Being human-centred

Andrew Nally

#Optimisation | #Interface | #Interaction | #Data_curation | #Codex

The designer, Johanna Drucker takes us into the world of user interface [UI]. Drucker notes that engineering has dominated the human-computer interaction [HCI] and argues that a humanistic approach is needed to interpret the design world. She proposes that there are advantages to evaluating UI through the 'codex' of a book (Drucker, 2014 p.139).

The book should be understood as a spatially distributed set of graphical codes that provide instructions for reading, navigation, access, and use - Drucker

An interface is often thought of as a singular device or application, though an interface is not limited to one object. In its simplest form, it is the exchange of communication between two things, the body can be seen as an interface that interacts daily with a plethora of devices. Apple's TouchID is a prime example of the human body being used as an interface, this feature allows you to place your thumb on a biometric reader which is used for multiple functions including unlocking your phone (Fig 1).

In the late 1960s, computers relied on the interface of a command-line interface [CLI] The engineer, Ivan Sutherland, recognised that no matter how powerful and effective computers become, they would not be utilised unless a Human-Centred Design [HCD] was created. Sutherland approached this problem by combining 'imaginative innovation' with 'values of efficiency'. Subsequently, Human-Centred Interaction [HCI] was designed by engineers for engineers. The design became task-oriented and focused on feedback loops that minimized frustration and maximized satisfaction with mouse clicks and joysticks and rewarding bells and whistles (Drucker. 2014). Visual conventions established the language of interface iconography, first as a vocabulary of recognizable pictures of objects, then as cues for their behaviour and use. This is comparable to how iconic signs are defined in semiotics as signs where the signifier represents the signified by apparently having a likeness to it.

The role of the body as an interface in ways that virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier picked up on in his designs meant to trick the entire sensorium into an illusion - Drucker

Professional interface designers categorise tasks and behaviours into carefully defined segments and decision trees. These analyze 'user needs' and organise them into 'functional requirements'. These are then prototyped and furthered through 'user feedback'. Designs are chosen through these interactive cycles of 'task specification' and 'deliverables'. Many of the terms used to interpret the design of interfaces come from the theory of web design, which refers to the design of screen-based web apps. A central aspect is the user experience and the functions and processes that allow the interactions between the user and the device.

Drucker defines Interface as what and how we read combined through engagement, that provokes the identification of information. Key questions, to both help, analyse and question its content: Who is the subject of an interface? How are we produced as subjects of the discourses on the screen? And in our embodied and culturally situated relations to screens and displays? Drucker chooses the word 'engagement' rather than interaction when describing interfaces. She does this to indicate the social interaction between the user and the device. Interaction with an interface is something like turning on a light - a singular interaction between the user and the light switch. Whereas there is a level of engagement when unlocking your smartphone to use its features, to a degree this produces a relationship between the user and the phone. The body as interface is emphasised just as the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier sought to trick the entire sensorium into an illusion (Drucker, 2014 p.140).

Interface work is happening on what we would call a plane of discourse, or the level of the telling, rather than the told - Drucker.

When faced with learning a new interface, a level of literacy is needed. Much like when learning the alphabet, each letter has a distinct meaning and sound, this can also be seen across all screen-based interfaces i.e, the power off icon. When you first picked up your smartphone, its interface felt clunky and foreign, as you repeatedly put down and pick up your phone, you rehearse a choreography of swiping and pinching and in time these actions become second nature.

Fig 3 Skeuomorphism in iOS Calculator App Design

Paradoxically, the digital technology now used does not equate to new ways of working but rather reinforces pre-existing workings, an example can be seen through Apple's IOS calculator, its design is based on older models of the physical object. This is called skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is when UI elements are made to look like the real-life objects and are intended to help users understand how to use a new interface by allowing them to apply previous knowledge about the object.

UI is a core experience to any given function driven by a computer, though its involvement in the task at hand is secondary to the main experience. A good UI is one that requires no training or previous knowledge for it to be used, we only notice UI when it is no longer functioning, when an error or glitch occurs, or if it has been poorly crafted (Fig 3). Sarah Kember, who focuses her research on digital media, writes that glass has become ubiquitous and what was once an instrument has now become an extension of our body (Kember, 2018, p.104). Kember highlights that our emotional experiences often rely on our screens, through our interactions with one another and the various visual media which we consume such as messaging and social media.

Glass demonstrates the tension between mediation and mediation, transparency and ambiguity, more persuasively than any other medium - Kember.

Talking about user interface and the screen is paradoxical. Both are a core experience to any given function driven by a computer, though its involvement in the task at hand is secondary to the main experience. They are used to drive and to perceive whatever it is representing if it is to be noticed then it has failed its purpose. A good UI is one that requires no training or previous knowledge needed for it to be used, we only notice these characteristics when they are no longer functioning or if it is poorly crafted, to begin with. It must be second nature to use.


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Fig.1. Apple Touch ID 2017. Accessed 20th April. <>

Fig.2. Descision Tree Accessed 2018. Accessed 30th March. <>

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