CSE 171: User Interface Design: Social and Technical Issues
Notes for the Third Lecture
Notes on Readings

Ackerman's paper Communication and Collaboration from a CSCW Perspective is a short summary of important points from a large literature on CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work). It is very condensed, and uses some terminology that may not be familiar. The word "nuanced" refers to the very common tendency of people to match what they say and do to the particular situation that they are in; for example, most people speak differently to babies, todlers, elementary school children, and native speaking adults; they also behave differently at a tuxedo-wearing formal dinner party than at a beach party. Almost anything that humans do can be used to exemplify nuance.

Many large systems - and even some companies - have failed through ignorance of points that Ackerman makes. For example, the UK National Health Service sponsored a number of multi-million pound information systems for hospitals that failed because the doctors and nurses who had to enter the data disagreed strongly with the philosophy of health care that was built into these systems, and therefore sabotaged it by not using the system, and/or by entering misleading information. "The Coordinator," an ambitious system to improve corporate communications, failed and brought down the company that built it, because it tried to impose a communication style on people that it turned out they hated. There are many many more examples like these.

Lanier's Agents of Alienation is an unusual piece. In my opinion, Lanier's rhetoric is excessive (though perhaps a refreshing contrast to Shneiderman's somewhat boring academic style), and he glosses over some important points; but let's seek out what is interesting in it. For now, I would highlight two main points: (1) Lanier is against agents, and does not accept that they "are inevitable" (a position he attributes to Negroponte); (2) Lanier goes beyond purely technical issues, and raises basic ethical issues - in this respect, his argument against agents is quite different from Shneiderman's. However, he does connect with issues in user interface design, and it is interesting to notice that his list of agents being promoted in 1995 is now a list of notorious failures.

In chapter 3, Shneiderman becomes more interesting and detailed. The introductory remark (p.96) that "programmer's intuitions may be inappropriate" for large classes of other users is important for motivating much of his book, and this course. Shneiderman again emphasizes that design should be based on "careful observation of current users" and that iterative design methods are very important (both p.97). "Three E's" are relevant management strategies for using guidelines (p.98-99). The paragraph on p.99 giving economic justifications for usability is important. But with all the methods, guidelines, checklists, etc., we should not forget the following (p.99):

Design is inherently creative and unpredictable. Interactive system designers must blend a thorough knowledge of technical feasibility with a mystical esthetic sense of what attracts users.
The following 4 bullets make some aspects of this a little more explicit.

The material in section 3.3.1 on what to consider having guidelines for is valuable and figure 3.1 is worth a thousand words. The paragraph at the beginning of section 3.3.2 is really about how tacit knowledge arises in interface design. The first three sentences of section 3.4 (p.104) are very important: spending more think time at the beginning of project is usually a very good investment. The LUCID stages in Table 3.1 correspond closely to stages conventionally considered in software engineering; and organizational change is something that really does have to be considered. (By the way, the LUCID method is an outgrowth of the UCSD (User Centered System Design) method developed at UCSD.) The list of deliverables on p.107 is useful if you ever get involved in a really large project.

Sections 3.5 and 3.6 quickly sketch two important methods for learning more about users. The checklist for ethnography on p.108 is very good. The last paragraph of section 3.5 and the last sentence of the preceeding paragraph sum up the case for ethnography well (p.109). The first sentence of the next to last paragraph of section 3.6 is very important (why controlled experiment does not work), and the last paragraph of section 3.6 (p.110) makes clear the need for user participation in design, but much more could be said here. The 4th paragraph of section 3.7 on scenarios explains why this is a really important technique, and the National Digital Library is a good example. Social impact statements are a terrific idea, and should be part of the early work on any large system; the outline for a social impact statement on pp.114-5 is useful but should not be taken too literally. Section 3.9 does not say nearly enough about privacy; safety and reliability also merit more than just one paragraph. Designers can be sued for problems in these areas. The last paragraph of section 3.9 is good advice, but I would go further: legal disputes can be very unpleasant and the best strategy is often to seek ways to avoid them, e.g. through cooperative agreements.


Notes for Class Discussion

Change is inevitable, unending, and unpredictable, especially in user interface design; this is illustrated by the many points in Art and the Zen of Web Sites that are badly out of date after only two years. Many changes are related to (what has been called) convergence, which is the merging of computers with communications. In user interface design, this can be seen the evolution of HCI towards CSCW: whereas traditional HCI focuses on an individual user of a single system, CSCW addresses the social issues that necessarily occur when individuals communicate within communities, which of course they (nearly) always do.

One aspect of the original HTML philosophy (developed at CERN, a physics research center in Switzerland) is that source texts should only use structuring commands and never use layout commands, so that browsers are able to choose the best presentation compatible with their capabilities, e.g., audio output for blind users. Now consider the HTML source code for the following "button sign" constructed from a table with background:

   WHAT'S NEW  

Is this complex sign consistent with the original HTML philosophy described above? (The best way to learn more about HTML is to look at source code.) Note that the HTML language has changed a great deal, in response to pressure from users who have very different goals than the original community of high energy physicists, such as advertisers.

Recipient design is a term from ethnomethodology that refers to the phenomenon that natural speech is always designed for its recipients, and usually bears specific evidence of that design. Everyone should try to find examples of recipient design in natural language used in everyday life; almost anything can be seen in this light. Note that recipient design is essentially the same thing as nuance, i.e., it is contextualization that people use to make signs (e.g., speech) work in everyday life, except that nuance carries the connotation of being more subtle. A brief webpage on speech act theory and mitigation has been written for this course; mitigation is an example of receipient design.


Signs mediate meaning, and are not just simple "tokens" or physical marks, but can be complex combinations of other lower level signs, such as whole sentences, spoken or written, whole books, newspaper advertisements, etc. Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced "purse") introduced the term "semiotics," and several of its basic ideas. In particular, he emphasized that meanings are not directly attached to words; instead, there are events (or processes or activities) of semiosis - i.e. occurrences of meaning - each involving a signifier (i.e. sign), a signified (an object of some kind - e.g. an idea), and an interpretant that links these two; these three things are often called the "semiotic triad" and occur wherever there is meaning. The interpretant is not given, but must be created, e.g. by a person. This sounds simple, but it is very different from more common and naive theories, as in the use of denotational semantics for programming languages.

Semiotics has two main sources, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce. In botyh traditions, signs can be anything that meadiates meaning, including words, images, sounds, gestures, and objects. In the tradition of Saussure, every sign has:

The signifier is often considered to be a material form, though I prefer to use the word token for this. Here is an example of a sign, which would conventionally be designed 'tree':
Signifier: The letters 't-r-e-e'.
Signified: The concept of tree.
Note that a "sign" is a particular combination of a signifier and a signified. The same concept could be indicated by other signifiers, and the same signifier could refer to other things; in each case, we would have a different sign. (This explanation augments that in the "Signs" chapter of Semiotics for Beginners, by Daniel Chandler.)

Peirce's definition of sign is better, though more complex, since it includes the relation between signifier and signified as an explict component; for details, see my paper On Notation. One of the most useful notions from semiotics is Peirce's three way classification of signs into symbols, icons, and indices. This has many applications to user interface design; see On Notation. You should carefully note that each of these three terms has a /em> meaning that is not the same as its ordinary everyday meaning!


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Version of 3 February 2000.