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IX.5 September 2002
Page: 19
Digital Citation

Dare we define user-interface design?


What exactly do we mean by user-interface design?
  Apparently, it depends on who’s asking, or who’s speaking.
  Consider the following events.


Recently, Bill Moggeridge, a well-known product designer,
  acknowledged in a keynote address at Designing Interactive
  Systems 2002 (DIS 2002), a SIGCHI-sponsored design
  conference, that he, assisted by a fellow product designer,
  Bill Verplank, invented the concept of interaction design in
  the early 1980s. In his review of important contributors to
  this term that he never defined but which seemed to include
  much of user-interface design, he included a number of
  well-known user-interface researchers, as well as founders of
  Google, a successful Web-based information search service,
  and of Palm’s mobile-device operating system. The term
  user interface almost never entered the


About a year ago, Alan Cooper, a well-known software
  designer (and inventor of a software language) announced in
  the keynote address of the Usability Professionals
  Association’s annual conference, that he was the inventor of
  the concept of interaction design in the 1980s, a concept
  that he, too, never defined in his lecture but that seemed to
  include much of user-interface design. He also said that
  interaction design (thus, user-interface design) didn’t exist
  until he brought it into being.


In recent publications of the American Institute of
  Graphic Arts and conferences that it has co-sponsored with
  SIGCHI, promoters of a concept called experience
have proposed that they are designing something
  larger than, different from, and more important than
  user-interface design. Attempts to define exactly what this
  term includes in the promoters’ magazines, books, lectures,
  and conferences remain ambiguous thus far.


During a gathering to discuss the newly formed Institute
  of Design at the University of California at Berkeley, Arnold
  Wasserman, a well-known corporate product designer and
  strategist, praised the product design community for having
  been the first to emphasize usability rather than the human
  factors specialists’ more narrow focus on ergonomic issues.
  In doing so, he appeared to overlook the typography and
  graphic design community’s contemporaneous investigation of
  these same kinds of issues.


During the advent of the Web and the rise, then fall, of
  the DotComs, information architecture seemed to be the
  new term to describe much, but not all, of user-interface
  design. Note, however, that information architects, unlike
  their more established cousins, are not licensed to practice.
  (Certification for analysts and designers is a complex,
  thorny matter that I shall not address here.)


When I first began writing a user-interface design manual
  in the late 1970s, I was already aware that there was a topic
  of user-interface design. Shortly after that, CHI held its
  first conference. Today, product reviews in the Wall
  Street Journal
and the New York Times comment
  regularly on user-interface design. Apparently, these
  critics, and presumably the general public, understand the
  term user-interface design.


What is going on here? Many reasonably well-educated and
  presumably well-meaning professionals seem to be forgetting
  history, rewriting history, and muddying conceptual waters
  rather than clarifying them.


It seems appropriate on the occasion of SIGCHI’s 20th
  anniversary to consider how the profession defines itself,
  particularly in its "design" aspects. Of course,
  whether SIGCHI should undertake such an activity at all is
  debatable to some who worry about which professions are
  included and which are not. Others might say, let a thousand
  definitions bloom; the more the better.


I take a middle road in trying to be simple, clear, and
  consistent in defining the terms. Much is at stake in this
  conceptual turf battle. Around the world, institutions of
  higher learning are attempting to establish clear pedagogical
  objectives and curricula that present a coherent, inclusive
  view of user-interface design. More than 10 years ago, SIGCHI
  itself tried to describe a user-interface
  analysis–design–theory curriculum for computer
  science departments. Now, many professions are involved in
  trying to define this complex, challenging topic.


Almost any practical term could replace user-interface
. However, without clear, consistent, agreed-on
  conventions, the terminology may confuse professionals,
  teachers, and students, further confusing or boring the
  general public, and not effectively reaching the business
  community. Some inappropriate terms may become conventions,
  which sometimes impoverishes distinctions.


For example, the computer industry, has unfortunately,
  obliterated much of the useful distinction of sign,
  icon, and symbol. The general semiotics term
  sign is casually equated with its subterms icon
  (representational, or "natural" sign) and
  symbol (abstract or conventional signs). In many
  professional situations of analysis and design, these
  distinctions are important to maintain. Alas, all of the
  small visual signs of user interfaces are now loosely called
  icons by professionals as well as the public.


