HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 44
Digital Citation

Can HCI shape the future of mass communications?

Nico Macdonald

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The Internet's greatest potential lies in communication (and mass communication), as this is an area of life well-suited to the digital realm. The sharing of ideas and information is becoming more important in the developed world as skills in manufacturing are decreasingly exploited, and as people have more leisure time and are increasingly prepared to spend more time on digital media.

In the following special section, we define mass communication as the presentation of editorially or creatively shaped information or entertainment, presented by an individual or organization to significant numbers of individuals. It encompasses the publishing of news, articles, papers, and books (using the Web, e-mail, SMS and syndication technologies); broadcasting of time-based media (primarily in radio and TV formats but including other modes such as phone conferencing); and the facilitation of online group interaction (through discussion, chat, or instant messaging).

Publishers, broadcasters, and other mass communicators have largely failed to create and popularize new and appropriate forms of mass communication. In the early days of the Internet boom mass communicators invested extensively, following a "because you can" approach to information technology, but they also tended to emulate existing established media, or adopt the most limited new models of online communication. The fall-off in investment put a damper on any kind of substantial innovation (except in broadcasting where digital and satellite television and radio are finally taking off) and online publishers are stuck in isolated Web silos. Even there they have little appreciation of what can be achieved without substantial investment. Meanwhile a grassroots phenomenon—Weblogging—is having a substantial impact on mass media, and has become a media story itself.

Andrew Zolli, forecaster and design strategist, observes in his article in this section: "The very thing that makes traditional mass communications platforms (such as television, radio, newspapers, and magazines) so successful is how completely they have solved their respective interface challenges." The achievement is under-appreciated by mass communicators, and is a key area in which people with human-computer interaction (HCI) and design skills can help these industries develop.

However, as CHI2003 chair Gilbert Cockton observes, this requires HCI to go beyond its historical focus on tasks and measurement, and to also address an area of activity which is often concerned with affecting people.

There are a number of basic HCI principles that are generally ignored in the mass communication industries. The most basic is ease-of-use, an issue addressed in "E-mail and Ease-of-Use" by Mark Hurst. Related to ease-of-use is the need for interaction design that works and is satisfying for the user. Another HCI principle that is generally disregarded is the value of visualizing information and taking advantage of users' perceptual and cognitive abilities. The importance of context of use, and using context to infer a reader's likely preference is also under-appreciated—as is the idea of inferring interest from reader actions. Special Section authors Anxo Roibas and and Riccardo Sala address context of use and user identification, and propose using mobile phones to control interaction.

Established mass communicators have been poor at facilitating online conversation. At the CHI2003 panel on mass communication, consultant and author Michael Schrage commented that "traditional media have really sucked at making this transition," citing evidence from The New York Times's moderated forums. "Where are the tools that simulate how the best moderators or facilitators manage interaction?" asks Schrage in his column in this section. "I don't see them. Even worse, I don't even see meaningful attempts at them."

More generally, mass communicators have failed to understand dialogic communication. Models for this can be drawn from social interaction in the real world and might be built around ideas of willingness and approachability, appropriateness of communication, and by asking where conversation is relevant. In Ann Light's opinion piece, she reports that in the UK the BBC offered to publish reader-created material—such as pictures of protest marches during the recent Iraq conflict—on its Web site. In the Development consortium discussion she noted that acknowledgement of contributions set contributors' expectations: that they should come back tomorrow and see if their images have been published but that the conversation is ended.

Ease of contribution is also critical in facilitating on-the-ground reporting of events—like the recent earthquake in Bam, Iran—and is a key element in talk radio. Mass communicators have also forgotten (if they ever knew) that the Web began life with a read-write model, as Mercury News Technology Columnist Dan Gillmor noted in his contribution to the panel, adding that other communication media such as the telephone and SMS retain this characteristic.

Being able to view and author in the same environment and directly manipulate material are important characteristics for mass communication tools, not least for the people formally employed in these industries. Weblogging tools, with their "edit this page" model, have made great strides here, largely it appears without direct contributions from HCI professionals.

With its "baked in" RSS syndication format, Weblogging also presages the idea that data, presentation, and manipulation can be separated. Mass communicators have tended to see the Web as a way of presenting "pictures of data" but it is clear we are moving to a model in which applications (and new devices) will be used to access and manipulate published or broadcast information, and mass communicators will need to learn how to facilitate this. The issue of manipulation and re-use of date is addressed by Louis Weitzman in his article "Meta-Design for Sensible Information."

A related challenge, and one that has been addressed with only varying success, is helping users control their information "eco-systems." "The greatest mistake that they are making is to assume that value is located in content itself, rather than in the diverse uses that people make of it," notes Luke Skrebowski in his opinion piece. "New product development needs to start paying closer attention to the ecology of peoples' media usage."

