Sorting, Scoring, and Avatarism
A Wishfarmer Labs Research Brief
What is Sorting and Scoring?
This term isn't being used to refer to any specific systems, but to processes both manual and automatic which attempt to sort individuals into groups, based on some linear measurement. The form that these take depend on the objectives.
Sound obscure? It's really not; Here are some everyday situations in which individuals are scored, and sorted:
Being scored on SATs, and sorted into a college
Being scored on resume key words, and sorted into an employers hiring system
Being 'scored' on age and color, and sorted into a penal sentence category
There's nothing insidious about the process; It's a normal side-effect of trying to manage large numbers of people. While we all acknowledge that everyone is different, “everyone” and “different” work out to a very large number of things to think about. The larger things get, the greater our need to flatten them into something simple enough to take in all at once.
But are these aspects of size and diversity really at odds with our ability to comprehend? After all, we managed to navigate the forest, surrounded by thousands of unique life forms, without tripping over ourselves. Most of the time.
Maybe, instead of looking to logical simplification (and sorting) to help us here, we could look backward to nature instead – and benefit from the robust technology that we call “looking at something”.
How? By re-purposing a familiar method of symbolic personal representation, as a visual and psychological model for thinking about the evaluation (scoring) of individuals?
Spreadsheets, Avatars and Eyeballs
The shift proposed here is similar to that introduced by the first wave of accounting tools in personal computing, such as “Lotus 123”.
These were the first to offer advanced graphing capabilities to the general public. By providing a new way to visualize complex data, they enabled users to think at a higher level, applying their entire analytical engine (brain) to all of the data at once.
This was a huge leap in the Average Joe's ability to comprehend complex data.
Sorting and scoring systems measure (and represent) individuals as columns of numbers and attributes: Years of something, rating of something else. But this doesn't support a high-level evaluation considering the whole.
The concept we need here is the “avatar”, and it has been a fixture in computer games since their invention (and even board games before that). It is second nature to modern users as a model for personal representation. The concept is no longer confined to games, and is now a common element in communication programs, social networking systems and virtual spaces.
Users are already familiar with the avatar as persona, and with the concept of various inventory items with unique attributes. For most, these are simply natural.
Some of the common properties of an avatar that lend themselves very well to the purposes of subjective evaluation are:
Avatars may have inventories of objects collected from their past
Avatars may have points, levels, or other measure of experience
Avatars may have personalizations selected by the users they represent
Avatars may attach or “wield” items representing specialization, or training
Avatars can have special skills and strengths in standardized categories
Avatars represent a large amount of information at one time, and in a natural visual context.
With the ubiquity of avatars in instant messaging and social networks, the re-application of these concepts toward serious work should no longer be seen as novel. It is simply a user interface upgrade.
Benefits of Avatars in Sorting and Scoring
1. Builds into the system a recognition of the wide diversity of backgrounds, strengths and challenges of individuals.
2. Builds into the system a recognition that no single “asset” (positive or negative) represents the entirety. This premise is communicated to both subjects and consumers through this choice of visualization.
3. Supports quantitative scoring, but works to counter the negative effect of “direct numeric comparison” by encouraging subjective thinking that considers the whole.
4. Immediately recognizable to both subjects and consumers of scoring systems
5. Encourages realistic profiling. A horse-mounted rider in a scientist's lab coat, wielding a wrench in one hand and a broom in the other is visually nonsensical. Concepts such as “inventory load” can also be applied to further re-enforce this message.
6. Upgradeable. New measures can easily be added, either in a monolithic “formal” system or in small “local systems” such as a rehabilitation setting.
7. Universal reach: The concept is readily accessible across cultures and age groups
As Next-Generation Scoring Representations
For users (“subjects” of scoring systems), a very new and natural way of representing themselves and their professional and personal history visually. Functionally, this could take the form of a user interface for “dragging experience” onto a visual representation of themselves.
For consumers of scoring systems (such as employers), this could take the form of visualizations of applicant pools. For example, a crowd (literally) of their available applicant pool, with representations of people conveying their personal and professional attributes “at a glance”.
As Personal/Professional Development Tool
As a browser-based system on corporate portal, representing the employee as an avatar, equipped with items representing previous experience and inputs, as well as personal elements and representation of where they are “headed” in their career.
As “target avatars”, idealized profiles of a model employee for a certain position, or of specific improvements for an employee.
As Next-Generation Professional “Curricula Vitae”
Targeting the developing convergence of virtual worlds and popular culture, provide tools and standards for representing professional and non-professional recognitions. Example: Red briefcase representing a verified (accredited or otherwise) project management aptitude.
On Implementation: How Might We Get There?
Technologically, we're really not talking about changing the way that mountains of data on individuals is organized, or stored electronically. As previously suggested, this is a change to the way individuals are represented and, as a result, the way they are thought of. All that is needed to support that are a few bits of extra data, and the means to interact with them.
A foundation of basic technologies could speed adoption, so a few of those possibilities are considered here.
Open Source Distributed Asset Type Catalog
A distributed, hierarchical database of attribute types and their visual representations. The “Professional” domain might contain thousands of standard representations for things like jobs, skills, certifications, etc. Obviously there would be a huge Hobbies domain.
Open-Source Avatar Data Format
Think XML, for standardized “avatarism”. Loosely-defined and extensible, a minimal specification for packing up data about avatars would allow developers to easily write client applications, and would promote the growth of large collections of avatars.
Think: Flash API, but for representing avatars.
With a minimal set of routines for displaying the visual elements that comprise an avatar, developers could easily add avatar support to their applications.
Resumes could move quickly into an interim “hybrid” phase, with the addition of simple ActiveX controls (for example) that display an applicant's avatar among the traditional flat resume.
It's Only a Model
This does not change the mechanisms of scoring and sorting, either current or future.
This is a simple “baby step” change, specifically targeting the “front end” of the societal process of sorting and scoring individuals. Its aim is to (slowly) inspire a change in the way people think about the meaning and application of these systems, whatever form they take.
Are you interested in pursuing some of these ideas, or related concepts, or something completely different?
Are you looking for a dedicated team combining both inspired creative designers and world-class technologists? Do you need a team like IDEO, combined with a team like Xerox PARC, who is still cool enough to understand the relevance of both?
Do you want to hire someone to turn your drawings of stick figures on napkins into something you can blog about?
Stop nodding your head to a computer . . . and come talk to real people about a virtual world.
Wishes outside. Realities inside.