There's a method of calculating the value of a mathematical function that starts with a guess of the value, and then iteratively tries to improve it. It works fine as long as the initial guess is good enough, but there are some functions where if the initial guess is wrong, it appears as if the function converges on the answer, but it is in fact only a local optimal value, and not the optimal value.
Designing a user interface can be similar. People don't behave as we expect them to, so we make a first guess at an interface based on our expectations, and then user-test and try to iteratively improve the interfaceget it closer to how people really areuntil we can't get it any better.
An underlying problem, though, is that initial guess. It had better be close to how people really are; otherwise the user testing might improve the interface, but it won't find the optimal interface.
This means that we have to observe before designing an interface, as well as user-test after designing it: we have all sorts of prejudices and stereotypes about how people are, formed by experiences with our own small circle of friends, family, or colleagues, or through the media, that mislead us into making assumptions which may or may not be true. User-testing isn't going to undo those assumptions: only true observation can do that.
This issue of interactions is largely about observation: how do people interact with each other in the family using technology, particularly using visual media? How do our expectations match reality? How do people use existing technologies and how does the introduction of new technologies affect their behavior? Are technologies isolating people or bringing them together?
The issue arises from work done by Maypolea group of European companies and research groups that collaborate in looking into these questions. Maypole's results are backed up with interviews with a number of experts in the area of technology and the family. It has been an exciting issue to produce, and I would especially like to thank Kay Hofmeester and Yvon Gijsbers for all the hard work they have done to make it a very special issue.
©1999 ACM 1072-5220/99/1100 $5.00
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