napier on Tue, 30 Apr 2002 22:53:02 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] RE: RHIZOME_RAW: GENERATION FLASH: Usability/Interaction

At 01:11 PM 4/30/2002 -0400, Kanarinka wrote:
>The most distinguishing formal property of software from other mediums
>is that it allows for interaction, that it is rule-based, that it allows
>the creation of a participatory, experiential environment, however you
>wanna say it.
>... in a software-driven artwork I would argue that the primary
>formal areas that one has to deal with are in the design of the rules
>for interaction...

At 01:01 PM 4/30/2002 -0400, John Klima wrote:
>so what do we
>discuss? how "well" the interface works? what the user wants to "do?" in
>peasoup and glasbead there is user goal, make a picture, make a song, so
>we presented them with "tools" to do so. they are usable. what would a
>completely abstract interface "do?"

First, I think of p-Soup as a completely abstract interface.  The piece is 
built on very simple geometry and synthesized notes, so it certainly isn't 
representing anything.  The user creates a composition and music by 
interacting with the piece, but it isn't a tool because there is no end 
goal.  In p-Soup the end is the interaction itself.  The interface is part 
of that end, not a tool to create something else (you never save a song ... 
when you stop clicking the piece stops playing).

So let's discuss it.  From the usability perspective the p-Soup 
( interface is about as usable as it can 
get.  Click on an icon at the top, click in the blue box, you see a 
ripple.  I've never seen a person that can't operate it, and I'm willing to 
accept that there may be techno-phobes out there that won't explore the 
piece.  My audience is anybody with a basic knowledge of the mouse/computer 
interface, and these people will be able to activate the piece easily.

Now for the interaction aspect.  I agree with Kanarinka that interaction is 
separate from usability.  In p-Soup I don't explain the piece.  If a user 
clicks once they get one animated ripple on the screen.  Not too 
exciting.  The piece is only interesting if they click multiple times, and 
then the ripples combine and overlap to create secondary shapes.  This 
usually comes as a surprise to people using it (came as a surprise to me 
when I made the piece).  So then they start to click quickly, slowly, close 
together, far apart.  They can focus on the visuals and/or on the sounds.

None of this is about usability.  The user has already figured out how to 
use the interface.  Now we're talking about interaction.  This is the "why" 
of the piece, where usability is the "how".  The user has gotten in to the 
piece, now why should they stay.  The visual language of the artwork 
provides enough material to explore for a while simply out of the fun of 
seeing what the shapes do and how they react to each other.  There's a 
satisfaction for me in seeing a very simple vocabulary combine to create a 
surprising variety of qualities (sort of like programming).  The user gets 
to create something within the boundaries of the artwork.

The work provides an immediate response.  The user gets that they just did 
something. But then the artwork does something of its own as well, that is 
not predictable.  There is an element of expectation, fulfillment of the 
expectation, but then an element of surprise.  The user can explore the 
subtler qualities of the piece by refining their use of the artwork.  So 
there is an element of layering; the interaction has depth.  There's an 
element of duration: the action continues to animate for about a minute or 
two.  The user can stop and watch to see what they just did and let the 
piece run and fade out on its own.

All of this amounts to a dialog between the user and the artwork.  But 
there is another element to the interactivity of the artwork, which is that 
the piece is multi-user.  The applet is built on top of a chat client, so 
it networks multiple users together in real time.  Concurrent users see 
what each other are doing.  I don't explain this anywhere in the piece, 
which could be seen as user-unfriendly.  But in terms of interactivity it 
creates an interesting possibility in the work.  While a user is clicking 
away, playing with the artwork, they may see other shapes forming in the 
piece, shapes that they did not create.  Then they have to figure out for 
themselves how those shapes are happening.  Are they random?  Are they 
generated by some algorithm?  Or are they created by another user online, 
playing with the artwork at the same time.  This moment of meeting of two 
people in the space of the artwork always comes as a surprise, even to 
me.  Immediately people try to find a way to respond to the other user, as 
if to show that they exist in the work too.  When the group of concurrent 
users is large enough somebody usually takes over and clicks a hundred 
times in one spot, as if to dominate the space or bring order to the noise.

I don't announce the multi-user nature of the piece, and I'm still not sure 
if I should.  That's an aspect of interactivity.  Should the user expect 
this feature of the piece, or be surprised by it? I ruled out that people 
can talk to each other (using a text chat interface alongside the graphical 
window) because I wanted visitors to use the visual language and try to 
find a way to "talk" without words.

I'm just throwing out ideas here, about what aspects of this work matter to 
me.  There are many questions that interaction brings up, even in an 
abstract piece.  How much noise should be allowed?  How many options are 
there in the piece?  Should the visual language (of a piece like p-soup) 
contain many elements or very few.  Should all the features of the piece be 
visible up front or should some be hidden?  Is the piece about creating 
something using a plainly visible interface, or about exploring a 
deliberately obscured interface.

BTW I think the same way when I look at a site like, 
that I think would qualify as completely abstract interfaces.  The pieces 
create expectations and then fulfill some of them, but contradict 
others.  Sometimes I'm in total control of the piece, sometimes it seems to 
do something on it's own that is only partly in response to my actions.  I 
like that level of depth.  It intrigues me and then I want to explore the 
piece more, to figure it out, or simply to find what I can get it to do.

In all of these works there is an element of authority.  Who is in control 
of the piece?  Is it the user, the artist, perhaps multiple users.  Or some 
combination of these three.  In the static art object this is not an issue, 
except in the very rare case that somebody splatters blood on a painting.


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