Signs, Traces, and Remains of Gestures: Notes for navigating interface design in the digital environment. By Tere Badia

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Interfaces are not neutral tools. User and performativity theories are embedded in the design of these artefacts, and identifying some of the factors that these theories are based on allows us to detect tactical and technical design choices, and to examine the potential and limits of their implementation and of our behaviour. In view of this, and recognising that this is just one fragment of the prism of this manifesto, this text suggests four coordinates to bear in mind while reading this map: script, domestication, performativity, and usability.

The script: Define a starting line, known as the base line, and determine its longitude and latitude at each end.

File:Example.jpg T0390S14 F3.gif

Fig: The principle of triangulation. (As per A. N. Strahler, 1963)[1]

The script is the basic concept that underpins the study of these artefacts. The notion of the script can be read within constructivist theory, in which technology is analysed as text (Woolgar 1991; Latour 1988). According to Liesbet van Zoonen, the idea of the script is conceptually similar to the concept of “audience involvement” in communication studies, in which presupposed users in a text are signifiers (Zoonen 2000). Anne-Jorunn Berg suggests that the use of the concepts of “coding” to describe the activity of the writer, and “decoding” to describe that of the user originated in the field of media studies. All of these concepts set up a connection between designers (authors) and users (readers) in which the technology (text) plays a crucial role (Els Rommes, 2002, 15).[2]

The script for a particular technology consists of the assumptions that the programmer makes about the users and future users of an artefact. These assumptions crystallise in the technology and predetermine the design and use of that technology. As Madeleine Akrich [3], suggests, in the design process for any technology “innovators are from the very start constantly interested in their future users. They construct many different representations of these users, and objectify these representations in technological choices.” Designers inscribe the profiles of future users within the technology in the form of scripts that both attribute and delegate to users specific competences and actions, prescribing what actors are supposedly going to do – what they will be able to do – in order to make that technology work.

The origin of Akrich’s concept of a “script” lies in the process of in-scription [4]: “Designers thus define actors with specific tastes, competences, motives, aspirations, political prejudices, and the rest, and they assume that morality, technology, science, and economy will evolve in particular ways. (...) A large part of the work of innovators is that of ‘inscribing’ this vision of (or prediction about) the world in the technical content of the new object. I will call the end product of this work a ‘script’ or a ‘scenario’.” In order to recognize and analyze this process of inscription, Akrich suggests carrying out the opposite process: “(...) it is in the confrontation between technical objects and their users that the latter are rendered real or unreal (...) we have to continually go back and forth between the designer and the user, between the designer’s projected user and the real user, between the real world inscribed in the object and the world described by its displacement. Description then becomes the inventory and analysis of the mechanisms that allows the relation between a form and a meaning constituted by and constitutive of the technical object to come into being”.[5]

Domestication: Organise the concepts of direction and distance so as to enable a broad system of “natural” relationships

Based on a “processual” idea of technology – where the prevailing notion is that technologies are constantly reconstructed and represented in particular constellations – the analysis of the use of these artefacts is grounded in the concept of the appropriation or domestication of the artefact, which is the process by which a technology is accepted, altered, or changes its users. “(...) domestication of ICTs a term which we use to refer to the complex social processes through which objects are taken into and find a place within the home – or are rejected” (Silverstone, 1994).[6]. In these processes, which are not free of political and cultural implications, the notion of domestication affects the different stages of implementation of technological artefacts. Silverstone writes that “domestication is anticipated in design, and design is completed in domestication. (...) both constrain and enable the capacity of consumers to define their own relationship to the technologies that are offered to, or confront, them. These constraints (...) are embodied in design and marketing and in the public definitions of ‘what these technologies can and should be used for’.”[7].

Even though focusing on both of these processes – identifying the script inscribed in the artefact on one hand, and detecting the appropriations of the tool by users on the other – is an ideal scenario for a thorough analysis of these technologies in relation to possible transformations of the concept of online identity, here we will focus only on the first, leaving aside the analysis of the impact of users. Nonetheless, we will include the concept of domestication as one of the coordinates for navigation, because, as mentioned above, it offers a lens through which to calibrate the contributions of tools analysed in the discussion around user-centred interfaces.

