surprising to me that a fellow German doesn’t know Heine, but I’m also aware that it’s entirely possible to be smart and live a good life without knowing that tidbit. It’s not essential. Neither are the ins and outs of your software and its context. Be as obvious as you can.

PS: Fact-checked Heine: Yes, he was born in Düsseldorf, died in Paris. He was never mayor 😀

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