As broadcasters' and publishers' historical material can now be accessed online they tend to become reference sources as much as sources of entertainment or news. Models for presenting material in a more documentary or referenceable fashion still elude most. Parallel to this are the possibilities of acting in a more curatorial mode, and helping users to better understand broader and deeper sources of information than is produced by any individual organization.

More generally, the mass communication industries lack the experience of the social phenomena they seek to exploit, and of they ways in which people use mass communication technologies, particularly in the home. Often they are unaware of the social and cultural role of these artifacts, an area explored by Darren Reed in his article here. In addition, Neil Budde, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal Online, argues in his column that mass communicators need to marry their understanding of the behavior of users with demographic and usage data, and turn this into actionable information.

As Cockton intimates, the HCI community has some learning to do as well. Zolli adds specifics in his column "Can HCI Deliver on its Promise?" "The model of the abstract, task-oriented, dispassionate user that dominates many HCI-oriented investigations may work for certain, limited domains such as application software," he writes. "But the mass communications 'end user' is driven as much by emotion, narrative, and aesthetics."

Don Norman began to address some of these issues at the CHI2003 closing plenary. However, to gain a real understanding requires a fundamental engagement with people who have these skills in this area, rather than dispassionate observation of the artifacts they produce. In Nick Bryan-Kinns and Peter Broadbent's article, they discuss the need to integrate aesthetics, HCI and business models, with technology as the enabler.

A related issue is that mass communicators tend to have an editorial point of view, and seek to prioritize some information and ideas over others, where an HCI approach typically seeks to create a neutral environment for the user. In this area there is much to learn from editorial design in print.

As with other the disciplines with which HCI professionals collaborate, empathy is critical. "Better collaboration with journalists (of all stripes, including amateurs) would be a good start," writes Gillmor in his column.

There are a number of other challenges that HCI professionals and the mass communication industries need to address. One challenge is reconciling the tension between usability and the needs of some mass communicators to expose people to things they may not choose or want to see, particularly advertising.

Helping audiences make meaning is a broader challenge. One element of this involves developing ways to communicate credibility and authority, which Light addresses in her article "Audience Design." Another is presenting responses to, and discussions around, an editorial artifact in ways that reflect the dimensions of the discussion, and giving users a context for and ways into a debate.

A basic challenge identified by Budde is creating payment systems that work for editorial and allow for "an impulse purchase that doesn't require three pages of registration." This is a subset of a great challenge outlined by Norman Lewis in his article "From Customization to Ubiquitous Personalization," in which he describes the need for and elements of a digital identity.

Creating competing and complementary services is a challenge identified by Lorenzo Wood and Luke Skrebowski in their article "The Future's Here; It's Just Unevenly Distributed." They consider applying the concept of affordances to media platforms, and what new affordances can be created when on- and offline media are combined.

The possibilities for collaboration between HCI and the mass communication industries are tremendous. "There has never been a better time to be good at HCI than today," commented Schrage in his panel contribution, noting that people are more realistic about the notion of quality of good interfaces, and the value of good work is better appreciated.

Lewis, who is Director of Technology Research at France Telecom's Wanadoo Group, writes that "the design of this interface is going to be absolutely critical. You will stumble or you will get there on this basis, no matter how intelligent these things are." In Zolli's article "HCI and Mass Communications," he concludes that "solving these kinds of interface challenges to produce effortless tools, is the 21st century equivalent of what media companies have already achieved with television, radio, and print."

Of course HCI can't solve all the issues related to mass communication. Many of its challenges are (more simply) related to the need for human intervention, to moderate and shape discussion, and bring an editorial perspective to information.

And there are social challenges that neither technology nor editors can address appropriately. One such challenge relates to the widespread desire to protect people (particularly children) from certain kinds of content. Ultimately this is an issue for parents to deal with in their own ways. As Gillmor observed during the panel discussion "parents need to be better parents." A participant in the debate added that this is about the human capacity to ignore information, and is an issue beyond the realms of the CHI community.

Nevertheless, HCI professionals have a great deal more to contribute to the world of mass communication. This is a largely unexplored area for both parties and should be a rewarding journey. We hope the contributions that follow constitute a valuable contribution to its progress.

back to top  Author

Nico Macdonald is a UK-based writer and facilitator who writes widely in design and technology publications, and consults on publishing strategy. He is author of What is Web Design? (RotoVision, Autumn 2003, www.whatiswebdesign.com). He is currently writing a report on mass communication for the UK Work Foundation's iSociety project, which will be published later this year.

back to top  Footnotes

This section of interactions is based on the Development Consortium on Mass Communication and Interaction convened by Nico Macdonald at CHI2003 in Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA. The Development Consortium is documented at events.spy.co.uk/Panels/CHI2003/DevCon. Thanks are due to Rich Goldman of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for assistance with the Development Consortium, and to IBM for assistance with printing the Development Consortium poster.

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0300  $5.00

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