This is a paper written for the Every-Citizen Interface Workshop of the National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board held in August 1996. I was not able to make it to the workshop in person but sent this position paper in my place.
Interfaces for Understanding
Over the next 15 years, the issues facing interface designers, engineers, programmers, and researchers will become increasingly complex and push further into currently abstract and, perhaps, esoteric realms. However, we are not without guidance and direction to follow. Our experiences as humans and what little history we have with machines can lead us toward our goals.
Computers and related devices in the future will need to exhibit many of the following qualities:
- Be more aware of themselves (who and what they are, who they "belong" to, their relations to other systems, their autonomy, and their capabilities)
- Be more aware of their surroundings and audiences (who is there, how many people are present or around, whom to "listen" to, where and how to find and contact people for help or to follow directions, whom is a "regular," how to adapt to different people's preferences, needs, goals, skills, and interests, etc.)
- Offer more help and guidance when needed
- Be more autonomous when needed
- Be more able to help build knowledge as opposed to merely process data
- Be more capable of displaying information in richer forms--both visually and auditorially
- Be more integrated into a participant's work flow or entertainment process
- Be more integrated with other media--especially traditional media like broadcast and print
Funding for research and development, therefore, should concentrate on these issues and their related hardware, software, and understandings. These include research into the following:
- Display and Visualization Systems (high-resolution, portable, and low power displays; HDTV and standards in related display industries; integration with input and output devices such as scanners, pointing devices, and printers; fast processing systems for n-dimensional data-models; standards for these models, display hardware, and software; software capable of easily configuring and experimenting with visualizations and simulations; etc.)
- Perceptual Systems (proximity, sounds, motion, and electronic "eyes" for identification and awareness; standards for formatting instructions and specifications to help systems "understand" what they are, what is around them, what and whom they can communicate with, and what they are capable of; facilities for obtaining help when necessary; ways of identifying participants by their behavior, gestures, or other attributes; etc.)
- Communications Systems (standards, hardware, and software to help participants communicate better with each other--as well as with computers; natural-language interfaces--spoken and written--and translation systems to widen the opportunities of involvement to more people; hardware and software solutions for increasing bandwidth and improving the reliability, security, privacy, and scalability of existing communications infrastructure; etc.)
- Understanding of Understanding (information and knowledge-building applications; understandings about how people create context and meaning, transform data into information, create knowledge for themselves, and build wisdom; software to help facilitate these processes; standards to help transmit and share information and knowledge with connections intact; etc.)
- Understanding of Interaction (a wider definition of interaction used within the "industry," how participants define and perceive "interactivity;" what they expect and need in interactivity; historical examples of interaction; lessons from theater, storytelling, conversation, improvisation, the performing arts, and the entertainment industry; etc.)
- Increased Education (of both participant and audiences, as well as professionals, and the "industry")
- Better Resources for Understanding Cultural Diversity (in terms of gestures, languages, perceptions, and needs of different age, gender, cultural, and nationality groups)
In addition, there are some procedural approaches to these undertakings that can help the overall outcomes to be more valuable:
- Reduced duplication of research and development by government-sponsored grants and institutions (requiring the disclosure, sharing, and reporting of research efforts, problems, and solutions)
- More means of coordination and knowledge-sharing of research and development scholars and professionals (whether government-sponsored or not)
- More adventurous spending in "esoteric" research (such as he nature of understanding and the meaning of "interactivity")
- Grant proposal templates and procedures that are easier to complete (simplified and clarified requirements, less paperwork, less process-specific "inside" information that requires professional grant-writers so that more adventurous people can apply more easily)
Where did the "User" go?
Although the word "User" is, admittedly, easy to say and use and has some history, it is important that our understand of those using computers is broadened to emphasize growing participatory aspect of computer use. While historically, people input, managed the processing, and output data and information, the building of knowledge requires more participation and interaction of the type most closely experienced with other people. People are becoming active audiences and participants instead of merely users. They are increasingly communicating with others and creating meaningful things rather than merely "viewing" and watching.
The next 100 million computer "users" (who may begin using computers over the next 3 years) have different needs and understandings than current people. These needs are different not because of their capabilities (as all of these people are capable of learning to use existing systems) but mostly differ in their perceptions, interests, and understandings of computers. One important reason why these people are not currently buying or making use of current computers is that, in their minds, computers don't do much that they are interesting in doing. Existing computers are not capable nor equipped with helping these people enjoy, expand, or make meaning of their lives. This is the reason why home computer sales has been traditionally dismal and is still currently confined to home-office purchases and for kid's educations. Fifteen years ago, the best use computer marketers could come up with for people to buy their own computers was to balance their checkbook and store recipes. Today, while computers have evolved significantly, many people's perceptions have not and they understand precious few reasons why computers might enhance the lives of this next "user group." Part of this is an education issue (and, perhaps, a marketing one), but mostly it is a failure of computer systems (hardware and software) to respond to the needs and interests of the general public.
