Somewhere in time, someone designed the wallet folio. It helped people carry roughly five small photos in their wallets, protected in a plastic flipbook. Today, that’s been replaced with a hard drive, kept in our pockets at all times, and expands our library to hundreds of photos of relatives, loved ones, children and pets.

For most of human history, technology has been static. The fire and the stick were stable for thousands of years. In more recent history, with television still priced at one-per-household, “upgrades” came at a pace of about one every seven years.

When technology stays the same, it’s reassuring. It presents a reliable routine that delivers a consistent sense of identity to the people who own them. Even if the content of media was constantly changing – television and radio news, for example – the interactions weren’t changing. We always accessed content in the same way.

The transition between the portable photographic locket and the cell phone was an upgrade that took more than 100 years. Since then, there have been 11 updates to the iPhone iOS, not to mention a litany of photo applications, each with its own history of design updates.

As an iPhone user, I am constantly thwarted by a recent iOS change. One version ago, I would double tap the center button to open my phone from the lock screen. Today, that same gesture opens Apple Pay. The previous six versions have penetrated my muscle memory, making me incapable of changing that initial behavior: it’s instinctual.

Our methods of interacting with the world are forever drifting ever so slightly toward something new. Can those changes have an impact on our sense of stability?

Home Sweet Homepage

Sociologist Anthony Giddens describes “ontological security” in his book, “Modernity and Self Identity.” It’s the “attainment of basic trust in self-continuity and environmental continuity.” At its simplest, ontological security is a sense of a stable identity, usually tied to some outside reminder of who we are. Giddens writes, “Ontological security is sustained through the familiar and the predictable. Our common sense attitudes and beliefs express and sustain our practical understandings of the world, without which life would quickly become intolerable.”

Ontological security comes from fixed routines, the comforting places we return to at the end of the day and imagine when you’re away from them. It comes from the small habits, objects and rituals that remind all of us of who we are and who we have been. A photo album in a wallet, for example, was a useful reminder of our home lives when we were traveling or at work.

If our access to these reminders shifts, so does that sense of a continuous identity. Ontological Insecurity is easy to imagine if you come from a collapsing state, where a nation you called home no longer exists. But the effect has been found in subtler forms: the cancellation of a television show, or the change of a national news anchor after a decade on television, might feel like “an end of an era,” the loss of something that had once been seen as safe and expected.

There’s a lesson in this as our tech evolves faster than any other we’ve had before. Design changes, app updates, feature upgrades, the many daily shifts in our smartphones: these present a small but constant state of disorientation.

Interactions are how a developer tells us a story of how we move from our desire, to the app, to the delivery of the desired. If a sudden change in behavior from an app doesn’t fit in with a familiar narrative, it introduces a small moment of frustration or panic. It’s a disruption of a pattern that has become familiar and comfortable.

Disruption is… Disruptive.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Facebook once had two timeline tabs, one for status updates and one for literally every other interaction on the site, all listed in reverse chronological order.

Recently, major changes to two other social media apps have resulted in confusion and outcry, with Instagram and Twitter both moving away from pure chronology in determining what people see. Now it’s personalized, sorted by an algorithm tracking your interactions. This experience is aimed at encouraging more interactions with what content people “want to see,” and it probably will. But the transition has been disorienting for many, especially those who take to Twitter to follow responses to events in real-time.

But perhaps there was no greater example than Twitter’s acquisition, and later dismantling, of the Vine app. It’s old news in tech time, but the microblogging site had 200 million active users in 2015. It allowed users to create six-second video loops that they could share on Twitter or Facebook. It spawned something of an internet genre and was used by musicians, journalists, and artists to create content in what was a truly unique form of storytelling before Twitter closed it.

The outcry over these changes seems to die down quickly, largely because, as the internet moves so quickly, something new takes its place. (Ironically, Instagram, owned by Facebook, Twitter’s competitor in social media, was the beneficiary of Vine’s closure, adding many of the same features).

An interaction with an app is a story. Even a change in gestures or buttons is a disruption of that story. Sustaining reliable, trustworthy and intuitive narratives in design interaction is an important concept as we improve technology at rates faster than humans have ever had to handle.

Moving a button from the center of a screen or “integrating” a small app into a broader service may not feel like a major disruption of “who we are.” But users are juggling a constantly shifting sea of apps and interfaces, all of which serve as gatekeepers to the expression of our identities, access to our memories, and connection to familiar places and communities.

Innovation Without Alienation

Innovation demands flexibility. Design is always trying to improve things, but when user expectations are thrown away for the cause of creating something radically better, the launch is usually met with instantaneous backlash that can make those improvement invisible. If all anyone sees is the disruption of their expectations, the improvements get lost in a sea of complaints.  

Recognizing and planning interactions with software as a story in need of continuity can be a critical factor for getting people on board when those interactions change – especially if who they are, and who they connect to, will inevitably change with it.