Some of the organizations that have a stake in this
  process of defining user interface and design
  include the following:



  • American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)

  • Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)

  • ACM Special Interest Group for Computer-Human Interaction

  • ACM Special Interest Group for Graphics and Interaction

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics Society

  • Industrial Design Society of America

  • International Institute for Information Design

  • Society for Technical Communication

  • Society for Software Design

  • Society for Software Psychology


You may have candidates to add to this list. Professionals
  of these and other organizations have considered one or more
  of these topics to be the appropriate term for essential
  design activities:



  • Applied semiotics

  • Computer-based communication design

  • Computer-based theater design

  • Computer-human interaction design

  • Experience design

  • Human-computer interaction design

  • Information architecture

  • Information design

  • Interaction design

  • Interactive media design

  • Narrative design

  • User-experience design

  • User-interface design

  • Visual design




If we are careful in our thinking, we
  should be able to translate from one paradigm to another,
  appreciating the various complexities and values.




Again, you may have additions to suggest. The terminology
  has always been fluid and subject to social, political, and
  technological shifts. Recall that man–machine
(MMI) was changed to ungendered synonyms during
  the late 1980s and early 1990s and that multimedia
  became a redundant term by the late 1990s. The availability
  of virtual and augmented reality; mobile devices; wearable
  computers; and less-noticeable, ubiquitous computers have all
  caused theorists, teachers, and professionals to rethink
  their terminology and definitions. It is also possible that
  well-designed definitions may serve during many changes of
  technology, if the terms are well defined.


Here is what seems to me to be a reasonable approach to
  defining user-interface design.


First, we should acknowledge that human beings, to
  paraphrase the structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss
  [4], are fundamentally tool- and sign-makers.
  As artifact makers, we are deeply connected to our wired-in
  capabilities; to personal emotional, cognitive, and spiritual
  needs and desires; as well as to our sociocultural
  constructs. We have been making clothes, hammers, and other
  physical tools for countless millennia. We also have been
  communicating through physical gesture, touch, sound, smell,
  and vision for eons. Tools enable us to change our physical
  environment. Written artifacts, including coins, parchment
  rolls, and walls, carry messages across space and time in a
  way physical gestures and speech cannot.


These aspects of the history of communication are worth
  mentioning, because the history of computers itself is
  closely enmeshed with the challenge to improve input and
  output techniques. What we are addressing essentially is not
  solely physical object design, but computer-mediated
  human-human communication.


User-interface design could be defined from the
  perspective of a tool, (physical object) or communication.
  Either way, both definitions would include interaction
  as a concept. However, it is important to appreciate the full
  meaning of user interfaces as communication artifacts. To
  call user-interface design interaction design misses some
  important points, as seems evident if one listens to
  proponents of interaction design.


In Designing Pleasurable Products
  [2], Patrick Jordan presents a property
  checklist for designing a power drill. The list includes many
  sensory attributes, functionality, and "interaction
  design," which is defined elsewhere as interaction
  sequences and protocols. The communication dimensions seem to
  be missing.


In the recent keynote lecture I mentioned earlier about
  the history of interaction design over the past 20 years,
  Bill Verplank mentioned that there is something else besides
  interaction design called media design, which is
  essentially an "expressive" activity. By
  "media," I understand such terms as broadcast
  television, video tapes, printed books, comic books, cinema,
  CDs, DVDs. In previous centuries, one would mention religious
  and governmental architectural sculptural friezes, documents,
  and monuments. As communication forms, according to the
  definitions of Moles [7], media convey
  information, persuasion, and aesthetics (some might add
  spiritual content). Definitions of media by interaction
  designers seem to view media as only expressive or aesthetic
  or persuasive communication, neglecting the long history of
  information-oriented visual communication design, with its
  close ties to graphic design, education, government,
  commerce, and technology.


