Christopher Fahey [askrom] on Tue, 30 Apr 2002 23:44:02 +0200 (CEST)

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

> thinking about the end user has never been a *requirement* of art. and
> once you start thinking about the end user you get into all those
> difficult areas like "which end user."  You start thinking about
> usability and not necessarily, form. 

I agree with this as a general principle, but with three big caveats: 

interactive/computer-based artworks I've seen use/exploit/appropriate
the language of commercial computer software quite extensively - they
ask you to use a mouse, a keyboard, a monitor, and often even menus,
icons, form fields, browsers, etc. Sometimes they even have SoftwareLike
names. A computer-based artwork with poor usability (and by "usability"
I mean standard software-industry usability: the ability to accomplish
anticipated tasks) often has the effect of appearing to me as just bad
craftsmanship. Rest assured DIY-ers out there, I don't want to give
undue value to craftsmanship, but when a work of art tries to speak the
language of commercial computer software, it is sometimes incumbant on
the artist to use the language well. 

(2) SHOOTING SELF IN FOOT: Sometimes an interactive artwork might have a
degree of depth to it or a ton of cool stuff to experience, see,
interact with - but poor usability makes those 'features' inaccessible.
SFMOMA had a notorious brush with this problem last year. I challenge
you to actually find and view any artwork at the site. The designer's commitment to making
interesting interactive elements failed to allow site visitors to see
the artworks in the site. Again this is a matter of craft, I suppose,
but even the most craftless interactive artwork has tasks and goals that
the artists desires the user to find and experience. Usability can make
the difference between someone seeing your work or missing it

(3) CHALLENGING THE USER: As Joseph pointed out, "ease of use" is often
deliberately thwarted in computer games. Interactivity as an art form
(and as a new kind of creative human experience) would be terribly
boring if everything were easy or obvious. A game that tells you how
everything works is an insult to the player's intelligence. 
There's a famous usability book (quite a good one for professional
information architects like myself, actually) called "Don't Make Me
Think". The premise is that every little detail of the user interface
has the risk of making a user think too much, and that too many of these
add up to a hard-to-use site. For example, a user can understand that a
grey rectangle with bevelled edges is a "button" in under a millisecond,
but simple black bold text on a white background is likely to require a
second or two for the user to figure out, and a photo of a dog with the
word "submit" on his collar might take many seconds to figure out. It's
not insulting to the user's intelligence to craft something that doesn't
make them think while they do dumb tasks that are rather tedious anyway,
like filling out a form to order airplane tickets. While I agree with
the "Don't Make Me Think" rule of thumb in a business context, in an art
or entertainment context it's not necessarily true at all.

Josh Davis said, in one of his many famous tirades against usability
guru Jakob Nielsen, that we shouldn't treat users like idiots. That's a
good rule of thumb in any context.


[christopher eli fahey]

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