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Good user interfaces for complex tasks? Impossible!


Really, why didn't I address this 33 years ago? My PhD was about “modelling cognitive aspects of complex control tasks” but I wasn't thinking about life as a complex task until later.

  1. By definition, a complex task is one which people need to simplify in order to get a hold of.
  2. As my PhD confirmed, everyone tends to simplify complex tasks in their own unique way.
  3. So there is an unresolvable dilemma:
    1. any simplification will be wrong for many people;
    2. trying to capture the full range of possible simplifications will overwhelm nearly everyone.

CHOICE represents a very subtle escape from this paradox.

Often used strategies that don't really work

The analytic approach is to break down complex tasks into simple steps, until each step is simple enough not to need further simplification. We see this all over the place: “step by step” approaches; wizards; check lists. But the very act of analysis – the breaking down of the complex task into simple steps – implies a particular model, a particular representation, a particular ontology, and so it won't be a natural fit for everyone. Rather, perhaps inevitably, it is likely to be felt as a top-down imposition.

I see another version of (literally) hierarchical imposition in organised religious institutions. I see them, at best, as an honest attempt to construct rules and practices which everyone can follow, to deal with the complex task of living a worthy life.

There are people who like to be given rules to follow. Or maybe better, there are stages of life which perhaps all of us have experienced, where we need to be given rules to follow. Otherwise why would Jordan Peterson sell many books? Maybe, for them, any simplification is good enough, provided it is accepted as normal by the culture that surrounds them.

On the other hand, many of us moved on from needing to follow. 44 years old it may be, but the “Life of Brian” has some pretty timeless quotes … “Look, you've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody. You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals.”1) I see this – the “gospel of Brian” if you like – as corresponding to the shift from Robert Kegan's 3rd order to 4th order consciousness (though that is another story).

The point here is that every individual working it out for themselves is not a recipe for any easy-to-use software.

My suggested way forward

An answer through religion? Hard!

I've always said: adopt the religion that helps you become the best version of yourself; that helps bring out your true nature. As life is complex, every (decent) religion will suit some people. There will never be a shortage of converts who sing the praises of their new-found faiths that have changed their lives. But given that different people have different “takes” on life – we all simplify life differently – maybe the only honest answer is to offer people the broadest possible range of religions, and – not just let them choose – help them choose wisely. And let them move on when they are ready.

There is a drawback here as well. If you let people choose freely, there is a strong chance that people will choose an easy path that doesn't challenge their favourite patterns, which may serve them, but definitely don't serve others, or the world. Hence the need for spiritual directors. I don't have one, but I would like one. As Quakers, we aspire to being “Friends in the Truth”.

On the other hand, as I have often said, it is only through getting what we think we want that we discover that it is not what we really want — what we really need. Hence the importance of being able to move on. Try the simple interface/religion while it works. Notice that, as you grow, there are things you want to do that aren't afforded by that interface, or that version of that religion. Mature religions should grow with you. But where can you find this kind of religion these days? Everything seems to be either fundamentalist or esoteric, not both. And both is, I would say, what we need, first simply not to crack up, and then to grow into our full potential.


This CHOICE idea, currently under the title ReGenMatch, represents a way through this dilemma. The idea is, first, to present the simplest interface that allows you to express the qualities of the people or the opportunities that you are looking for.

So, ask for what you think you want. The system enabling this needs to have a vast range of questions, because at any one time, people's ideas of what they want from life can be very different in detail. And the range of questions needs to be always growing, to accommodate newly-arising desires.

Then, here is the magic. You also want to be wanted, right? So, gradually and gently, the system invites you to answer the questions that matter to the kind of people who have the qualities you want. It's never more than what is needed, but, slowly, step by step, you get to grow in recognising what other people want, and perhaps to valuing qualities that you were not aware of before.

We are so used to seeing desirable things, being enticed to want desirable things, but things do not ask questions. This can spill over, all too easily, onto how we see other people. Just think of how the norm in business has been to speak of “human resources”, as if working people don't ask questions; don't have different individual needs. But in our hearts we know people do have their own, complex needs and desires. Diversity is real, and needs to be recognised.

Think of the idea of the quest. We want something that we can't just take, and we can't just buy in a shop. There starts a quest, and the quest leads us to challenges. Like the hero's journey, perhaps. But hero's journey stories are still too simple, too stereotyped. There are only a few versions. In real life, where we are not like the imaginary heroes, the quest for some person or some opportunity brings up any variety of challenges. We can't predict them. Because they can't be predicted, we grow into the uniqueness of our fuller selves.

Not forgetting gentleness. We need to set the boundaries of what feels safe, what is acceptable, in order to create the conditions in which we can grow into our potential, and, eventually, let go of those safety nets. The CHOICE concept allows exactly that. Simply, state your boundaries. If there is no one who sits inside these boundaries, take your time to relax them, gently, as you feel right. It's part of the process of becoming more whole.

To circle back: try out new interfaces, and you may be surprised that what fits you, what wants you, is something, or someone, different from what you expected. The best interface for a truly complex task (like life) cannot be predicted in advance, cannot be handed to you on a plate. Exploration and adventure are necessary. The most useful services will be the ones that enable and encourage that adventure to discover or create the interfaces that allow you to engage fully, to live fully.

d/2023-10-10.txt · Last modified: 2023-10-28 14:08 by simongrant