viewing interfaces from perspectives

A few nights ago I was making fun of a friend because he had been on Twitter for nearly a year but had only tweeted once. He owns an iPhone and has an app on it for Twitter, but told me he simply did not know how to tweet, or how to mention someone in a tweet. I thought this seemed kind of silly: the reply button seems clearly marked to me, as does the button for composing tweets.

Yesterday I read this piece at The Next Web, which points out rightly, “If you know how to get to the special characters like ü, é and © on your iPhone and or PC, if you know what a URL is and if you know how to use most of the Apps on your iPhone you and part of a small group of experts. Don’t assume you are the default because you are the exception. Make your apps, websites and tools as simple as possible and always test with other people.” Boris shares a number of examples of people who don’t understand or know about certain interface features, such as what a URL is or how to respond to a text message on an iPhone. For instance:

a few years ago I managed an online birthday calendar. The interface was really simple. It showed the calendar in month view with a big red button on top of it that said “Add a Birthday“. It was so big I figured people wouldn’t be able to miss it. Unfortunately they did. I got about 100 helpdesk messages a day and about 60 of those started with “I don’t know how to add a birthday“. At first I got really annoyed at those ignorant people who thought it was more convenient to just email someone than to think and look around for more than 2 seconds. But then I did some tests and found out that everybody assumed that they just had to click the calendar to add a birthday. If that didn’t work they assumed it was broken. My fault, not theirs.

In Lingua Fracta, Collin Brooke encourages us to take perspective into account when approaching rhetoric and new media. Scholars in rhetoric and technology have become rather accustomed to not solely looking through technologies, but instead also looking at them. Brooke asks that we also look from perspectives (if I am remembering his argument right; I don’t have his book in front of me). Our field has already made pushes against the “universal reader” model of interpretation (see, for instance, Rosa Eberly’s wonderful discussion in Citizen Critics), but I get the feeling that rhetoric and technology still sometimes proposes a “universal user” (particularly assumptions about the “universal net gen user”). I know I sometimes still do. There has, of course, been wonderful work that doesn’t do this. Anne Wysocki’s work on aesthetics, technology, and ethics is a great example that pushes against the universal user model used by some new media scholars (see for instance, her chapter in Selber’s Rhetorics and Technologies).

Also, did I use enough parentheticals there? *shakes head*

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1 Response to viewing interfaces from perspectives

  1. Andrew says:

    I think these points you’re drawing are also really related to the discussions of “digital natives” in composition circles. A lot of these arguments seem to assume that b/c someone has grown up in an era of ubiquitous computers, someone will know how to use the things. This isn’t the case at all, and yet people seem to think we have to reform the curriculum in order to accommodate this perceived knowledge of computing.

    I realize that this is an over-simplification of the arguments about “digital natives”, but I still think it’s important to couple the discussion of this generation to the realization that as much as 90% of college-age students still knows next to nothing about computers.

    The problem, in my opinion, that people don’t account for enough in looking at technology from the perspective of the user is that, following Marshall McLuhan and Neal Stephenson, new media technologies actually rewire our brains. People who “get” technology actually have different neural pathways than people who don’t. It seems that a lot of these problems you’re discussing result from the fact that people view digital technologies as “evolutionarily neutral” and I don’t think we can. It’s weird that we’re willing to consider the idea that books rewrote our brains but not that computers rewire them.

    Also, you cannot use enough parentheticals in a piece of writing (of course, I blame my opinion on this issue on an early exposure to LISP).

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