great lines from shneiderman's talk

These are some of the things Ben Shneiderman said yesterday in his talk at RIT that really caught my attention--and some of the thoughts that those lines sparked in my mind. Much of this deserves more attention than my sleep-deprived brain can give them on a 6:15am flight from Rochester to Chicago (en route to Austin for SXSW/Interactive), but at least it's a start.

Visualizations never give you answers, they only give you insights into questions.

Ah, what's not to like about this if you're a qualitative researcher at heart? I love data visualizations--at ETech, some of my favorite presentations were the visualizations of Usenet participation by Microsoft's Marc Smith, and of Technorati link data by Dave Sifry. But Shneiderman nails my interest--unlike many of my colleagues, I see these visualizations not as answers, but as a starting point for asking questions. Thus my interest in better defining the nature of blog genres and interconnections, going beyond the data curves that Sifry can show us based on large data sets.

I'm a qualitative researcher at heart. I'm more interested in knowing the stories behind the numbers than I am in the numbers themselves. Of course, there's value in quantitative analysis, and in effective visualization of quantitative data. (I've got signed copies of Tufte's first two books...). But too often that data is used to draw conclusions that aren't necessarily supported by the real experiences of the people that data is supposed to represent.

Studies of computer users show that 42-43% of their time using computers is time lost/wasted due to problems with their system (OS, Internet connection, applications). "When I talk about this at Microsoft, I get 'I don't believe your data.'"

Of course, this got the predictable laugh from the audience (populated by a great many Unix and Mac users). But it's typical of the response of many computer software producers when confronted with user frustration. Which led directly to the next quote...

Bridge the gap between what users know and what they need to know.

He noted that very few users turn to manuals or online help. Why? Sometimes because they don't know about them, sometimes because they've had trouble with them in the past and don't trust them.

This reminded me of a story I often tell my students in web design. Many years ago, I managed the CD-ROM customer support for an information publishing company. The software interface to our product had extensive online help that my staff and I had written, and every screen of the product displayed the text "F1=HELP" in the top right corner. Nonetheless, we'd get many calls from customers every day who were frustrated because they couldn't find any help.

Like the programmers I worked with at that company, my students at that point roll their eyes in disgust at the stupidity of the users, and expect me to do the same. But I don't. I tell them that if the users can't find the help they need to use their product--whether it's a CD-ROM database or an e-commerce web site--it's their product that's flawed, not the users.

Brenda Dervin, the theorist whose qualitative research methodology I'm using in my NSF grant research, wrote a wonderful article in which she chastised librarians for treating information as "bricks" and users as "buckets"--too often, she said, when the bricks don't fit into the bucket the librarian assumes that the bucket is flawed, and sets to work trying to mold it into a shape that will better accommodate the bricks. Sounds absurd...until you think about how accurate it is. And it's not just librarians who fall into this trap--it's most software and web developers, as well.

Right after Shneiderman talked about how we have to make the interfaces conform to the user needs (rather than the reverse), an audience member asked "But if we make interfaces 'dumber' don't we risk making users dumber, by bringing them all down to the lowest common denominator?" Shneiderman responded that this was wrongeaded thinking--which led to his next great line:

Meaningful information architecture, shorter traversal paths, broad/shallow trees--this helps everyone. If you try to design a better web site for an elderly user with poor vision, you'll probably end up designing a better web site for everyone else, as well.

At around this point, he showed a web site calledUniversal Usability in Practice, which is a web site developed by his students to show best practices in and resources for usability in design.

Ah. It's time to "turn off electronic devices and stow all carryons beneath the seat in front of us." I'll close with the observation that while the entire auditorium was packed full of students, faculty, and folks from local industry, there were surprisingly few laptops open. Two of my colleagues, I found out later, were taking collaborative notes in SubEthaEdit--wish I'd known, I would have joined in. As for me, I found that being able to pull up sites as Shneiderman talked about them, bookmarking them (in, natch) as I went, was an excellent way to stay engaged in the presentation while still note-taking. I've got a post brewing on backchannels and meetings and the all-too-slow shifts that are taking place in this area.

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This page contains a single entry published on March 13, 2004 3:24 PM.

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