What Difference Does the Interface Make?

The interface of any digital project is never self-evident. It is reflective of assumptions made about the intended purpose of the project for intended audiences. And purpose and audience are interconnected. While I will discuss how the design of an interface affects possibilities for thinking and producing knowledge, it is important to note that these categories I use are somewhat arbitrary and often overlap. Such is the nature of digital projects.

Text-based Interfaces

Though digital projects often exist on the web, many projects still employ the textual tradition that we see in books, articles, and other printed material. These interfaces reflect the centuries-long legacy of printing, which emphasized standardization and uniformity.1

Text-based interfaces are often intended for audiences that are ready to read. This can mean students and scholars who are actively researching. Since the effectiveness of textual communication relies on one’s ability to discern rhetoric and context from words, some relationships between concepts and the “so what?” factor of content may be harder to pick up on for users that possess varying levels of language mastery.

Visual Interfaces

Of course, most digital projects incorporate some visual elements into their interfaces. Visual elements appeal to a broader audience for more general purposes because they are typically more engaging than text at first glance. When text is used in conjunction with visuals, it makes possible a richer, more dynamic experience for the user and engages more possibilities for thinking, framing, and visualizing.2

Visual interfaces help make new connections between ideas more obvious, as is the case for visualizations of data analysis. While users should be wary of considering data as neutral, quantifiable and verifiable data can often boost the legitimacy of an argument. Presenting this data in a visual way can make clear statistical relationships and trends in a way that text cannot. In the digital humanities, for example, data analysis and visualization can allow one to examine concurrently texts at individual and aggregate levels.3 Without data and visual methods, these insights are harder to realize from purely text-based interfaces.

However, as digital projects start to incorporate visual elements, this can present new issues. Visual interfaces still appeal to a specific audience to the exclusion of others, namely those with vision impairments. Digital projects should be careful to consider accessibility in their designs so that their content can be as inclusive as possible.

Another issue that might be magnified with visual interfaces is the project’s coherence. For example, some projects over-rely on visualization to the point that their argument is lost. Visual elements can be engaging and innovative, but digital projects should not neglect a coherent structure and purpose in pursuit of creativity. For an example of this, a fellow classmate analyzes the impact of the interface of a digital project, “Viral Texts.”

Interactive Interfaces

Interactive interfaces represent those that provide for the most innovation in digital projects. When a user is able to customize the interface to see what they find most compelling, it is easy to generate personal and public investment in the project. What I mean by investment is that a user can see how the project might affect their own story, experiences, or perceptions of knowledge. They become an active producer and consumer of knowledge rather than passively absorbing information on a static page. And because the creation of interactive digital projects necessarily requires skills from a variety of disciplines (e.g., history, literature, statistics, web design, graphic design, and social sciences), interactive interfaces result in less silo-ing of knowledge, media, and methodologies.4 These interconnections are key to effective digital projects and what sets them apart from previous scholarly works.

Just as with the addition of visuals into interfaces, interactive interfaces also provide the potential for numerous accessibility issues that exclude certain audiences. An example of this is described in detail in my post about accessibility and The Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Conclusion

For the ease of examining how the interface impacts a digital project’s message, purpose, and audience, I have focused my discussion on separate interface styles. However, these styles are often combined in different ways and at different points in digital projects, and the most effective projects will optimize different methods to achieve their desired ends. Digital projects, when compared to textual works, have the potential to provide richer and more engaging experiences for users. The emphases on interdisciplinary expertise, team-based work, and constant improvements and adjustments mean digital projects focus on methodology and design just as much as content. In many cases, design might comprise content and vice versa. What is clear is that the way in which a digital project is presented reflects its intended purpose and intended audiences. Further, the interfaces of digital projects allow new questions to be asked, new connections to be made, and new approaches to be attempted.

Notes

  1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT, 1994), 352.
  2. Anne Burdick et al., Digital_Humanities (Cambridge: MIT, 2012), 11.
  3. Burdick et al., Digital_Humanities, 18.
  4. Burdick et al., Digital_Humanities, 15.

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