Regarding "experience design," it seems that
  some graphic designers, media designers, Web designers,
  branding and business strategists, and others claim the
  design of the interactive experiences of a viewer, customer,
  visitor, resident, or reader. This claim seems a bit vague.
  What would architects of buildings or landscapes make of
  this? Would they not be one of the first to claim the design
  of interactive human experience? Those wishing to understand
  the work of experience designers might do well to consider
  the work of Disney designers, who do, indeed, control the
  total experience of visitors to Disney-fabricated
  environments [5].


What then are my proposed definitions? I have been
  refining them for many years, and I present them below in a
  short lexicon. This philosophical perspective emphasizes
  communication as a fundamental characteristic of computing,
  one that includes perceptual, formal characteristics and
  dynamic, behavioral aspects of how people interact through
  computer-based media. This approach acknowledges
  user-interface design more strongly as a set of communication
  design tasks but tries, also, to find places for product and
  architectural design. The intention has been to acknowledge
  the specific skills of many different artifact-design
  profesions. Sound designers, theater designers, graphic
  designers, and information designers often seem marginalized
  in the definitions that I have encountered. I have tried to
  formulate the definition of user-interface design in a manner
  that allows it to be inclusive, not exclusive. I have also
  tried to define terms so that they can survive the rapid
  change of platform technology. The eventual
  "disappearance" of computers and the rise of
  "smart" objects will always involve communication
  rituals. In some ways, we are back where we started 10,000
  years ago with the exchange of three-dimensional tokens, but
  with many new magnificent twists in our computer-based


I hope you will find this lexicon useful. Others may
  propose different perspectives and terms. If we are careful
  in our thinking, we should be able to translate from one
  paradigm to another, appreciating the varying complexities
  and values. Discussing these world views and terminology is a
  healthy intellectual, professional exercise. I invite you to
  join the ongoing debate.


A Brief User-Interface Lexicon (of Canonical, Reserved Terms)


Appearance: Includes all essential perceptual
  attributes, that is, visual, auditory, and tactile
  characteristics. Examples include choices of colors, fonts,
  animation style, verbal style (such as verbose/terse or
  informal/formal), sound cues, and vibration modes.


Communication: The conveyance of information,
  persuasion, aesthetics (and, some would add, spiritual
  content) from one entity to others. Typically, people
  describe, explain, emote, praise, or ritually enact through
  their communications. The activity requires senders,
  receivers, messages, and media. The process assumes that some
  behavior indicates that the receivers have acquired the
  messages and understood them.


Information: One level in a hierarchy of organized
  content to be communicated. The levels of increasing
  complexity are: data, information, knowledge, and wisdom,
  described as follows:



  • Data: Organized input from the senses

  • Information: Significant patterns of organized

  • Knowledge: Significant patterns of organized
      information with action plans

  • Wisdom: Significant patterns of organized
      knowledge plus real-world experience gained over time.


Information visualization: A special aspect of
  user interfaces, the means for communicating
  structures and processes, which may be shown in abstract or
  representational forms. Classically, these may be described
  as tables, forms, charts, maps, and diagrams. The list
  suggests an approximately increasing complexity of visual
  syntax. This term emphasizes visualization but is intended to
  include other sensory means to communicate information.


Interaction: Includes input-output techniques,
  status displays, and other feedback, both locally and
  globally. In the computer platforms of today, local examples
  include the detailed behavior characteristics of equipment,
  such as keyboards, mice, pens, or microphones for input;
  visual display screens, loudspeakers, or headsets for output;
  and the use of drag-and-drop selection and action sequences.
  Global examples include context issues, usage scenarios, and
  task activities at a larger scale.


Metaphor: Fundamental concepts [3]
  communicated via words, images, sounds, tastes, smells, and
  tactile experiences. In computer operating systems, metaphors
  substitute for collections or individual elements and help
  users understand, remember, and enjoy the entities and
  relationships of computer-based communication systems.
  Metaphors can be overarching or communicate specific aspects
  of user interfaces.


