Think of the web browser as a window, a transparent window with a view of a world of visual information: text, images, graphs, tables and sounds. Looking for a path through the worldwide shared knowledge on offer, internet users tend to forget about the interface: hyperlinks, icons, buttons, cursors. However, there are moments, when users should be looking at the interface, and not only through it in order to make it function: click on links, select items, scroll pages or activate icons. During these events, the interface is no longer a window, but acts as a mirror, reflecting the users and their relationship with the computer. Diane Gromala and Jay David Bolter are convinced: “No interface should be perfectly transparent, if we only look through, we cannot appreciate the ways in which it shapes our access to information and our experience of it.” Bolter, 2003 Nonetheless, the overarching objective of web design seems to be the creation of transparent windows.
Indeed, the major design movement today is user experience design. A practice which places the user at the center of the design process, where usability becomes the criterium with which to assess success. In a nutshell: users needs first, technology last. This ideology was devised by Don Norman, which was introduced in a book unsurprisingly titled The Invisible Computer. In this book he establishes a direct link between transparency and usability: “The ideal system so buries the technology that the user is not even aware of its presence. The goal is to let people get on with their activities, with the technology enhancing their productivity, their power, and their enjoyment, ever the more so because it is invisible, out of sight, out of mind. People should learn the task, not the technology. They should be able to take the tool to the task, not as today, where we must take the task to the tool. And these tools should follow three axioms of design: simplicity, versatility, and pleasurability.” Norman, 1998 This statement leaves me perplexed. How are we supposed to bring the tool to task if we are not able to grasp its mechanisms and are incapable of creating our own tools thus being dependent on preconfigured ones?
Interestingly, in information technology a component is considered to be transparent if its function is easy to understand without having to examine its structure. The Wikipedia article on Transparency (human—computer interaction)
Transparency (human–computer interaction) - Wikipedia. 2019. Transparency (human–computer interaction) - Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transparency_(human%E2%80%93computer_interaction). [Accessed 31 January 2019].
states it as: “Any change in a computing system, such as a new feature or new component, is transparent if the system after change adheres to previous external interface as much as possible while changing its internal behaviour. The purpose is to shield from change all systems (or human users) on the other end of the interface.” Bizarrely, the term transparent does not refer to the visibility of the internal component but stands for the overall invisibility of one component in a global framework. In other words, the less it is necessary to cognitively grasp a mechanism, the more transparent it becomes. This counterintuitive definition adequately describes the primary objective of today’s online environment: designing user-friendliness. It clearly manifest that the focus is given to easiness of adaptation even if it means that the user can't see and has less control over the components of an interface. Furthermore, since usability has become the overriding principle, it has become simultaneously a measure of satisfaction through analysis of behavioural patterns, navigation tracking, and page impressions. Every action is captured in order to offer the best experience possible. But, something feels wrong to me; it gives me more of a feeling that the user is in fact being used.
A strong interest towards information structure coloured with this unpleasant feeling triggered the start of this research. This thesis offers a step back and suggests looking at, instead of looking through the window in order to see the interface as the technical creation it really is. Taking as its basis a different definition of transparency: an open way and an open access that allows users to understand what is happening behind the external appearance of the interface.
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