Stan Ruecker, Milena Radzikowska and Stéfan Sinclair. Visual Interface Design for Cultural Heritage: a Guide to Rich-Prospect Browsing. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2011. ISBN 9781409404224 (hardcover), 9781409404231 (e-book).

Stan Ruecker, Milena Radzikowska and Stéfan Sinclair. Visual Interface Design for Cultural Heritage: a Guide to Rich-Prospect Browsing. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2011. ISBN 9781409404224 (hardcover), 9781409404231 (e-book).

Charles-Antoine Julien

McGill University

charles.julien@mcgill.ca


Abstract

The design of digital information interaction tools is quickly evolving with the rapid increase in the number and size of online collections, as well as the technological capabilities offered by software development and communication technologies. Visual Interface Design for Cultural Heritage: a Guide to Rich-Prospect Browsing aims to support this evolution by facilitating the progression from the merely functional tool, through one that is easily used, towards a pleasurable information interface. The concept of rich-prospect browsing is introduced as part of a theoretical framework of visual browsing interfaces which also includes Gibson’s well known affordances. This framework is used to describe and analyse an impressive set of novel visually mediated information interaction techniques that aim to improve the quality of the interactions between humans and digital information. This book is highly relevant to those interested in the design of human-information interactions, information visualisation, use and presentation of metadata, and digital libraries.

KEYWORDS / MOTS-CLÉS

Human-information interaction, visual browsing, metadata, digital libraries



The design of digital information interaction tools is quickly evolving with the rapid increase in the number and size of online collections, as well as the technological capabilities offered by software development and communication technologies. Visual Interface Design for Cultural Heritage aims to continue this evolution in opposition to the "anti-aesthetic subtext in certain research areas" (13). The authors argue that the aesthetic qualities of an interface are critical since they affect the overall perceptions of the project (i.e. product, business, organisation, etc.) as a whole. Given a sufficiently refined interface, the users will likely increase their trust in the people responsible (17) and trusting users may be more willing to persevere when something has gone wrong (18). This emphasis on the aesthetics of interface design differs from much of the systems papers and usability testing literature. As such, it aims to support a faster progression from the merely functional tool, through one that is easily used, towards a pleasurable information interface (19).

This book is highly relevant to those interested in the design of human-computer or human-information interactions, information visualisation, use and presentation of metadata, and more generally digital libraries and information sciences. Information interface designers and researchers should, at the very least, flip through the impressive list of novel interaction techniques assembled in this short but dense book. Based on multiple prototypes developed by the authors and their associates, the research concerns the quality of the interactions between humans and digital information. This variety of novel visual interface designs provides an overview of visually mediated information interaction techniques, a kind of "thinking through making prototypes" (21). It also reveals the variety of digital collections that offer rich metadata. This standardised data allows faceted filtering and grouping of information which is difficult to perform using traditional keyword searches.

Lamenting the lack of theoretical grounding in interactive visual interface design, the authors offer a two-part theoretical framework of visual browsing interfaces. First, a rich-prospect browsing interface is defined as one where a representation of the complete collection is initially provided to users. Specifically, each information item must have a visual representation. As a result, taxonomic or hierarchical grouping and labelling of information are not rich-prospect (137). The reader might wonder what would explain the ubiquitous use of outlined tree browsers for file management; the authors admit these visual interfaces offer a partial prospect that can become hidden when the metadata (i.e. the folder labels in this case) is not known or understood by the user.

Rich-prospect browsing is ideal for the specific metadata and characteristics found in digital cultural heritage collections. These are defined as small collections of a few hundred items (up to a maximum of 10,000), and they must generally offer "good metadata for use in grouping items" (23-24), and individual information items should have an obvious visual representation. Some readers may miss this potential lack of scalability in the current trend towards "Big Data"; this should not deter information interface designers from reading this book since the goals of rich-prospect interfaces are valid for any size of collection. In essence, rich-prospect browsing interfaces are those that offer multiple opportunities for collection insight. Thirteen types of collection insights are listed (such as content, structure, context and limitations) showing the broad range of potentially useful information about the collection as a whole.

The second part of the framework is based on Gibson’s well known affordances. Although the theory may have "flaws or inherent limitations" (60), the authors show that it has played a role in much fruitful research. This is exemplified by numerous references grouped in fourteen research issues related to affordances. These descriptions include real-world analogies that illustrate what is meant by affordances. Feline affordances are memorable, as well as the classic example of the French and British soldiers not able use the other’s conception and experience of a spade. Affordances are used to facilitate the description of the interactive potential (or action) of an existing visual interface and they are pointed out in the descriptions of interfaces throughout the ensuing chapters. These are a quick read since few details of the published implementations are given.

Rich-prospect and affordances are linked into a coherent framework where by decreasing the amount of detail shown, rich-prospect browsing aims to provide users with an overview of the affordances offered by a collection, and signifies a broad set of strategies for providing collection insight (26).

This is a dense book offering interesting ideas based on actual design projects of visual interface prototypes for information interaction. My main critiques centre on false expectations of further discussions of a subject. For example, the authors advocate for "extensive user involvement in the design process" (33) but the book does not describe how this should be integrated into the development cycle. Chapter 3 describes a Likert-based questionnaire measuring affordance strength using five factors (e.g. tacit capacity, availability) (80) and highlights the multi-faceted nature of affordances. The measurement tool is promising, although examples of its use and results are not provided in this work.

While skimming the table of contents, one is struck by the disproportionate size of the theoretical framework (Chap. 2). The ideas are worth reading, and work in this field is ongoing, however, readers expecting a systematic analysis of the interface designs using this framework will be disappointed. For example, the collection insight types and affordance issues described are not mentioned again in the following chapters. Affordances are often denoted in the prototypes and the concept is useful for describing information interfaces and yet the practicing designer is left to wonder how the study of affordances changes the design process.

This book raises interesting questions as the authors provide insightful observations based on their experiences designing and testing visual interface prototypes. For example, they report that information overload is generally not a factor when organised placement of the information "reassures users that even though many information items are on display, they are under control" (89). Given that the meaning of the organisation will be misunderstood by some users, any organisation may reassure some users, though one wonders how long this effect would last using a random organisation.

The visual interface examples are often memorable simply because they are absolutely novel; they force the reader to reconsider what an information interaction tool should be. This entails new interactive interface controls that are unfamiliar to users. Based on evidence that, in some circumstances, habits are not particularly difficult to overcome (79), the authors suggest that users can easily adapt to unknown interfaces. This is intuitive when considering that breaking a digital habit is often without risk and costs little more than a few seconds. Some digital habits are little more than useful rules of thumb which are often but not consistently useful. One wonders how rich-prospect browsing facilitates the interactive process of trial and error when new types of interactions are associated with known or unknown tools.

The concluding chapter offers a set of lessons learned and future research topics that are worth considering. Among them, how aesthetics may affect users’ sustained engagement with a tool even without a clear objective, their willingness to troubleshoot, and their perception of time. Answers to these questions might help take us beyond the myth of the all-knowing search engine towards dynamic filtering and grouping of information that helps reveal what each collection truly offers.


Works Cited

Ruecker, Stan, Milena Radzikowska and Stéfan Sinclair. Visual Interface Design for Cultural Heritage: a Guide to Rich-Prospect Browsing. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2011.

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