By Stewart McCoy

Don’t forget the flowers: contextual messaging and interaction design

This post is part of a series on how the principles of rhetoric might apply to web design. Other posts in this series include:

Good news! Never forget your mom’s birthday because 1-800-FLOWERS can remember it for you. Register for an account, create reminders, and receive notifications with gift suggestions. Convenient, right? The web’s memory is long, and it can recall important information at moments when you don’t even realize you need it.

In classical rhetoric, the rhetorical principle of memory is a “treasury of things invented” and is closely related to the rhetorical principal of invention. Memory is made up of the material arrived at through the topics of invention and can be called up when the time is right.

On the web, rhetorical memory is concerned with contextual messaging and is within the purview of interaction designers, who can devise solutions that are then offered up during key user interactions. For designers taking advantage of memory, the given site usually requires a user to have an account, although there are some situations (such as forms) in which an account is not required.

Rhetorical memory differs from what you normally think of as memory in that it’s a “common place” where collections of strategically crafted messages are stored for later use. And functionally, the Internet can store and call up these messages perfectly, unaltered from the time they were originally conceived—unlike our own imperfect memories. In terms of applying memory to design, a designer needs to define a structure for when these memories are used. In this post I’ll consider the ways Facebook creates structures that use the concept of rhetorical memory.

The ad platform on Facebook is flexible and is a great example of memory in action. As you Like more products, companies, musicians, artists, and athletes, ads will cater more to your individual tastes. In my profile I say that I live in San Francisco. I also Liked J Dilla. Remembering these details, the platform recommended that I buy tickets to a Talib Kweli show at The Fillmore. The ads do what people do in real life:

“I really like that new Active Child album!”

“Yeah, me too! Have you heard the new Toro Y Moi?”

The Facebook ad platform draws on the topics of testimony and comparison from the principle of invention. Using these topics, the platform was able to make an informed and persuasive recommendation. I was excited to learn about the show and bought tickets. And both the show promoters and Facebook made money.

Rhetorical memory isn’t inherently good or bad. As with rhetoric in general, it’s about how you use it. In my previous example, Facebook created a structure for memory that is non-intrusive and at times even delightful. But Facebook made a serious misstep back in 2007, when they rolled out a different ad platform that used memory in a way that was intrusive and poorly considered. Dubbed Beacon, the platform tracked user activities outside of Facebook and reported data that was then shared with users’ friends. When Beacon was first introduced, it was opt-out only and was connected to more than 40 partners, including Blockbuster, Zappos, and eBay. Unaware of the ad platform, a friend of mine purchased a birthday gift online for his son, with whom he was Facebook friends. During dinner that night, his son said he was excited to get the video game he’d asked for. When my friend bought the game on a partner site, the purchase was shared in his Facebook feed for all his friends to see, including his son. Surprise, ruined. User experience, fail.

Another way I see memory used is to introduce new features. When I logged into Facebook last week, I found that the design and functionality of Messages had been updated. Facebook knew I had yet to experience these updates, so they greeted me with an optional tutorial that would walk me through the new design. Memory is strongly tied to kairos because presenting definitions or comparisons is about timeliness; I only need to be alerted about the feature update once—the first time I log in after the update. If I dismiss the message, I’ve acknowledged I’m aware of the new feature and I don’t see it again. But if I ignore the message, I’ll be reminded on return visits. This could be helpful if I just didn’t have time for the tutorial or annoying if I didn’t care. What’s important is that Facebook remembers the interactions and doesn’t repeatedly pester me with alerts I’ve already dismissed.

Facebook uses the rhetorical principle of memory to know when a user needs to be alerted about feature updates.

Rhetorical memory provides opportunities to design thoughtfulness into your application. You can look to the principle of invention for the messages that you need to convey. Then you can think about when and how these messages should be delivered. From the user’s perspective, these kinds of “remembered” messages seem spontaneous, communicated wonderfully…at just the right moment.

So far I’ve introduced the five principles of rhetoric, explained the principle of inventionthe rhetorical concept of kairos, and the principle of memory in this post. Following posts in this series will address the rhetorical principles of style, delivery, and arrangement.

Originally posted on the Mule Design Studio BlogDon’t Forget The Flowers: Contextual Messaging and Interaction Design

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