An example of an overarching metaphor is the desktop
  meta-phor that substitutes for the computer’s operating
  system, functions, and data. Examples of specific concepts
  are the trashcan, windows and their controls, pages, shopping
  carts, chat rooms, and blogs (Weblogs, or Web-based diaries).
  The pace of metaphor invention, including
  neologisms—that is, verbal metaphor in-vention—is
  likely to increase because of rapid development and
  distribution, through the Web and mobile devices, of mutable
  products and services. Some researchers are predicting the
  end of the desktop metaphor era and the emergence of new
  fundamental metaphors.


Mental models: Structures or organizations of data,
  functions, tasks, roles, and people in groups at work or
  play. Examples of related versions of mental models are user
  models (which include concepts of personas, goals, needs,
  desires, roles, and the like), user cognitive models, user
  task models, and designer models. Mental models exhibit
  hierarchies of content, tools, specific functions, media,
  roles, goals, tasks, and so on. Some professionals speak of
  goal-oriented design, user-centered design, task-centered
  design. These orientations emphasize close analysis of
  varying mental models.


Navigation: Involves movement through the mental
  models, that is, through content and tools. Examples of
  user-interface elements that facilitate such movement include
  those that enable dialogue, such as menus, windows, dialog
  boxes, control panels, icons, and tool palettes.


Semiotics: The science of signs
  [1]. Semiotics identifies four dimensions of
  "meaning" for information visualizations that
  communicate through "signs."



  • Lexical: How are the signs produced?

  • Syntactic: How are the signs arranged in space and
      time and with what perceptual characteristics?

  • Semantic: To what do the signs refer?

  • Pragmatic: How are the signs consumed or used?


User interface (UI): A computer-mediated means to
  facilitate communication between human beings or between a
  human being and an artifact. The user interface embodies both
  physical and communicative aspects of input and output, or
  interactive activity. The user interface includes both
  physical objects and computer systems (hardware and software,
  which includes applications, operating systems, and
  networks). A user interface may be said to consist of
  user-interface components. Reasonable synonyms for user
  interface include human-computer interface and human-human
  interface. This last term seems appropriate for an era in
  which computers themselves disappear, leaving only
  "smart" ritual objects and displays, such as
  "smart eyeglasses," "smart clothes" and
  "smart rooms."


User-interface components: metaphors,
  mental models, navigation, interaction,
  and appearance.


User-interface design: The general activity more
  properly should be called user-interface development, similar
  to software development. Design focuses on the synthesis


User-interface development: User-interface
  development consists of these tasks undertaken in a partially
  parallel, partially serial, partially iterative sequence:
  plan, research, analyze, design, implement, evaluate,
  document, train, maintain, and recycle/replace.


User-Interface platform: The user-interface
  platform is the physical home of the user interface, that is
  of the hardware and software. Traditional examples include
  terminals, workstations, desktop computers, Web sites,
  Web-based applications, information appliances, and mobile
  and wireless devices. However, in general, the platform
  encompasses all physical products (consumer or professional)
  such as chairs, power drills, tea kettles, tape measures, and
  physical environments, such as rooms, buildings, and




1. Eco, U. A Theory of Semiotics.
  Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1979. ISBN:


2. Jordan, P. Designing
Products: An Introduction to the New Human
Taylor and Francis, London, U.K., 2001. ISBN:


3. Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M.
  Metaphors We Live By. The University of Chicago Press,
  1980. ISBN: 0226468011.


4. Levi-Strauss, C. Structural
Trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Schoepf.
  Basic Books, New York, 2000. ISBN: 046509516X.


5. Marling, K.A., ed. Designing
  Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance.

  Flammarion, Paris, 1997. ISBN: 2080136399.


6. Meggs, P. A History of Graphic
. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1998. ISBN:


7. Moles, A. Information Theory and
  Esthetic Perception.
University of Illinois Press, 1968.
  ISBN: 0252724852.




Aaron Marcus, President Aaron Marcus and
  Associates, Inc.


Aaron Marcus ( is president of Aaron
  Marcus and Associates, Inc., Emeryville, California, and New
  York, New York ( Mr. Marcus frequently
  lectures on user-interface design and has authored or
  coauthored four books on the topic.


©2002 ACM  1072-5220/02/0900  $5.00


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