To begin this interface critique, I would like to start by considering just what we are trying to talk about when we discuss the “interface”. Earlier in the semester, we were assigned a reading that I think can point us toward a good starting point for thinking about a given interface. Shannon Mattern’s short essay/blog post, “Interface Critique, Revisited: Thinking About Archival Interfaces” begins, after a short introduction, with a section called “Identifying Interfaces”, which refers to Stephen Johnson’s idea that the interface is more semantic than concretely technological.
Thinking about interfaces in this manner is useful in that it places the burden on the interface to meet its users in a place that belongs more to the user and his or her expectations, rather than having the user learn new languages and logic structures in order to engage with a given interface. This semantic layer is not essential to the creation of an archival body, but I would argue that it is necessary for that archival body’s use by people: the items and information in the archive exist separately from any interface (as proven by interface upgrades and redesigns) but it is the interface that allows for the archive to be accessed and used in a meaningful way. Put simply, the interface is the outward face of the archive- the part that we not only can touch and manipulate, but which allows us to construct meaning from the archive’s often-disparate elements. These are the goals of our own projects in this class: interaction (touching, manipulating) and construction of meaning (or perhaps, on a more simple level, just placing the objects into some wider context).
In my research, I became interested in how such interfaces were being developed (if at all) for tablet/phone/touchscreen devices, as opposed to the more “traditional” mouse-and-keyboard style of human-to-computer interaction. Both modes of interaction have their advantages and drawbacks as well as different capabilities. While these differences could be enumerated, what I think is important to note for this essay- and which, in a way, precludes discussion of those differences – is the fact that most online archival interfaces were designed explicitly for the mouse-and-keyboard type of interaction and not for the touchscreen-type. There may be technological reasons for this, associated with hardware or software concerns that are beyond my technological knowledge, but I would surmise, for now, that this discrepancy is more due to resource allocation: most institutions are still in the process getting their digital collections (and accompanying interfaces) on solid footing (see the New School archives) and simply have prioritized the mouse-and-keyboard approach, which is logical. The result is that many archives are very frustrating to interact with on a touchscreen device, and some fail to even be fully functional. This nicely illustrates Johnson’s idea of interface-as-semantics: the underlying technology – the structure of the archive – might be the same, but the interface is more or less useful depending on what kind of device you are using.
I decided that perhaps a suitable type of interface to look at would be one based on/intended to be used in conjunction with an art exhibit (I say suitable because the goal of this class is not to design an over-arching interface-experience for an entire archival collection, but to fashion an exhibition of sorts).
In looking at several examples, I found that this exhibition-based model usually followed one of two paths: the directed (what one could call a narrative-based presentation) and the dissembled (which could maybe be referred to as a free-associative presentation). The main app that I considered was developed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for part of its expansive exhibition about Stanley Kubrick, his films, his set designs, scripts, and process of directing and crafting films. This app, for the most part, chooses the dissembled approach to presenting its content, which allows the user to determine their own “narrative”, so to speak (within certain confines that, of course, could be construed to imply some sense of narrative or at least narrative-selection on the part of the curators/designers).
Parts of the interface design are somewhat at odds with communicating a sense of both the breadth of material available as well as giving the user (semantic) clues as to how best to navigate the interface. The user is presented with an initial screen dominated by a still from one of Kubrick’s films and laid out beneath it in rows, the titles of each of the films featured on the app (in chronological order, though that is not necessarily made apparent; also not apparent is the fact that a handful of films – his earliest – are not included in this list). When one touches the title of a given film, the app reacts in a way that is both predictable but also somewhat confusing: the image on the screen slides away and we are seemingly now in another level of the app interface (and thus a “deeper” level of the exhibit). That we have moved “deeper” is an appropriate feeling, though it is unclear at first where exactly we have gone. After a moment, we realize that the interface has now taken on the functions and characteristics of a slideshow of images and documents associated with the film which we selected initially. While the images of movie posters, on-set photographs, script notes, storyboards and other ephemera are quite interesting to peruse (assuming, of course, an interest in, and knowledge of, Kubrick’s films) there is an overwhelming sense of randomness that accompanies these slideshows. All images are grouped under their related film, but there is little sense of any kind of narrative order, despite the fact that one can only view the slides in the linear order in which they have been laid out (in a seemingly arbitrary fashion). Each slide does have a corresponding caption that relates the image’s provenance and copyright information, but there is little in the way of broader context made available.