Performativity: Unlike topographic maps, marine charts show the heights and depths relative to sea level at all points. For this reason, marine charts use two different levels of reference

Fig: Relationship between tide surfaces, cartographic datum, and physical characteristics (As per W. D. Forrester, 1983)

One of the premises for navigating an interface is to set up a feedback process with the interface itself, based on the record of the user’s activity, so that his participation, the intensity of his relationships, and the memory of his “logs” (connections) are memorised in an interconnected way. We can use the performativity of the artefact – the data that it records and the value it confers on them – as an indicator for identifying these operating mechanisms, and the discourse that these mechanisms hide in relation to the concept of identity. Performativity here is understood as “the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (Butler, 1993).[8].

The intimate relationship between discourse and action defended by Butler and other gender theorists was already foreshadowed in the philosophy of Hannah Arendt. “In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and the sound of the voice. This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction [9] to ‘what’ somebody is (...) is implicit in everything somebody says and does” (Arendt, 1993, 203).[9] al “qué” es alguien (...) está implícito en todo lo que ese alguien dice y hace” [10] (Arendt, 1993, 203). From this point of view, “discourse” or “speaking” ceases to be merely informative and communicational. Pervaded by its performativity, functions on the level of the construction of the user.

After determining the script and performativity of a device, we should pay attention to the form it takes – its interface – to discover the type of mediation that the artefact encourages: between the user and technology, and between the user and others.

Photogrammetry: The stereoscopic vision of the cartographer, of two photos superimposed to produce a three-dimensional model and transfer the information from the aerial photographs to the manuscript map.

Traditionally, the interface is conceived as a system for optimizing communication between humans and machines: “A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world. It is a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland...” [11] (Sutherland,1965)[12]

With the introduction of the internet, this idea was reformulated, and the computer itself came to be considered as the interface between humans and “something” that is behind the machine. This shifted the problem of the interface in computers to the field of system design centred on “usability”: the user has a specific goal in mind, and the role of the system is to guide him to it quickly and surely.

Fig: Stereoscopic plotter. Canada, Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, 1976

A system’s usability is based on its effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction within a specific usage context. In other words, on its accuracy and its error rate, its appropriateness to the context, its ease of use, and how easily it can be learnt and remembered. The notion of usability, popularised through the techniques and principles defined by computer engineers such as Jakob Nielsen[13] is based on having the user’s needs in mind. This means that designers need to discover, understand, and work with people representing the actual or potential users of the product. As such, from the perspective of usability, “user-representation” is the key to the success of an interface. This usability discourse was essential to the development of disciplines such as Human Computer Interaction (HCI) – which also has to do with the development of dynamic information displays such as the ones we are dealing with here – as a means that sought to improve system security, functionality and efficiency[14].

It supports the mass production of artefacts, the standardisation of communication and interaction, and the creation of systems that offer users what they expect and nothing else. Under the principle of the exchangeability of users – standardisation – HCI seeks to “design one interface for everybody. That is in terms of culture and in terms of the first industrialization: the computer is a monoculture and the computer is used as a tool that is used to produce products. The resulting tools are mass products that expect a sort of average user for its optimal functioning. This leads to a standardization of interaction and communication styles (G. Trogemann et alt.)[15]. This standardization required by usability raises a problem when it comes to adapting to different users who are required to adapt their skills and modes of interaction to the system, thus spreading the homogenizing effects (Geert Lovink, 2001).[16]. Analysing the extent to which the concept of “usability” has conditioned the design of the software interfaces we use would help us to learn more about the forms that the “self” adopts in online presentations, its adaptability and its versatility as a communicational interface.

