Tigers Don’t Stand on Boxes: Signaling Theory in Design

Tigers leave signals by scratching on trees. Smaller tigers leave lower marks. Larger tigers leave higher marks. People also use signals, to tell us something about themselves. Unlike tigers, humans sometimes stand on boxes…

That’s one of the points raised by Judith Donath, from the MIT Media Lab, who gave a presentation recently at Google on how signaling theory can be used to understand design.

Signals, Truth and Design

Can signals help us understand fashion? How people link to each other in blogs? What bloggers decide to write about?

Dr. Donath is the director of MIT’s Sociable Media Group, where she explores the social side of computing to learn about and share information on topics such as interfaces for communities and identities online.

A thoughtful and charming presentation, it raises a lot of questions that someone interacting with others online, and presenting information through web sites and in other communications might want to consider.

What kinds of signals and messages might your web site be sending to others? What might your virtual identity be telling people? How can we distinguish between humans and marketing tools on places like MySpace?

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2 thoughts on “Tigers Don’t Stand on Boxes: Signaling Theory in Design”

  1. Very interesting Bill. Very insightful and there is an important link to the social aspects of web popularity.

    Although, there is something to be said about tigers (like in a circus), they may not stand on boxes naturally, but they can be trained.

  2. Good point on training tigers, Steve. :)

    One set of signals that we can often see on ecommerce sites, involve credibility. The Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility describes some of the ways that those signals may manifest.

    Judith Donath suggests in the presentation that sometimes when we send signals that aren’t appropriate, there may be a strong societal cost attached. For instance, she states that getting through traffic is a lot easier if you attach police lights and sirens on your car – people move out of the way. But if you aren’t a police officer, sending out that signal may have some serious repercussions.

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