Web interfaces as enablers or barriers in understanding the past

Before delving into my post, play around with this website:
Frustrating? Yes, it is indeed. This website was made to frustrate. However, it shows exactly how important it is to design with users and common frameworks of symbols and actions in mind.

Ducker (2011, p.1) introduces HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) as a field focusing on developing relationships between users and machines. Its aim is to create a user-friendly environment, allowing for easy and engaging ways of interaction. Such a user-centered design process forces the creators to prototype and iterate, according to user feedback. In software engineering terms, and interface could be simply explained as a translation from computer language into information readable to humans (Ducker, 2011). In the spirit of HCI, however, interfaces are created to elevate the efficiency of performed tasks (Ducker, 2011, p.12). As a growing number of cultural institutions decide to make use of technology and digitise their collections, front-end designers need to be aware of how their decision can influence perception of the past, as well as the present.

Interface is...

Through the interface, users can interact with software by decoding symbols used by the creators (Ducker, 2011). It is a space with the use of which users are able to build their experience. In his book on interface design, Manelli (in Ducker, 2011, p.11) explicitly elaborates on how to “form an intention”, “specify an action” and “evaluate the outcome”, showing decisions taken by creators are far from neutral. This means, interfaces on their own carry significance and meanings, shaping the content as well. As Garrett (in Ducker, 2011, p.10) argues, interfaces have a double purpose. On one hand, they simply allow users to perform desired tasks. On the other hand, they provide additional information and meaning. The way interfaces are coded by humans, mediates experiences of users, invoking certain meanings and interpretations (Ducker, 2011, p.10). Therefore, interfaces do not simply present information, but rather provide an additional layer of context. Thus, an interface should not be treated as a mere “translation”, but rather a set of meaning-making codes. As these codes are based on assumed background knowledge or experience of the users, people use shared cognitive frames to comprehend the messages (Ducker, 2011). Thus, websites and their creators have a crucial job – to create interfaces, which enhance the experience and the understanding. 
The job of the designers is especially important in communicating the past, as in digital collections websites. All the implemented ideas of the creators, along with their personal biases, affect the end product, forming a certain narrative. For cultural memory, building blocks of HCI, such as graphics or interactivity, can influence the context around cultural heritage objects, even altering the discourse. Furthermore, interfaces are suggestive – they direct the user’s journey by indicating and bringing attention to certain features of the software. By using different techniques to manipulate and direct actions of users (Ducker, 2011, p.11), interface specialists bear the power not only to navigate users or to have them reach desired outcomes, but also to provide extra information, often perceived subconsciously by users and influencing their views of the actual content. As such, a lot of responsibility lies in the hands of creators to make thes human-readable representations as accurate as possible, to show the least biased view of the past, present and the future. While a well-designed front-end can help in learning about the past, human factors make it impossible to create a fully unbiased interface. Hence, users should remain alert and distinguish between reading and producing the content through reading it by using all the contextual information and symbols provided (Ducker, 2011 p.13). This can be done by critically assessing the content and the medium. 

how choices matter

As explained, the choices made by front-end designers affect how users interact with all the elements and influence their perception of the content (Ducker, 2011). What is crucial, is the integration of all the elements, as it is through the organisation of the interface that users gain additional knowledge about the content and the context (Drucker, 2011). According to Marcus’ (in Ducker, 2011, p.11) research, information can be organised in various ways, depending on the creator, their cultural and individual background. While this highlights bias and individuality of designers, similarly, this indicates every user’s journey can differ based on their personal experiences. Especially in multimodal, online environments, possibilities are numerous, allowing users some degree of freedom, for instance to pick the order of performed actions. This freedom, however, is only within the boundaries set by the designer. Thus, even though there are no explicit rules of how a user should browse a website, designers have the power to limit and create possibilities according to their wants and needs.
Whitelaw (2015) discusses how interfaces influence random browsing of digital collections. He notices that in cultural heritage, many interfaces are basic, for instance only showing an alphabetical list of items. As he highlights, the search function is often limited to key words, deeming some objects from the collection unattainable. The design of the interface and its affordances can therefore not only alter the meaning and the context, as discussed above, but also ultimately make certain items less visible. Dörk (in Whitelaw, 2015, para.17) highlights that interfaces are in fact cultural artefacts and insists they are information spaces. As such, they can enhance or ruin the experience. Furthermore, technologies, as Balsamo (2018, p.144) explains, do not only replicate past codes, processes and forms, but also help establish new ones. As such, they can be used as powerful tools to extend cultural memory (Balsamo, 2018, p.145). From a user’s perspective, interfaces can aid in disseminating and preserving cultural heritage, however, they can also become canvases for users to co-create (Balsamo, 2018, p.145). For example, certain websites use interactivity to engage the viewer in participation. But it is already the user’s journey, which can co-shape the cultural memory. The ways in which the interface is navigated, which information stands out and what is hidden – it all affects perception.
Thus, in addition to creating a simply user-friendly interface, designers are engineering cultural meanings (Balsamo, 2018, p.149). It therefore seems, front-end designers of digital collections are partially responsible for establishing cultural memory. As they bear the power to reproduce and create codes, they can shape not only user’s journey, but also society’s memory and discourse around cultural objects or topics. As such, it is a great responsibility to design interfaces that aid in understanding the past.

creating a 3d collection for the mining museum in heerlen

As the Intro group, we have decided to divide our theme into subsections for which we brainstormed ideas about the content and modalities used together, to create a comprehensive section.
During the process of creating the website, I learnt how important it is to align not only with my group, but also with others. As the intro group, the narration we were creating did not have such a clear path, because the topic was broader and not so deeply anchored with objects from the museum. It was therefore necessary to check with others and discuss ideas together, as creators of the website. At first, I was working on a subsection depicting miners in the Netherlands, however, as another group’s topic revolved around miners, we have decided to change our idea to something more original. Furthermore, it was crucial to monitor what H5P content is used by others, to avoid repetitions and overloading the website. While creating content, I wanted to make sure every piece of information is supported and presented in a way that will enhance the understanding of the topic rather than disturb it. For instance, during research, I encountered a lot of statistical data, which on it’s own seemed rather unappealing. I have decided to present it in a visual way, in form of graphs summarising most important facts from the history of Dutch coal mines. and such a visual representation communicates them in a more approachable way. However, to avoid overloading the website with interactivity, I chose not to introduce any H5P content on this page. 
 As I have a bachelor in computer science, many guidelines of creating websites were already known to me. This, however, was the first time I had an opportunity to work in such a big group, and many decisions had to be made cooperatively, which made the project more time-consuming and difficult. Overall, I believe we all worked together well and were able to create a uniform website, interesting to kids and older audiences.

References

Balsamo, A. (2018). Making Meaning, Making Culture. The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, 141–151. doi: 10.4324/9781315730479-14
Drucker, J. (2011). Humanities approaches to interface theory. Culture machine, 12.
Whitelaw, M. (2015). Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 9(1). Retrieved from http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/9/1/000205/000205.html
 

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