CSE 171: User Interface Design: Social and Technical Issues
3. Social Processes in Interface Design

Ackerman's paper Communication and Collaboration from a CSCW Perspective is a short summary of points that are important for us, from the large literature on CSCW - which stands for Computer Supported Cooperative Work, a subfield of HCI that is particularly concerned with the social aspects of interface design. This paper is very condensed, and uses some terminology that may not be familiar. For example, 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; e.g., 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. In fact, almost anything that humans do exemplifies nuance. (The phrase "recipient design" is used for a similar concept in the field of ethnomethodology, as discussed in more detail below.)

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 them by not using them and/or by entering misleading information. "The Coordinator," an ambitious system intended 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 many of them hated, because it was impossible to frame many communications in an appropriately nuanced way. (This system is discussed briefly on page 484 of Shneiderman.) There are many many more examples like these.

Chapter 3 of Shneiderman is an overview of techniques for managing the design process; the several checklists and sample guidelines are a strong and useful feature of this chapter. 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, as well as for 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). The Three E's are an important management strategy for using guidelines (p.98-99). The paragraph on p.99 giving economic justifications for usability is very 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 4 bullets that follow this quote make some aspects 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 - although 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, which appears to be very much threatened in the present social and political environment; one might mention the repeated failure of legislation to protect privacy on the internet, and the notorious uses of cookies. 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.

Section 3.10 provides a good summary of this chapter, but section 3.11 appears to be enormously optimistic, since it seems unrealistic to believe that experimental psychology can contribute very much to the study of problems that are social in an essential way, such as the management of the design process, or the actual use of computer based systems.

Notes for 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. Many changes are related to (what has been called) convergence, which is the merging of computers with communications, plus of course "Moore's Law" (which is not a law at all). In user interface design, this can be seen in 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:


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

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. It is a good exercise to find examples of recipient design in natural language used in everyday life; almost anything can be seen in this light. 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 interesting example of receipient design, and it is precisely what "The Coordinator" did not allow.

Notes on Basic Semiotics

Semiotics is the study of signs. Signs mediate meaning, and are not just simple "tokens" or physical marks; they can be complex combinations of other lower level signs, such as whole sentences, spoken or written, newspaper advertisements, whole books, etc. The American logician 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 (called the representamen by Peirce), a signified (an object of some kind - e.g. a concept), 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, where we have a function from programs (which are signs) to their denotations (which are meanings), in general defined using higher functions on some rather abstract mathematical domains.

The second main source of semiotics is the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In both traditions, signs can be anything that mediates 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, because it includes the relation between signifier and signified as an explict component; this can include the interpreter, the context of interpretation, and even the process of interpretation. One of the most important insights of Peirce, which does not often seem to be emphasized in the literature that discusses his work, is that meaning is relational, not just denotational, and in particular is generally highly dependent on context. In our application area of user interface design, the interpreter is of course the user (or designer). More detailed discussion appears in On Notation.

An important notion from semiotics is Peirce's three way classification of signs into symbols, icons, and indices. These concepts have many applications to user interface design; again see On Notation for details. You should carefully note that each of these three terms has a technical meaning that is not the same as its ordinary everyday meaning!

Saussure's most important idea is probably that signs come in systems, not just one by one. Another important insight of Saussure that, in my opinion, has not been sufficiently emphasized, is that sign systems are organized by systematic differences among signs; we can relate this to a famous saying of Gregory Bateson, that "information is a difference that makes a difference." Saussure's idea that signs come in systems is illustrated by examples like the vowel systems of various accents of the same language, and the tense systems for verbs in various languages. The vowel system example shows that the same sign system can be realized in different ways; we call these different models. The vowel system example also shows that two different models of the same sign system can have the same elements but use them in a different way; so it's how elements are used that makes the models different, not the elements themselves. Models of sign systems are not just sets, they are sets with some kind of structure; we will learn more about this later. Alphabets also provide good examples where the sets overlap; for example, the Greek, Roman and Cyrillic alphabets each have some tokens in common; this motivates the need for "signs" as tokens that come in systems and have an interpretation; they cannot be just tokens as such. We can also motivate the need for systems of signs by noting that a sign system with just one element cannot convey any information (more technically, this is because its Shannon information content is zero).

Algebraic semiotics attempts to combine the major insights of Peirce and Saussure (among others) into a precise formalism that can be applied to the practical engineering of sign systems, e.g., in user interface design. This involves a fundamental change in perspective, from the analytic perspective of traditional semiotics, to a synthetic perspective, which is concerned with construction rather than just analysis. One important insight that this formalism incorporates is that signs need not be the simple little things that we usually call "signs," but instead can be very complex, such as a book, or a series of books, or even a whole library; or a movie or series of movies, or the GUI to an operating system. It is the job of user interface designers to build (parts of) such systems. Another insight that algebraic semiotics pursues is the importance of studying errors, that is, badly designed sign systems, in order to better understand what it means for a sign system to be well designed. This is interest is illustrated in the exhibits of the UC San Diego Semiotic Zoo.

Later we will see that it is useful to view sign systems as abstract data types, because the same information can be represented in a variety of different ways; for example, dates, times, and sports scores, each have multiple representations. This leads naturally to the idea that representations are mappings between abstract data types, as illustrated in an informal way by the examples in the UCSD Semiotic Zoo, which show how the failure of a representation to properly preserve some structure results in its being a suboptimal representation.

Traditional semiotics seems to have a Platonistic bias, in assuming that signs (which, please recall, we take to include both token and meaning) have an existence which is independent of human beings. But here we take a quite different approach, in basing signs on human social activity. We claim that signs do not have meanings in themselves, but only have whatever meaning we give to them. Moreover, insofar as these meanings are shared, they are necessarily social, and Plato's ideal entities play no role in this.

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