The interface starts much before a computer is turned on. Consider an analogy to shopping. The shopping experience does not start at the moment a transaction is made (perhaps an item is bought or ordered). It doesn't even start when someone walks into a store or browses a catalog. The shopping experiences starts when people perceive the need for something, at least, and often before, when they encounter others' shopping, products and services that they don't currently need, and even celebrity athletes sporting brands on their outfits. Likewise, the interface to a "computer" begins at the fulfillment of life needs and interests and the education of the participants of the capabilities and possibilities of computers and interfaces. Automobiles are often held-up as examples of easy-to-learn, universal interfaces, but in reality, they are neither. They take months-s-ometimes years--to master, are not standardized, and are sometimes never learned sufficiently well. Yet our understandings of driving a car and it's fulfillment of our needs makes us persevere.
What is a computer?
What I mean when I use the computer is a specific device for processing, storing, and transmitting "information," aiding the building of knowledge, and/or facilitating communications more sophisticated than a current telephone. To be sure, many objects around us will evolve to be more sophisticated and many already include computers whether this is evident to their users or not. To what extent computers will disappear as distinct devices is not a questions that can yet be answered. However, it doesn't really matter, either. The needs and interests of people has changed very little over the last 100 years and will likely only change slightly over the next 15-20. Most people will still need to work, create, love, interact, communicate, and be entertain (as well as to entertain each other). Interfaces should concentrate on the activities and not the technologies--nor should they be immediately concerned with the nature of the device itself (is it distinct or embedded?). These interfaces may show up in "computers," televisions, telephones, door knobs, or devices we haven't yet invented. What will remain fairly constant, however, are the needs themselves.
What is interactivity?
When I use the word "interactive," I do not mean what has become the standard industry definition of dynamic media or the ability to make choices when using computer programs. Most "interactive media" is nothing more than multimedia presentations (usually with video and animation) with the ability to click to the next screen of material in a non-linear way. In this sense, interactivity has become bed television where the audience must click for more in order to keep the stream coming. To me, interactivity is much richer and includes the abilities to create, share, and communicate rather than merely watch. Interactive experiences should change over time and between different people. Sadly, few products or experiences do this now, which is the main reason why the CD-ROM industry fell apart over the last few years (the products offered little to do that was interesting).
However, this is merely the starting point. As an industry (academics and professionals alike), we understand this word "interactivity" very little and need to explore greatly what it means to people, what it can be, and how to create it. This is one of the points that grants and funding can apply. Unfortunately, the commercial end of the interactive media industry offers little chance of exploring and experimenting with the whole notion of interactivity as the demands of an over-hyped market, sky-rocketing costs, too much publicity, and too many expectations prevent most companies from asking these questions. Likewise, on the academic end of the spectrum, demands to produce work-ready students, lack of interdisciplinary programs, and the history of computer science studies (emphasis on software, programming, engineering, and computer languages) prevent students and professors from asking these questions as they seem esoteric and "light" in the phase of other research.
About the only people who are explicitly trained in the skills of interaction are those in the performing arts: dancers, actors, singers, comedians, improvisational actors, and musicians. However, these fields are hardly seen as complementary or valid courses of study within computer science, multimedia, and even design programs. Yet, the experience and knowledge that performers can bring to these disciplines are exactly the answers to the questions that should be asked. Grants for programs that try to explore these issues with the help of many different disciplines would help speed the development of answers badly needed in this industry.
Computers that are aware
Interfaces need to become more aware of themselves and those around them. This is true in both a physical sense (where am I, where are you, and who else is here?) and a cognitive sense (who am I, what can I do, how can I communicate with others, etc.?). While computers won't have truly "cognitive" capabilities for a long time--if ever--they already have a few elements of these capabilities and information and need even more. What features these capabilities will eventually create are mostly unpredictable right now, but we can count on the facilities to respond to people in a more adaptable and individual manner to make a major improvement in interfaces. Developing processes, standards, and technologies to build these capabilities upon will prove mandatory.
Other technologies that will be needed to develop these more intuitive and adaptive interfaces include perceptual technologies to support computer perception in sound, vision, touch, gesture, environment, temperature, air-borne particles, etc.
