seemed insubstantial. The only solid evidence he had was a lump
the size of a dodo's egg with a pain that bourbon couldn't kill.
He had enough information to sail a ship on, but no clues to navigate
by. Only a raft of words taking him nowhere, very, very slowly.
They offered to tell him everything, but so did the dictionary.
The victim was more eloquent. And those crumpled sheets on the
bed spoke volumes that those flat white sheets of paper could
never match. On those there was only words, words, words.
are confident that you did not think that this chapter was embarking
on a detective story. But why? No doubt our pastiche is not particularly
good, but there is enough bad detective fiction around to cover
our blushes. So why would no one expect that reading on would
reveal “who did it”?
find that out, we need to shift the question from “who did
it?” to “what did it?” What made it clear, before
all the pastiche we could muster, that this chapter was never
going to be a detective story? The simple answer is the physical
book itself. Its heft, its shape, its cover, its paper, and innumerable
other things about it tell you, well before you read a word, that
the book you are holding is not going to contain a detective novel.
Even if a photocopy or a fax has stripped away much of the book's
integrity, the remaining page layout, running heads, typography,
shape of the chapter heading, indentations, and a tumult of other
features implicitly insist that the pages you are holding do not
contain a whodunit.
kind of inference is not just relevant for books. Well-designed
media provide peripheral clues that subtly direct users along
particular interpretive paths by invoking social and cultural
understandings. Context and content work together
efficiently as an ensemble, sharing the burden of communication.
If the relationship between the two is honored, their interaction
can make potentially complex practices of communication, interpretation,
and response much easier for designers and users alike. This relationship
is the essence of keeping things simple.
account of context involves more, however, than crafting a well-integrated
interface. It also requires taking account of the continually
evolving social conventions carried by context. As we suggest
in this chapter, it is not enough to design an on-line newspaper
that looks like a conventional newspaper or magazine. Designers
have to take account of the complex social understanding engaged
by the newspaper and underwritten by its physical form. This understanding
goes beyond the objects themselves, to the social practices that
are in Gibson's (1979) term afforded by those objects,
and that might no longer be afforded if the objects changed. The
resources for design are not all in the designer's hands. Many
are developed in use. The challenge, then, is not just to design
an interface that looks like a book, a newspaper, a magazine,
a library catalog, or whatever. It is to engage and develop, in
a new medium, the ever-changing social understanding that emerged
first around these artifacts and still draws on their material
are two reasons why it is important to bring the attention of
software designers to the interactions between content and context
or between other related divisions, such as center and periphery,
content and form, message and medium, or information and noise.
the greatest challenge that designers and users face is achieving
clarity and simplicity. Yet many discussions of design overlook
ways in which peripheral resources can help us to clarify and
the truly revolutionary impact of the information revolution will
be not in the new ways that technology can separate message from
medium by making everything digital, but rather in the continually
new ways that it finds to recombine message and medium creatively.
Software design, in particular, ambiguously straddles divisions
of form and content. If we are to go beyond designs that remain
heavily dependent on older technologies and forms, designers need
to develop a fine sense of the redistribution of resources made
possible by software technologies.
chapter directs attention away from central information and functionality,
to the peripheral clues that crucially shape understanding and
use. In the future, the role of the designer may lie as much in
enabling and seeding new practices and new interpretive strategies
as in building new technologies.
opening the chapter with an example drawn from books, typography,
and page layout, we may at first appear lost in the Gutenberg
revolution rather than concerned with its information successor.
The dramatic proliferation of the world wide web (Profile 5),
however, indicates that both the document metaphor and documents
themselves may be as significant to the information galaxy of
cyberspace as they were to its Gutenberg equivalent. Furthermore,
documents are a powerful example of the way that people use peripheral
resources to underwrite the efficient use of all sorts of technologies.
We offer document-based examples, then, for two reasons. First,
it is still important to understand documents and document use.
Second, documents are a specific instance of a more general phenomenon:
People read and interconnect artifacts much as they read and interconnect
documents, taking into account not just the established text or
functionality, but also the clues provided by context.
for instance, something as simple as a telephone-answering machine.