As mentioned earlier, a determining factor latent in the concepts of interface and usability is the notion of “user representation”. This notion, which has been extensively theorised by writers such as Akrich, Woolgar, Oudshoorn and Silverstone [17], has become one of the most widespread tools for the analysis of technological products. The notion of user representation emerges when the projected identities of possible users are employed by designers in the context and the process of designing devices.[18]. In the structuralist approach of theorists such as Akrich, the success of an artefact depends on the designer’s ability to generate an appropriate representation of the user and to inscribe it in the technological artefact. Other approaches are more focused on identity, such as Woolgar’s, for whom the “user configuration” – the character, abilities, and future actions – must be structured and defined in relation to the artefact. In contrast, Rommes’ approach in her analysis of the DDS[19] adds symbolic aspects stemming from cultural, economic, and social processes in the designer’s and the user’s relations with technology. We are interested in studying technology from this broad perspective, which is also defended by authors like Silverstone, because it enables us to distinguish between the dynamic of the interface and the dynamic of the context in which the interface is located. This approach ends up becoming a ‘map of interests’ (Callon, Law, 1998)[20], similar to actor-network theory, which is one of the core methodologies that the Manifesto is grounded in.

  1. The images in this text are sourced from
  2. Els Rommes, “Gender scripts and the Internet”. Twente University Press, Enschede, 2002.
  3. Quoted by Els Rommes, Op.Cit. , 15.
  4. Michel Callon defined “inscription” in clearer terms as the translation of the programmer’s interests to a material form.
  5. Akrich, M. “The De-scription of technical objects”. En: Bijker, W.E. & Law, J. (Eds.)” Shaping Technology, Building Society”. London: MIT Press, 1997. 205-224.
  6. Leslie Haddon and Roger Silverstone: “The Careers of Information and Communication Technologies in the Home” en “Proceedings of the the International Working Conference on Home Orientated Informatics, Telematics and Automation.” Copenhagen, June 27th-July 1st 1994,
  7. Quoted in Els Rommes, Op.Cit. 214
  8. Judith Butler, “Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex””. Routledge, New York 1993, 2. (Ed. Cast.: “Cuerpos que importan: sobre los límites materiales y discursivos del “sexo”. Paidós, Barcelona 2002)
  9. En la traducción castellana de “The Human Condition”, Arendt, 1958.
  10. Hannah Arendt, “The Human Condition” 1958. Se ha utilizado la edición castellana: “La condición humana”, Paidós, Barcelona 1993, 203.
  11. Ivan Sutherland „The Ultimate display“, 1965, en Howard Rheingold „Realidad Virtual“, Gedisa, Barcelona 1994, 18.
  12. .In 1963, Ivan Sutherland created Sketchpad, device with an attached light pen, which the user moved on a tablet in order to activate actions on a monitor connected to a computer. It was the first system to use a symbolic interface and direct manipulation of graphic symbols, allowing users to generate graphics directly on screen by means of the light pen. The movements on the sketchpad also modified the computer memory, and the screen became interactive in realtime. Sketchpad was a totally new way of working with computers, and proof that computers could be used for more than just processing data. The notion of the digital interface was born.
  13. Dr. Dr. Jakob Nielsen is a usability guru who has worked on different ways of automatically implementing user interfaces. He is the author of the best-seller Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis, 2000.
  14. The development of HCI influenced research on emotional computing through intuitive interfaces. The aim of emotional computing is to produce “emotionally intelligent” digital tools that can detect and respond to the moods of users – frustration, confusion, interest, boredom, distraction, concentration – as they interact with a computer. These types of applications, which seek to improve “usability”, are developed in line with three objectives: 1.- To physically and psychologically enable emotional communication by means of the design of new communication tools. 2.- To reduce user frustration through the development of applications that detect and manage this frustration. 3.- To develop applications that manage affective information.
  15. G.Trogemann, J.Viehoff, A.Roch: “Interfaces and Errors” en “Sciences of the Interface.Proceedings of the International Symposium. ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany, May 18-21, 1999”. Diebner,H., Druckrey,T., Weibel, P. Eds. Genista Verlag, Tübingen 2001, 98.
  16. Geert Lovink, “Dissociate webdesign from usability”, 2001, en rev. Laudanum, 2003
  17. Tal y como vienen citados por Els Rommes, Op.Cit. , 44.
  18. Els Rommes, Op.Cit. , 44.
  19. Els Rommes, Op.Cit.
  20. According to Actor Network Theory (ANT), maps of interest are working maps that show the connections between decisions made and the interests of the actors, based on the heterogeneity of the components at play, and on their coinciding in a network that can be redefined and altered at any time. For more information, see Michel Callon and John Law, “On Interests and their Transformation: Enrolment and Counter-Enrolment”, Social Studies of Science, 1982.