CSE 271: User Interface Design: Social and Technical Issues
Notes for Seventh Meeting
Notes on Chapter 16 of Shneiderman

This chapter on the web is as usual is rather general with scatterings of useful information. The early historical bits, on Vanever Bush, Ted Nelson, and Douglas Engelbart are good, but I would certainly highlight Engelbart's work, as he had already implemented all the major features of the personal computer revolution in the mid-60s; Nelson's main contribution seems to have been colorful terminology. It is sobering to realize that the first proposal for the world wide web (Tim Berners-Lee) was only in 1989, and that most of the growth has been in the last 2 years. I like the term hyperchaos (p.556) for what bad hyperlink design can deliver to users.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding him, but it seems to me that two of Shneiderman's "Golden Rules of Hypertext" (p.556) are obviously wrong:

In fact, the website for this class is a counterexample to those claims, is it not?

The list of poor design practices on p.556 is good:

too many links, long chains of links, too many long or dull pages, and inadequate tables of contents (or other overviews).
The list of features for web authoring is also good (but dull and heterogeneous). The design "tips" on pp.558-9 are very useful. It is very important not to forget (p.557) that
You are not a good judge of your own design.
Shneiderman's remark (p. 164) that much web authoring advice is incomplete, site specific, misleading, or outdated, but still useful, is illustrated by the Karp piece we read earlier. It would certainly be useful to have a lot more work on the genres of websites, but I suppose the categorizations given in Section 16.4 are better than nothing. We should never forget the importance of
Identifying the user's tasks. (p.566)
The fact that the web can gracefully support such a wide variety of tasks is good news, but also bad news because it makes design more difficult. It is really amazing that you can find very specific facts (such as popular song lyrics), browse large areas for an overview (e.g. genetics), order any book in print, get bombarded with advertisements, meet new friends, wander at random into areas you never even knew existed, catch up on TV soap opera plots, get the latest headlines, find your homework assignments, make airline and hotel reservations, and more, all in the same medium (as usual, Shneiderman doesn't quite say all this).

Perhaps Shneiderman's "OAI model" is of some value, but it seems very limited to me and I tend to get irritated when he pushes it again (p.567). The list of information aggregation methods (p.568) is good, as is the list of metaphors for interface objects (p.570). I really do like the bullets in Section 16.6.5 on webpage design. The remark (p.575) that breadth is usually better than depth a tree organization of information can be very helpful. The "traditional graphic design rules" listed on p.578 are also really good. Section 16.6.6 again emphasizes the need to know your users. I'm going to have to look into logging software for my own project!

The Practitioner's Summary (p.580) is well worth reading more than twice.


Notes on Chapter 5 of Latour

This chapter introduces important new ideas that I imagine some of your will find shocking, or at least difficult to digest; there are far fewer good jokes in this chapter. Here Latour makes his attacks on the traditional sociology of science and technology much more pointed and specific. In particular, he denies that sociology can ever attain a viewpoint that is "objective" - above and beyond the viewpoints of the participants - or a "metalanguage" in which to express such a viewpoint.

Does there really exist a causal mechanism known only to the sociologist that would give the history of a technological project the necessity that seems so cruelly lacking? No, the actors offer each other a version of their own necessities, and from this they deduce the strategies they ascribe to each other. (p.163)

The actors create both their society and their sociology, their language and their metalanguage. (p.167)

There are as many theories of action as there are actors. (p.167)

To the multiplicty of actors a new multiplicity is now added: that of the efforts made to unify, to simplify, to make coherent the multiplicity of viewpoints, goals, and desires, so as to impose a single theory of action. (p.167-8)

To study technological projects you have to move from a classical sociology - which has fixed frames of reference - to a relativistic sociology - which has fluctuating referents. (p.169)

In this regard, the paragraph at the bottom of p.170 is worth reading a couple of times, and also you should think carefully about how the interview and document fragments support Latour's view of sociology.
With a technological project, interpretations of the project cannot be separated from the project itself, unless the project has become an object. (p.172)
This is the only case when "classical" sociology might apply.
By multiplying the valorimeters that allow them to measure the tests in store and to prove certain states of power relations, the actors manage to achieve some notion of what they want. By doing their own economics, their own sociology, their own statistics, they do the observer's work ... They make incommensurable frames of reference once again commensurable and translatable. (p.181)
The term "valorimeter" just refers to some way of measuring how well an actor's requirements are being met; examples are passenger flow, cost, publicity, etc.

The interpretations offered by the relativist actors are performatives. They prove themselves by transforming the world in conformity with their perspective on the world. By stabilizing their interpretation, the actors end up creating a world-for-others that strongly resembles an absolute world with fixed reference points. (p.194) "Performatives" are just speech acts; this term is used because making the speech act "performs" what it says. The example of the tunnels of the Paris Metro being deliberately made incompatible with the cars used by the railroads is interesting in this context. It seems that politics can be cast in stone!

It is very worth reading again the summary discussion of "classical" vs. "relativistic" sociology on pages 199-200. I also like the definition of "self" that Aramis gives (p.201):

What is a self? The intersection of all the sets of acts carried out in its name. But is that intersection full or empty? I exist if they agree, I die if they quarrel.

Notes on Class Discussion
Those of you who missed class this day are going to have a very hard time understanding my paper Semiotic Morphisms (unless maybe someone wants to write up their notes on what I said and put it on the web).

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18 February 1998