HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 60
Digital Citation

Audience design

Ann Light

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Networked media introduce a new interface between the producers and consumers of information, across a range of platforms. Centralized distribution, connecting the worlds of producer and user through a screen now allows for (1) immediate, two-way, personalized responses, and (2) dialogue about content, and (3) joint content creation.

But interactions do not ensue simply because a mechanism is provided; the desire must also exist. Dismissing utopian ideas of citizens empowered by technological development [7, 8], Jensen [3] says: "As news services increasingly become available as computer media, they gain in importance as agenda-setters, cultural fora, and to some degree, sites of debate. However, computer media in and of themselves are unlikely to produce a more dialogic conception of news and politics."

Significantly, recent media theory has moved to a concept of audiences as "active": skilled in choice and interpretation [1]. These audiences not only create meaning from involvement with mass media, they also create identity. In buying one particular paper, in choosing to view one television channel rather than another, individuals make a statement about how they see the world. This commitment to certain activities involving media can generate, in media users, a perception of involvement with specific producers: a kind of trust. However, these are not the activities of "interactivity." Traditional mass media relations run on a one-producer-to-many-recipients model of transmission, with the option of co-identification and conceptual involvement, but little actual display of participation. By contrast, a range of online activities is open to users of networked media (see [4]). How can the two models of behavior be combined to design systems most effectively so that trust and commitment are encouraged by activities taking place through the media?

The combination of trust and expertise is identified as credibility by the Stanford Web Credibility Project [2]. Launching a product or taking it online raises particular credibility challenges in this respect, as traditional indicators vanish behind the leveling effect of a computer screen. How do the means of interaction offered by different networked producers serve to create credibility and what factors influence the creation of trust in users?

To learn more about how media producers regard the opportunities for relationship building through an interactive medium, six British information providers were interviewed about their practices. Questions put to online information producers included the following:

  • How have information providers employed their power to design interaction mechanisms for the Web?
  • Has interaction with users been useful to them?
  • When have options for interaction been used?

Large British information producers with existing media products were chosen as the core sample for interviewing to see how they had reacted to the interactive challenge of the new medium. Each was making online services integral to their portfolio at the time of the interviews.

The interviews showed that information producers expected that relations would be changed by the new medium's interactivity, but also that their response was polarized. Two contrasting interaction design policies ("inclusive" and "authoritative") were drawn up by combining the results of this study and earlier user studies showing that site visitors are careful about committing to interaction through Web sites, judgmental on social clues about the nature of the producer [4, 6], and prepared to act only for good reason [5]. But it was also found that visitors may be encouraged to become more participative, more trusting of, or more positively disposed toward a site (and producer) by being offered carefully targeted interaction opportunities and a chance to be "media users."

bullet.gif Inclusive Policy

The relationship-building benefit of supporting user-centered activities was identified mostly in organizations with a public duty, though employed elsewhere less deliberately. A key factor to the success of relationship building was to ensure that functions appear nurtured, which might require allocation of funds. Some successful tactics have been to:

  • Display user-generated material as an integral part of the site.
  • Attempt to link together people with common goals.
  • Provide material for users to customize and incorporate into their communal activities.
  • Conduct consultation exercises on the Web, aimed at groups of users, with a view to developing policy.

When discussions facilities were regarded as successful—and frequently they were not—the call for material was:

  • Specific: it had a single function
  • Event-driven: it was topical
  • User-centered: on issues that affect visitors directly
  • Experience-based: it asked for personal accounts
  • Influential: notice was taken of what transpired, reflected in the body of the site and also elsewhere, if the information provider had other outlets

Making the Web site culture collaborative encourages users to identify with, appropriate material from, and contribute material to the site. Producers with this emphasis have found that some of the feedback they gather is more social than transactional in style.

bullet.gif Authoritative Policy

By contrast, the authoritative policy does not seek to include visitors. It is employed by information providers that wish to sell users individually the information they require, possibly with differential pricing structures. Among competing providers, they wish to be sought out as the definitive source, therefore an air of unquestioned authority is desirable. Powerful databases and effective search engines are an integral part of these sites. Additional services include packaging and personalizing information. These exchanges do not involve visitors directly with the providers; if communication facilities are offered, they are used to answer questions, possibly by providing access to experts. Any public activity involving users must reinforce the authority of the site. Inclusion of visitors in the way described in the preceding section could involve a loss of this status. However, in both kinds of interaction design, providing feedback mechanisms is politic. It is expected and may be the first indication of technical problems.

Both types of policy act to inspire trust in visitors. Audiences are offered a participant model or a consumer model of activity. The first exploits peer response and the build-up of a culture around the site for its credibility. In this respect, it shares features with sites run by individuals and community groups, which visitors regard with greater trust and tolerance than corporate and media sites [6]. The second, conversely, uses remoteness as a mark of credibility; however, it too relies on visitors identifying with the site's values and, by extension, those of other users.

The matrix in Figure 1 shows how the policies described here can be made to interact with Stanford's work on what constitutes credibility in a Web site [2], to further illuminate the strategies to which the interaction policies belong.

The types of interaction referred to in the policies are not specific to one interface; they could be applied to any form of mass communication. However, the inclusive policy is better to suited to an interface in which contributing is simple, and the authoritative interface requires, at a minimum, select and search mechanisms and a good reading interface.

back to top  References

1. Abercrombie, N. and Longhurst, B. Audiences. Sage, London, 1998.

2. Fogg, B.J, Marshall, J., Laraki, O., Osipovich, A., Varma, C., Fang, N., Paul, J., Rangnekar, A., Shon, J., Swani, P. and Treinen, M. "What Makes A Web Site Credible? A Report on a Large Quantitative Study". Proceedings of ACM CHI 2001 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, vol. 1, pp. 61-68. ACM Press, New York, 2001.

3. Jensen, K.B. Interactivities: Constituents of a Model of Computer Media and Communication. In Moving Images, Culture and the Mind (I. Bondebjerg, ed.), Luton Press, Luton, 2001.

4. Light, A. Interactivity and User Commitment: Building Relationships through Interaction on Websites. In People and Computers XV, Springer, London, 2001, pp. 459-475.

5. Light, A. and Rogers, Y. Conversation as Publishing: the Role of News Forums on the Web. In Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 4, 4 (1999). Available at www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol4/issue4/

6. Light, A. and Wakeman, I. Beyond the Interface: Users' Perceptions of Interaction and Audience on Websites. In Interacting with Computers 13, 3 (2001), pp. 325-353.

7. Negroponte, N. Being Digital. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1995.

8. Rheingold, H. The Virtual Community. Minerva, London, 1994.

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Author's Bio

Ann Light is a journalist and communications specialist and publishes on digital media and interaction design as a visiting researcher at the University of Sussex. Her interests include how education might be made to respond to technological developments in society; and designing qualitative research methods that draw on the arts and humanities for inspiration. She has a doctorate in interaction design research, focusing upon building relationships through Web sites; a master's in Knowledge-Based Systems; and a first degree in English.

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F1Figure 1. Matrix combining credibility criteria with interaction policies.

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0300  $5.00

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