CSE 271: User Interface Design: Social and Technical Issues
Notes for Fifth Meeting
Notes on Chapter 6 of Shneiderman

This chapter on direct manipulation seems less boring than previous chapters. Shniederman says direct manipulation is characterized by the following features: (1) analogical representation; (2) incremental operation; (3) reversibility; (4) physical action instead of syntax; (5) immediate visibility of results; and (6) graphic form (p.229). About the limitation to visibility in (5) and graphic in (6), it seems to me that representations can involve other senses than just sight. I would heavily emphasize (1) and (4); see also Shneiderman's discussion of analogy on the last paragraph of section 6.3.1 (p.205).

We will see that semiotics can offer a little more depth here. I thought Leibniz, who was no doubt thinking of mathematical notation, put it very well (quoted p.185 of Shniederman):

In signs, one sees an advantage for discovery that is greatest when they express the exact nature of a thing briefly and, as it were, picture it; then, indeed, the labor of thought is wonderfully diminished.
A good example is the difference in plane geometry between doing proofs with diagrams and doing them with axioms (p.203).

The remark (p.197) that in computer games, machine generated messages are likely to be more annoying than helpful, and that users prefer feedback like a high score display, is suggestive, and can be explained by CSCW principles. Slider controls are mentioned in several places (p.202, p.214) and probably are not well enough known. The principles of virtuality and transparency (p.202) are both important. The list of problems with direct manipulation on p.204 is important. The "tatami" project in my lab ran into some of these with a direct manipulation interface for proofs that we built; the display was almost useless for large proofs.

Piaget's work is in many ways outdated, so the material on page 207 should be taken with some grains of salt. The discussion of WIMP (p.207) is amusing but not very substantive. The guidelines for icon design (pp.208-9) are rather superficial but suggestive. Some of the remarks about emacs do not do justice to that amazingly flexible tool (p.210).

The last paragraph of section 6.5 (p.213) is interesting in connection with Lanier's piece; please reread it after you have read Lanier, and see if you think Shneiderman might not be saying the same thing in his very different way. The remark about notations for representing relations among residents of a home (p.217) seems a bit off the wall, but is interesting to think about from an ethical point of view; consider Bill Gates's house. The material on virtual environments may sound far out now, but I believe it should be taken seriously because it will become increasingly important (pp.221-228). It is interesting to note that the term "virtual reality" and the data glove (p.227) were invented by Lanier. The contrast between "immersive" and "looking-at" experience (bottom p.222) is interesting. Augmented reality (p.225) already has important industrial applications (e.g., at Boeing) and no doubt will have more. Situatedly aware shopping carts (p.225) do not appeal to me.


Notes on Chapter 3 of Latour

This chapter seems more difficult than either chapter 1 or 2; but there are more good jokes, though some are pretty subtle. We get more of Latour's eccentric terminology, such as continous chains of translation (p.85): this refers to the ever ongoing efforts to keep actors involved with the project, by "translating" into their own languages and values. The very strong words on p.86 are Latour's reaction against a lot of standard writing on technology, e.g., things like "Cloning is inevitable once it is possible" (which I saw in the papers about 3 weeks ago) or "Fusion power just doesn't have the impetus to succeed". Such writers talk as if projects have nothing to do with their context of people and things. The diatribe on page 88 against agricultural metaphors makes much the same point. And again on page 119, where he talks about "heroic narratives of technological innovation," also discussed in terms of the "diffusion model" (p.118), or perhaps more common in the US, technological determinism. Probably we've all heard the aphorism "If you build a better mousetrap, then the world will beat a path to your door."

The words (page 94) "paradigm" and "syntagma" are from linguistics. The syntagmatic (literally, "putting together") dimension of language is the domain of syntax, that is, sentences, phrases, words, etc.; it can be thought of as a "horizontal" dimension, because that is how it is written and spoken. The paradigmatic dimension of language refers to sets of linguistic elements that are related by some grammatical rule, e.g., the pronouns of various cases, the various tenses of a verb, etc. Latour wants to apply this to "all the technological projects in the world" just as linguists study "all possible sentences in a language". I think this is more than a bit dubious, for about the same reasons in each case, but it's fun. See the tables on pages 102 and 103.

The analogy with scrabble is also fun (p.99); the point of this analogy is (p.99, 101):

The only way to increase a project's reality is to compromise, to accept sociotechnological compromises.

The pertinent question is not whether it's a matter of technology or society, but only what is the best sociotechnological compromise.

These really make the same point as mentioned above, about the necessity for translations. Once all these translations (also called recuitments (p.104)) succeed, the technology disappears (p.104); this bothers the young engineering student. But if the translations fail to "interest" the actors enough, then the actors go their own ways again (p.106), and each has a different view of what Aramis is.
That's why ... it can never be fixed once and for all, for it varies according to the state of the aliances. (p.106)

...each element ... can become either an autonomous element, or everything, or nothing, either the component or the recognizable part of a whole. (p.107)

(His rather dramatic example is the variable-reluctance motor. (By the way, I don't think the figure 8 is drawn correctly (p.105).)) On page 108, Latour argues that the "division of labor" into subprojects (and other aspects of projects) can only be made after a project has succeeded (I called this the retrospective hypothesis in Requirements Engineering as the Reconciliation of Technical and Social Issues). This may sound like a radical view, but it is what you see in real projects, and quotes from Latour's interviews back this up empirically. Pages 118 to 120 contrast VAL with Aramis, arguing that VAL can be described "heroically" only because it succeeded. More significantly, Latour also argues that VAL succeeded because it continued to compromise and Aramis failed because it did not continue to compromise.
Notes on Lanier Agents of Alienation

This is an unusual piece. Let us agree that Lanier's rhetoric is excessive (though perhaps a refreshing contrast to Shneiderman's dry academic style), and in our discussions seek out its substance. I would highlight two points: (1) Lanier does not accept that "agents are inevitable" (a position he attributes to Negroponte); (2) Lanier refuses to stick to just technical issues, and instead raises some very basic ethical issues. In these respects, he is consistent with Latour.


Notes on Ackerman Communication and Collaboration from a CSCW Perspective

Why are we reading this? Many large systems - and even some companies - have failed through ignorance of points Ackerman makes. 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. "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.


Notes on Class Discussion

Semiotics is the science of signs. Signs mediate meaning, and are not just simple "symbols," 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. First, he emphasized that meanings are not directly attached to words; instead, there are events (or processes) 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.

The rest of the "lecture" material for this meeting was from the paper On Notation, including the three important notions of icon, index, and symbol, which are used in a precise technical way, and also the term signal.


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4 February 1998