The conventions for its use are not self-evident. A moment's thought
reveals that the common message “I'm not here now”
is, in the abstract, nonsense. Whomever “I” refers
to should be “here,” wherever here is, “now,”
whenever the phrase is uttered. Yet, in practice, despite its
formal incoherence, the phrase turns out to be much more efficient
than are attempts at formal coherence, such as “If you are
hearing this message, then I will not be at home at the time at
which you will be calling.”
gives the more pithy phrase its effectiveness? Clearly, the words
alone do not clinch the matter. To be understood, they rely on
peripheral clues for interpretation. Background clicks and whirs,
hisses from the tape, and the recorded quality of the voice itself
all help callers to realize that they are hearing a recorded message,
and thus prepare them for a message's particular if in the abstract
peculiar logic. These peripheral resources are not usually
regarded as part of the information with which information technology
is concerned. Yet, appearing unproblematically in the hiss of
a recorded message, peripheral contributions can nevertheless
be unquestionably informative, allowing the person leaving a message
and the person hearing it to communicate with a simple efficiency.
though they may be for design, these peripheral resources are
not necessarily designed themselves. More usually, they evolve,
as people often unreflectively enlist the support of contingent
properties of a technology to keep things simple. Answering-machine
messages once included the clumsy announcement, “This is
a recording.” As the quality of telephone lines rose relative
to the quality of tape recordings, people found that they could
drop the introductory phrase. The distinctive tone of the message
made the fact that it was a message self-evident. Further changes
can render these evolving resources extinct. Now that the quality
of the recorded message is again level with that of the live voice,
useful peripheral resources have been lost. Callers find themselves
addressing a recorded voice as though it were live, and consequently
clumsy introductory phrases such as “Hi, this is a recorded
message . . .” are returning.
idea that there is a clear boundary between information and noise,
of course, is not a product of new information technologies. Standard
accounts of the Gutenberg revolution portray the book as having
been a radically new way to liberate information from the contextual
constraints that accompanied spoken language. The information
revolution is portrayed as a continuation of this process, providing
more effective ways to free information from restraining material
attempting to rid communication of peripheral resources, such
accounts evoke the old game in which children challenge one another
to describe an awkward object, such as a spiral staircase, without
using their hands. As a game, this challenge is amusing; in practice,
if you have to show someone what a spiral staircase is, it is
almost always much more efficient to use your hands particularly
if you can point to an example. The material world is rich with
explanatory resources, in part because most of our explanations
involve the material world. Abandoning it, therefore, is not only
a difficult task, but also a step that is unlikely to make things
an example, consider the library. At least since Vannevar Bush
(1945) described his idea of Memex (a proto-hypertext system),
people have sought to distill information out of libraries. Attempts
to extract information from its embodiment have been problematic,
because Bush and many of his followers see libraries and books
themselves as little more than antiquated storage devices. The
transferral of the content of books and other publications to
hypertext databases has left behind elaborate and important interpretive
instance, the piece of information that George Washington said,
“I cannot tell a lie” would probably be stored in
many different contexts in any conventional American library.
Among others, it would be stored in later editions of Mason Locke
Weems's biography of George Washington; in Mark Twain's works;
in books with titles as varied as History and Ideology, Our
Presidents, and Every Child's Own Encyclopedia, (and
perhaps in a book about software design). These different locations
are not irrelevant. Where it is stored, how it is stored, and
even that it is stored provide important resources for assessing
what is stored.
its own, the sentence about Washington cannot tell us how it should
be interpreted and valued. The range of possible interpretation
goes well beyond a simple assessment that some of the books contain
correct information and others contain falsities. Historical fables,
after all, whether true or false, may be highly illuminating.
But the reader still has to work out whether the statement appears
in a fable, and, if it does, in what kind of fable: sincere, ironic,
humorous, popular, local, widespread, and so forth.
practice, readers rarely have to consider all available options.
Before they come to the sentence, the particular bound book and
unfolding linear narrative will have significantly narrowed the
interpretive options. One book will provide reliable indicators
of what Washington is likely to have said, another what Twain
wrote, yet another of what Weems said Washington said, and so
need to know more than what a piece of information means. They
also need to know how the information matters. Evaluation requires
more than the information itself, which cannot validate its authority
any more than it would validate a bad check to write “good”
on its face.
books and all the bits of information that they contain are not
equal. Different kinds of books efficiently provide different
kinds of warrant for the information they offer. With book technology,
society has developed conventions that allow both writers and
readers to use the material objects themselves to limit interpretation,
to warrant information, and to keep communication relatively simple.
Designers of digital libraries, or even just designers of other
document forms, such as pages for the world wide web, will need
to find and create alternative resources for the interpretive
reliability and simplicity provided by older communicative artifacts.
may stress abstract information, but students learn a great deal
more than schooling explicitly stresses. As they read comics,
novels, biographies, mysteries, true crime stories, and textbooks,
they learn to distinguish different types of books and the types
of information contained within those books. With the help of
external clues to interpretation, readers confidently learn to
distinguish fiction from nonfiction; to distinguish books of detective
fiction from books about detective fiction; and to recognize irony,
parody, and pastiche as distinct from the forms on which they
people approach more than books in this way. They seek interpretive
clues in the periphery of all sorts of communicative interactions.