At a certain point, a user may become aware of a second means of navigation that the app presents: along the bottom of the screen are a series of icons named “Home”; “Interviews”; “Timeline”; “Browse” and “About”. This alternate set of access points into the collected materials of the exhibition makes some of the frustrations with the slideshow approach somewhat more understandable and palatable, especially the “Browse” button. The “Browse” feature makes it evident that the “dissembled” approach has been adopted in order to allow one to view materials within a variety of contexts (or it at least allows you a couple of different approaches to finding or discovering particular items in the exhibit). Instead of breaking the materials into categories based on the particular film with which they are associated, the “Browse” portion of the interface breaks the materials down into groups based on type: “Correspondence”; “Pre-Production”; “Press”; “Scripts” and so on. While it is somewhat helpful to be able to see this material grouped in a different way than its arrangement via the “Home” portion, the experience of perusing the material is just as frustrating and devoid of context as before.
The other two buttons along the bottom of the screen – “Interviews” and “Timeline” – are more promising and yet also serve to frustrate in their own ways. The “Interviews” portion, like much of the rest of the app, houses a good amount of fascinating material, but again, it seems both slightly dissembled and too far removed from broader context. It is only when one accesses the “Timeline” portion that some of these frustrations subside. The timeline is an elegant interface that gives a simple overview of the major events in Kubrick’s career and personal life, which is helpful in contextualizing, to some degree, the other materials presented in the exhibit. Unfortunately, even this timeline is sealed off from much of the rest of the content; while touching the name of a film allows one to access an image of that film’s poster, it does not allow access to the rest of the material related to that film. This inability to traverse the different portions of the app can be frustrating and makes it all the more difficult for a user to grasp the breadth of the exhibit’s materials.
To some degree, I think that these limitations evident in this interface are due, as I mentioned above, to resource allocation as well as to, potentially, the overall newness of this mode (touchscreen) of interacting with digital materials. This app is mainly crude and simple, yielding only a certain kind of experience (browsing or perusing, mainly); it has little functionality as a tool for research, and the design even seems to work to obscure the breadth of its own content to a certain degree. This is somewhat ironic because the visual interface seems laid out in such a way as to at first seem comprehensive and dynamic in allowing users to access its materials. However, this clean, “seamless” design only obscures the app’s shortcomings, as its seemingly simple, open, minimal design actually serves to close off portions of the exhibit from each other; instead of being a dynamic interface as it might first appear to be, it is in fact very restricted and allows access in only very specific, curated ways – the lack of an ability to “traverse” the different parts or constructed hierarchies of the app is the best illustration of this.
With all of this in mind, I return to the notion of the interface as being something of a semantic, rather than strictly technological, nature. The app adheres to the expected semantic interpretations in its basic functions – the GUI behaves in ways the user expects: buttons open new layers; the timeline slides in response to one’s finger, etc. – but it fails to adopt the semantics of either the museum exhibit or the archive (if “archive” is the incorrect word to describe the items in the exhibit, then we can at least say that the items and their associated information form a database). We have come to expect an exhibit to be directed in some specific way (often through some form of narrative) and for an archive (or database) to be malleable, searchable, fliterable, etc.
There are some important lessons that can be learned from examining this app, especially in light of this class’ ambition to create digital exhibits based on a wider archival collection (I haven’t delved into the app’s lack of addressing any wider collection of materials from which these particular images were drawn, but this should be a central concern when curating items from a larger body). The main lesson is this one of semantics: this app confuses the user not just by having a conflicted nature (part-narrative, part-dissembled collection; little context provided; no sense of a dynamic database driving the exhibit’s presentation) but by not giving proper semantic clues to the user. While openness (in terms of not having a specific order in which one must view the materials) can be a great asset to communicating and to learning about a subject, it can also be a hinderance if it is not fully developed in expected ways.