XII.6 November + December 2005
Page: 13
Digital Citation

Policy at the interface

Jonathan Lazar, Jeff Johnson, Harry Hochheiser

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Designing user interfaces to technology is a political act. It is political because it influences—sometimes even determines—what people can and cannot do. For example, since the days of Mosaic, Web browsers have included an option for viewing the HTML source for a Web page. Including this feature was arguably a political and public-policy decision: It created a more open and inclusive Web.

Human-machine interface issues play an important role in a variety of public policy discussions. For example:

Accessibility. In the US, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the federal government to purchase or develop technology that is accessible to people with disabilities. Similar rules apply in other countries (e.g., Australia, Brazil, Canada, Portugal), but the scope of the rules vary (e.g., Australia's rules cover most company Web sites, not just government sites). Because of these rules, user interfaces have arguably been improved. However, it is still unclear under US law how these rules apply to private Web sites. The current situation is a hodgepodge of case law, state rules, and industry-specific rules (e.g. transportation).

Privacy. The possibility of technical approaches to privacy protection for Web surfers has been used (in the US) as an argument against privacy legislation. However, designing privacy policy displays and controls that most Web users can understand has proved challenging. Research and development by members of our profession will determine the extent to which privacy can be safeguarded by technical means.

Viruses, Spam, Spyware. Invasions of unwanted email or malicious code are arguably the most frustrating nuisances faced by current computer users. The expense of fighting these plagues has led to legislation, both enacted (e.g., the CAN-SPAM Act in the US), and proposed. Easy-to-use tools probably can't eliminate these problems, but could help people manage them. Most modern email programs provide tools for identifying and filtering spam. Filter-monitoring tools providing comprehensible feedback might help users see which filtering rules are effective and which are not. Many people use anti-virus software on their computers, but few computer users can use it effectively. More usable anti-virus and system monitoring software could help users detect the presence of malware, and remove it.

Voting and Elections. The infamous butterfly ballot of the 2000 US election showed clearly that user-interface factors can hinder people from voting as desired, and potentially even affect the outcome of elections. The butterfly ballot design has been corrected, but voting problems in the 2004 election, compiled using the Election Incident Reporting System, show that usability problems continue to plague voting systems—both electronic and traditional. Systems used by poll workers and election officials to tabulate votes and manage elections raise similar usability concerns. The Help American Vote Act, passed by the US Congress in 2002, included provisions that mandate statewide voter registration databases by January 1, 2006. As these systems will be used to determine who is and is not eligible to vote, usability difficulties with these systems could disenfranchise voters.

Copyrights and Piracy. In the recent MGM v. Grokster case, the US Supreme Court found that peer-to-peer network providers can be found liable if they promote their networks as tools for copyright infringement. While this may be largely a question of marketing and business models, user-interface issues may come into play. How might the user interfaces of these systems promote responsible file-sharing? Can we design tools that both help people share legitimate materials and discourage illegal piracy?

User-interface questions play a role in these and other issues at the intersection of technology and public policy. HCI professionals can play an important role in educating, informing, proposing solutions, and raising concerns. This could mean educating lawmakers and commenting on proposed legislation. Because legislation and regulation often say what must be done, not precisely how it is to be done, advice from HCI professionals can help those charged with implementing technical approaches to legislation. Other questions will be addressed by standards and industry efforts—arenas in which HCI expertise may be under-represented. When groups like the Internet Engineering Task Force address tactics for fighting spam, HCI professionals should be involved in analyzing the impact of proposed solutions upon end-users of Internet email.

Many HCI professionals were drawn to this work by the desire to make computers work better for human goals. Active engagement in the discussions of the interplay between human-computer interaction and public policy provides us with an opportunity to constructively share our unique expertise. The SIGCHI US public policy committee, formed in 2004, is working to play this role in the US. We welcome additional interest from our colleagues in the US, similar efforts from HCI people in other countries, and active engagement and interest from the HCI community.

back to top  Authors

Jonathan Lazar
Towson University

Jeff Johnson
UI Wizards

Harry Hochheiser

About the Authors:

Dr. Jonathan Lazar is an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, in the Fisher College of Science and Mathematics at Towson University, where he founded and directs the Universal Usability Laboratory. He is also an affiliate professor in the Center for Applied Information Technology and currently serves as director of the Computer Information Systems undergraduate program. His most recent book is titled Web Usability: A User-Centered Design Approach and is published by Addison-Wesley.

Jeff Johnson is principal consultant at UI Wizards, Inc. He has degrees from Yale and Stanford Universities and his published works include many articles and book chapters on HCI, including two UI design books: GUI Bloopers (2000) and Web Bloopers (2003). He is a longtime member and former chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), and co-chaired the Participatory Design of Computer Systems conference (PDC'90). He has advised policymakers at local, state, and federal levels and helped write CPSR's guidelines for Internet policy for the White House office of Science and Technology Policy. He helped develop the Election Incident Reporting System, a Web-based system for reporting voting problems and irregularities, used in the November 2004 election.

A founding member of the SIGCHI committee on US Public Policy, Harry Hochheiser has worked on a wide range of policy issues, including Internet filtering, privacy, voting, and Internet Governance. Harry is a member of the executive committee of the USACM, ACM's central committee on US Public Policy. From 1997 to 2003, Harry was a member of the board of directors of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

back to top  Sidebar: SIGCHI US Public Policy Committee

Ben Bederson
University of Maryland
(committee chair)

Harry Hochheiser
National Institute on Aging

Jeff Johnson
UI Wizards

Clare-Marie Karat
IBM Research

Jonathan Lazar
Towson University

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/1100  $5.00

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