Cuckoos and connections

There’s a cuckoo clock hanging on my living room wall. We ordered it from Amazon years ago, but it’s imported from Germany because really, where else are you going to get a cuckoo clock? It’s relatively small as clocks go, and simple. It has ornately carved trim at the top and bottom, a maple leaf pendulum, and a single cuckoo, who announces the hour and half hour with not-particularly reliable regularity.

It is also very loud.

The clock can be clearly heard on any floor of the house. It tends to disrupt sleeping guests until they get used to it. At midnight we’ve been known to pause the TV until the cuckooing is done. It makes itself heard clearly on conference calls, even if I move into the office.

And it is, by far, the most commented-upon thing I’ve ever had intrude upon a conference call. People will ignore dogs and children, hold their tongues on your taste in music, but absolutely cannot believe you have a working cuckoo clock in your house. (The most popular comment is of the “Is that commentary?” variety; the second-most is “What app is that?”, and the third is “Huh.”)

I have a cuckoo clock because my parents have a cuckoo clock, and before them my grandmother did. We’re not of German origin. I don’t know why or when my grandmother got her clock. The clock is neither metaphor nor nostalgia, though it’s tempting when writing to make it so. It’s the background music of everyday life that I miss if it isn’t present.

My co-workers have a mental model of the kind of people who own cuckoo clocks; pink-haired 40-year-old UX designers in Pennsylvania don’t fit that model.

That’s OK. I have a mental model of a member of the Cherokee tribe, and an accomplished web designer and developer living in Seattle doesn’t match that map, but I know one.

I also know a collared-shirt-every-day office-worker statistician trained in the art of punching a cow in the face if it gets too rough.

The men who repaired a window for a family member recently had to leave early to attend a funeral at the same home where that family member used to dig graves — twenty miles and fifty years prior.

The world’s biggest pinball tournament, next July, could potentially include a former NBA player, the lead singer from Barenaked Ladies, an autistic man being featured in a documentary, oh, and me again, the pink-haired 40-year-old UX designer with a cuckoo clock.

We are each a surprise to someone. We each wreck someone’s mental model of what it means to do something, be a member of something, own something, act some way, or effect something.

We are all connected in ways we can neither predict nor discount.

It’s not enough to say that we’re sharing one network. While we we have much more in common than a pulse and a voice, our commonalities are far from homogeneous.

We are each members of many different networks, some large and some small, some we choose to join and some that are thrust upon us.

We are more than endpoints on the networks. We are each both node and connector, endpoint and router, participant and outlier, for every network we’re in. Our homogeneity brings us together in small groups, and our individuality connects us with every other group.

As designers, we rely on mental models, personas, and similar tools to help us find the commonalities in audiences or user groups. It’s arguably true that we’d get nothing done if we concentrated on human individuality. At the same time, the cuckoo clock in my living room is a stark reminder that our mental models have no hope of withstanding the reality of who we are, unless we actively recognize that models are just that — models — and it’s the outliers that make the models interesting.

Author: Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)