They distinguish different kinds of movies, videos, and TV programs,
and can usually flick unerringly from news breaks to soap operas,
from docudramas to movies, from advertisements to MTV videos,
navigating as much by the context as the content. They learn to
distinguish almost on sight consumer products from commercial
appliances, personal media from professional media, educational
software from entertainment software, and so on.
learning to recognize and distinguish information, people behave
like good detectives, continually working with the clues that
they find at the scene, extrapolating from partial evidence to
the whole story. To engage these practices, good designers, by
contrast, need to be more like bad criminals than good ones, always
leaving behind a traceable array of clues.
course, designers and users are not always in cahoots. Although
some designers and users have corresponding interests, there are
other designers who, for a variety of reasons, set out to penetrate
users' defenses by scattering misleading clues. We see this approach
in junk mail that imitates personal mail, in advertisements that
imitate rock videos, and in bogus software that imitates genuine
programs. In each case, if the center looks authentic (if it does
not, the subterfuge fails immediately), wary users continually
look for more and more refined clues in the periphery to distinguish
the genuine. The designers, meanwhile, are equally trying to craft
a more perfect subterfuge.
to separate the material form from an informational content are
highly problematic, both in theory and in practice. To take a
practical example, consider the daily newspaper. At first glance,
it certainly seems reasonable to think of separating the material
form from the information, the paper from the news. Yet, to date,
the conventional newspaper survives, despite the arrival over
the years of radio, newsreels, television, and news databases,
each of which was thought likely to make newspapers irrelevant.
Highly visible failures to sell online news such as Knight-Ridder's
Viewtron, which lost $50 million (DeGeorge and Byrd, 1994) show
that this task is far from easy. The material contribution of
the medium helps to explain why the newspaper survives.
newspaper does not just report news; it makes news. The underlying
paper has a significant role in that making. First, only certain
items can fit within the bounds that paper provides. In general,
what gets in is news; what does not is not news. Second, the circulation
of unchanging newsprint through a society (ensuring that the same
news is available to everyone at roughly the same time) turns
those items into social facts common to a broad readership.
Politicians are disturbed to find their scandalous behavior splashed
under the headline not because the story is news to them, but
because it has become front-page news to 100,000 other people.
The newspaper has been described as a “1-day best seller”
and, as with other best-sellers, the point is that everyone
is reading it. It is the collective selection, presentation, and
circulation of information that turns that information into news.
the idea that readers should gather items individually out of
a vast database misses the point. Although the resulting copy
might look like a conventional newspaper (as in Figure 7.1), the
items included would lack the social status and warrants that
comes from the combination of editorial selection, location on
the page, and wide distribution. The personally tailored, genuinely
unique newspaper, selected privately from a database, offers neither
physical nor social continuity. Each individual output would be
no more than that individual, with little or no indication of
its social significance.
FIGURE 7.1 ABOUT HERE<<<<<<
7.1 Personalized Online Newspaper
services provide users with personalized information, duplicating
the look of a paper newspaper on the computer screen. These custom
pages have a superficial appeal, but they miss the underlying
social significance of a newspaper, which draws its power from
the shared communicative space created by the social traditions
of how a newspaper is edited, organized, and distributed. (Source:
Courtesy of WAIS, Inc.)
recognition of the newspaper as a maker of news, both broadcast
and on-line news services tend to defer to and often to report
what major papers carry. Furthermore, in acknowledgment of the
significance of the newspaper's physical structure, these secondary
sources often note whether the story that they report was on the
front page or in the business section, and, occasionally, whether
it was above or below the fold. In relaying news in this way,
broadcast forms indicate that, even though they too make news,
they lack the resources to structure news in similarly informative
ways. On-line sources, in general, make it clear that they do
not even make news. What they carry as news comes from other sources
primarily print media. As yet, however, they have not developed
ways to provide and warrant information on their own. Their dependence
on the conventional press strikes us as an instance of a significant,
more general point. If designers fail to understand how to encode
and warrant information within new technologies, they and their
new designs will remain unnecessarily dependent on old technologies.
information is to be socially encoded and decoded, as it is in
the newspaper, the peripheral clues must inevitably circulate
with the information. The extent to which peripheral objects are
shared varies considerably with the type of social interaction
and the type of technology. In face-to-face communication, a speaker
can use words such as I, you, here, or that, knowing
that listeners have access to the same periphery.
with fixed objects, people can predict with reasonable confidence
what clues will be available for future participants. For example,
a building remains in a fairly continuous relation to its periphery.