Interfaces to knowledge
Most interfaces and applications today have sped the transmission, storage, and processing of data but have hardly changed the accumulation, creation, or quantity of either information or knowledge. Certainly, we cannot say that computers have made us more "wise," but the interactions computers offer do give us more chances to communicate out thoughts and build wisdom if we only knew more how to. Our understanding of knowledge and wisdom and its processes are inadequate but also critical to our continued development as a culture and as a species. Research into the components of these processes, of our minds, and of our thoughts are needed to advance not only our tools--of which the computer is one of our best--but ourselves. This research is needed not only in terms of software and hardware (perhaps finding form in file formats, applications, operating systems, products, etc.), but in the underlying processes and understandings of how we think--upon which all of the aforementioned are based. This must be coordinated with the fields of education, psychology, and communications, as well as computer science. It may even be helpful--and necessary--to include those in philosophy.
These are the most esoteric and unpredictable of questions to seek--indeed, they have kept us busy for our entire histories--but this shouldn't deter us from seeking out their answers. Even if we will never truly answer these questions completely, each part of the answer gives us new insights in building more valuable interfaces that meet more of our needs.
Another aspect of interfaces that facilitate knowledge are the technologies involved with representing and displaying data and information. Present tools commonly available "on the market" such as: spreadsheets, word processors, databases, graphic programs, etc. are hardly adequate for representing or visualizing complex relationships and informing communications. The hardware required for better performing visualization systems includes displays that are high-resolution, portable, and low power so that they are more easily used where needed. Standards for evolved displays will need to be established, adopted, and prevalent so that engineers, programmers, and audiences can come to count on their capabilities and availability. Integration with input and output devices, such as: scanners, pointing devices, and printers will need to be advanced as well. Devices that enable more direct interaction between display and control are more learnable and more evident to use--in essence, an evolution of what is commonly understood as "direct manipulation" today. Systems for processing and working with these devices will need to rely on more powerful, faster CPUs and hardware as well.
Software for representing and manipulating more complex data visualizations will need to build on new understandings of how people think and work with data. These applications will need to explore new paradigms in representation and manipulation in order to offer the kinds of flexibility and understandability required by more complex processing and less "professional" audiences.
Interfaces across media
Where possible, new interfaces should translate well across media and devices, whether portable, stationary, shared, public, private, networked, or personal and should strive to encompass and integrate traditional media, such as broadcast and print media where possible--not merely electronic and online media. This is not to say that interfaces shouldn't take advantage of their unique capabilities--indeed, they need to do so more than currently--but they also need to relate to each other where possible and it should be recognized that printed interfaces such as newspapers, classifieds, catalogs, documentation, directories, etc. are in just as dire need of evolution as technological ones. I am certainly not calling for computer screens to look like little notebooks of paper with spiral binds, nor print paper to look like current computer interfaces with pull-down menus, etc. However, our interfaces to printed information and knowledge have evolved little (outside of stylistic appearances) in the last 100 years and since this is still represents a huge proportion of information dissemination and interaction (and will likely continue to be), some funding for the evolution of these critical interfaces should also be allocated.
Interfaces across cultures
As interfaces become more complex and deal with more abstract issues, how they address people from different backgrounds and cultures will become more critical. We have been able to achieve a certain amount of standardization and utilization so far with present interfaces, but this is due mainly to the nature of tasks currently completed with computer. As computers become more involved with knowledge-building, communications, community, and as interfaces facilitate these more social purposes, they will need to address how differences between people change their understanding of how to use these devices and of the processes themselves. These differences may be based on age, gender, culture, language, or nationality. Interfaces in the future will not have the luxury of requiring the same amount of capitulation on the part of the audience since the next level of computer users (the next 100 Million users) will not be as willing to change their approach to problems and their interaction with devices as the enthusiasts and professionals who comprise the present base of computer users. Issues of language, gesture, understanding, privacy, approach, civility, and "life" are not consistent throughout the world--and wonderfully so--and must be discovered and documented. Also, systems, standards, and interfaces must be developed that are sensitive to these differences. Lastly, the knowledge of these difference must be made available to researchers and developers.
Automatic language translation is one of the most critical--and most difficult--problems to solve. It is such a complex problem that it is probably not solvable by conventional programming means. Efforts to "grow" or "evolve" complex software for pattern recognition and processing are probably the best hope for tackling problems of this complexity and it will probably require several efforts in coordination.
Lastly, greater education is needed in order to inform researchers, professionals, participants, and the "industry" of these issues, their importance, the state of their progress, and their details. We cannot merely rely on the "media" to inform people about computers nor their capabilities as the messages usually get dissolved to the lowest common denominator--but one of cynical expectations and far lower than actually capabilities to understand. Movies, news, books, and other instruments of culture often create unrealistic understandings, expectations, and often fears of computers and their uses. We must address these and reverse these ourselves--as no one else will--if we expect future interfaces for everybody to be more effective.
17 August 1996
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