CSE 171: User Interface Design: Social and Technical Issues
Notes for the First Lecture
We may distinguish the following five levels of interface design issues:
  1. technology;
  2. ergonomics;
  3. individual psychology;
  4. sociology and group psychology; and
  5. organizational issues.
This course will focus on the last three levels, especially the fourth, and least of all on the first, which is changing very very rapidly and is well covered in other courses. Note that these levels form a hierarchy, and that the history of computer science as a whole recapitulates this same hierarchy; for example, recent work in artificial life and distributed artificial intelligence is taking AI beyond the individual level. Distributed computing, networks, and the internet all mirror the same theme, and so does the history of approach to user interface design. For example, the user interfaces of early computers were very close to the hardware, using crude input devices based on binary representations.

Here are some varied examples of issues relevant to user interface design at the ergonomic level: wrists have 2 degrees of freedom, while elbows have 1, and the neck has 3 (actually, Im not sure of these numbers); human color space is 3-dimensional; the QWERTY keyboard was intentionally designed suboptimal, to avoid key jams in mechanical typewriters.

HCI (for Human Computer Interface) is largely concerned with issues at the level of individual psychology, such as learning and error rates in using interfaces; the model for research here is experimental psychology. Shneiderman's book is largely written from this perspective, although in fact much of what he recommends for practitioners does not fit this rigid mold. It is surprising to see the following incredibly naive description on page 28:

The reductionist scientific method has this basic outline: Materials and methods must be tested by pilot experiments, and results must be validated by replication in variant situations.
CSCW (for Computer Supported Cooperative Work) is reaching towards group psychology and sociology, since social issues often have dramatic effects on how systems are actually used. Ethnomethodology is a branch of sociology concerned with ordinary social behavior. The prefix "ethno" refers to how some group of people ("the natives") actually do something, as opposed to how some group of analysts think they ought to do it, as in ethnomusicology, ethnobotany and ethnomedicine; hence "ethnomethodology" studies how groups do their own social analyses, as opposed to how some group of analysts think they ought to do it. Organizational issues concern organizations as a whole, e.g., a corporation; this course will consider this level as part of the social level, since after all, large organizations are social entities.

This course will focus on the last three of these levels, especially the fourth. Although difficult, there are some techniques that can help us to deal with these higher level problems, including the following:

These also form a hierarchy in a natural way, since narratives (i.e., stories) are one type of discourse, natural language is one type of sign system, and natural linguistics is one application area for ethnomethodology. If there were a "science of semiotics," it would be the ideal foundation for user interface design; unfortunately, none of the above four approaches are very close to being what we would call a science, though parts of narratology are not too bad.

In order to see the importance of user interface design, it is interesting to consider how many "high-tech" (and often highly hyped) user interfaces seem to ignore the social context of their actual use at some expense to their effectiveness. Examples include WebTV, ecash, Bill Gates' home music and LCD art displays, and stockbroker support systems.


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