As you approach a building, you meet an array of architectural
strategies designed to refine these expectations: The landscaping,
the relation to neighboring buildings, the massing, and the color
all tell you about the building. The ways in which pathways lead
you to the building to the front, around the side, through the
middle further develop your sense of the interior spatial relations
and even of the interior social relations. An architect can rely
on the presence of these fairly stable objects in the periphery
to give a visitor much of the code required to read the building
interaction is no longer face to face, or when objects no longer
have a fixed periphery, use of the periphery is inevitably more
complex. When objects travel across space and time, only certain
aspects of the original context travel with them. Instead of working
in juxtaposition to a relatively unchanging, broad periphery,
users have to rely on a far narrower band of unchanging features.
We call this area the border. Although partial, the border
can be helpful. For instance, at the opening of this chapter,
we were able to use words such as “we,” knowing that
the names of the joint authors would be evident, and “this,”
to refer to the book in your hands. Of course, the border has
its limits. We cannot use “now,” or “over there,”
because we have no idea when or where the chapter might be read.
covers provide a well-used example of a border resource becoming
established. Before the nineteenth century, booksellers bound
most books for individual customers, so readers of a book did
not all see the same cover. Consequently, a shelf of eighteenth-century
books, although it may look beautiful, is usually not informative;
it is just a row of large books in calfskin bindings, which tell
you more about their owner than about the books' content. By the
twentieth century, publishers had taken over the process of bookbinding,
and all copies of a particular edition had the same cover. Book
covers developed into a highly informative social resource. Look
along a shelf of contemporary books, even without reading the
titles or cover copy, and it is relatively easy to recognize the
types of books to distinguish the adult encyclopedia from the
children's, the political-science treatise from the pot boiler,
learn to interpret the information within buildings or books according
to the type of building or book in which they find it.
Drawing on literary terms, we call these types genres.
Just as, in literature, deciding whether a piece is a short story
or an essay makes a great difference to interpretation, so, more
generally, recognizing the genre of a communication or of an object
is important. To return to an early example, the genre established
by the hiss of the answering machine allows you to leave a simple
salutation that a caller can decode despite its problematic logic.
also allow similar information to have different interpretations.
The request “Don't miss this event!” on a softball
invitation has a meaning distinctly different from the meaning
it would have in a memorandum from the boss. Indeed, people are
implicitly considering these differences whenever they choose
a particular type of communication: the telephone for an informal
chat; electronic mail for a reminder; a memorandum for a message
with authority; a business letter for a formal bid, and so forth.
By choosing a certain border for their message, they are attempting
to constrain the interpretation of the message.
is an important concept in software design for three reasons.
in any form of communication, genres engage socially shared knowledge.
Establishing the genre for a particular communication whether
it be academic essays, collegial electronic-mail notes, film noire,
music videos, or computer games draws on knowledge shared within
the groups that use these particular forms. The more that a level
of shared expectation can be assumed, the less needs to be said
explicitly about how the information should be read. Conversely,
the less that is shared, the more that needs to be said, and the
harder communication becomes. The borders of genres provide sturdy
yet light scaffolding for the simple coproduction of complex structures.
In this way, they are central to the task of keeping things simple.
because information is always formed with regard to one genre
or another, understanding genres is crucially important to dealing
with the demands of the information age. So, for example, one
way to make knowbots more efficient at navigating through
databases is to make them responsive to genre cues. They can then
distinguish (as readers do) the different values of the same sentence
occurring in the National Review, the Nation, the
National Inquirer, or the National Lampoon, using broad
generic clues rather than specific and particular knowledge of
periodicals and magazines.
as we argue in the final two sections, to fulfill their potential,
new technologies require new genres. These genres emerge naturally,
and can also be the subject of conscious design.
far, the picture of genres that we have painted is inherently
conservative. We have primarily noted ways in which it is either
important or helpful to stay within the bounds set by genres and
their borders. But that is not the whole story. Design evolves
and innovates to a significant extent by crossing boundaries,
rather than respecting them; by flouting conventions, rather than
by heeding them. In breaking through the old, we open new frontiers.
the bounds is particularly familiar to good artists, who continually
push at the constraints of their chosen forms. Their transgressions
often involve a two-step process: As unseen boundaries are crossed,
they are simultaneously brought to light. In raising the condemnation
that “this thing is not art,” for instance, artists
force people to think about what art is, what its conventions
are, and what results from conforming or not conforming to them.
boundaries is not always beneficial. Staying within the old forms
may fail to engage and develop new types of interpretation. But
paying no heed to established conventions may fail to engage any
coherent interpretation at all. It takes a fine sense of genre
to negotiate a path between these two extremes, and the right
path is often the subject of much debate over the development
of new expressive forms.
jazz, for instance, Miles Davis claimed that Wynton Marsalis was
too respectful of old forms to go anywhere new. Other musicians,
however, criticized Davis for moving too far beyond conventional
forms to be understood. Almost every time that he moved across
musical boundaries, Davis was charged with incoherence. (One reason
that Davis disliked the reverence paid to older jazz forms was
that he had played them when they were new and judged unintelligible:
“Don't tell me the way it was. Hell, I was there . . .
no one wanted to hear us when we were playing jazz,” he
once complained.) Before long, however, it usually became apparent
that he had built a new audience for his work, and a new frontier
for musicians often led by Davis himself — to cross.
a time of changing technologies, it is not surprising to see a
profusion of new genres. Through techniques of mixing, dubbing,
cutting, and sampling made much easier by the wider availability
of recording equipment, hip hop has revolutionized older forms
of contemporary music. Hypertext technologies, poaching strategies,
and Internet zines have innovatively disrupted conventional
ways of writing and reading. And cheap editing technology, on
the one hand, and the disruption of linear control provided by
video players and CD recordings, on the other, have led to creative
changes in both video and film. When technology forces the pace,
designers like artists need to keep an eye not just on emerging
technologies, but on the emerging interpretive genres as well.
The most responsive will, like Davis, be capable of developing
new forms, and of bringing new audiences into being.
Forms of Escape
new media as in old, the general context crafted by designers
provides individual producers and consumers with key resources
for coproducing the content. Media are clearly no longer neutral
carriers. As new genres evolve, old boundaries are erased; what
was once the border is absorbed into content, and new borders
of design, however, sometimes shy away from blurred distinctions.
Computer design clung too long to an oversimple division between
software and hardware. Apple Computer's managers, for example,
may have been fatally indecisive in failing to make up their minds
whether the company was dealing in hardware or software, and in
failing to discover how to avoid the dilemma. Now, new shifts
in software are making previously clear distinctions even trickier
to maintain. Classic applications such as spreadsheets and word-processing
programs make software appear as form or content provider. But
the software is more intricately a part of the content in media
such as computer games, MOOs (a game-based, shared, virtual environment
in which on-line participants working on individual computers
can communicate and program collectively in real time), HTML pages
on the world wide web (see Profile 5), and complex documents in
SGML (a sophisticated markup language widely used to translate
books and other documents into digital form).
the distinction between program and content is becoming blurred,
the distinction between software design and other forms of design
is becoming harder to maintain. With games, is it possible to
ask where software ends and content begins? In MOOs, are participants
building a room engaged in design of content or doing collaborative
programming? Is designing a home page for the world wide web a
matter of document design, multimedia design, or software design?
Can the task of design in cases such as these be simply divided
between software designers and content designers? If it cannot,
does software design teach the skills required for this sort of
the technology shifts, software designers will need to acquire
many of the skills and intuitions of other designers. (And, conversely,
other designers will need the software designer's skills.) Both
will have to develop a sense of the continual evolution of genres
and of the way in which people's changing understandings of what
is peripheral, what is part of the border, and what is at the
heart of a design help to drive that evolution. Given an understanding
of these interrelations, designers can influence the direction
of evolution by seeding new genres, creating new audiences, and
establishing new repertoires, much as artists do.
of genres, in our view, is the way to approach design today. New
technologies are proliferating, as is the ocean of information
with which they have to deal. New forms, genres, and conventions
to accommodate technologies and information to human use seem,
by comparison, to be lagging behind. The challenge for the future
is not to develop new technologies, on the one hand, and new sources
of information, on the other. Instead we need to seed and develop
new interpretive conventions to make both the emerging technology
and the information more manageable simultaneously.
future of design in information technologies lies not in developing
means of increasingly full representation, but in allowing increasing
amounts to be underrepresented; not by increasing what is said,
but by helping people to leave more unsaid; not in refining abstractions,
but by making use of their inevitable impurity; not by making
more explicit, but by leaving as much as possible implicit, and
in the process keeping things simple.
Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. Borderline issues: Social and material
aspects of design. Human-Computer Interaction 9:1 (Winter,
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Nunberg and Umberto Eco (eds). The Future of the Book.
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Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World.
London: Methuen, 1982.
Rosmarin. The Power of Genre. Minneapolis, MN: University
of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Yates. Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in
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