Much of current culture and economy runs on software and revolves around user interfaces. Software must function correctly and run smoothly. Its interface to the ubiquitous user must be pleasant to observe, easy to understand, and intuitive to learn. Perception, appreciation, and apprehension are required from visitors, experts, students, and gamers. Whether the standard graphic user interface, the control room panel of instruments, or the robust public service screen, their aesthetic features determine our reactions. "Usability" has been the main concern of interface designers for more than three decades. But the shift from interface to interaction, and the tendency to new devices of interaction, aesthetics is slowly gaining the kind of attention needed for future development.
When we look into the future, it is wise to be aware of the past. However, a good interface like a good piece of art is hard to achieve. This book therefore asks for the influence of designers and artists on early developments of graphic user interfaces. It carefully traces that development at Xerox PARC where it all happened. Results are surprising and encouraging.
An important step is done to make interaction designers aware of their responsibility for new matters of aesthetics.
Introduction and Motivation
Our culture and experience are shaped by computer interfaces. Personal computers, portable devices, networking, the Internet, and the digital age in general have transformed the way we live. Steven Johnson describes this as the Interface Culture (2007). It is our contention that this would not have happened without the fusion of art and technology in interface design, where aesthetics is a key. We will show that not only has aesthetics played an indispensible role in the history of human-computer interaction (HCI), but also it is essential going forward in designing successful products.
The motivation for our work has been nicely articulated by David Gelernter in Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology (1998):
The public’s relationship to beautiful software is more complicated. “Almost no one seems to be able to recognize good design,” writes [Ted] Nelson—“except users, and that only sometimes.” Not sometimes, always—but only in the long term. Consumers invariably go for beauty in the end; . . . beauty is the most important quality that exists in the computer world, when all is said and done. (p. 29)
In other words, all else being equal (price, performance, function), the beautiful product will win in the marketplace.
The products of computer science are, roughly speaking, hardware and software. In the early days, the products were solely used by trained professionals—scientists, engineers, programmers. They were usually judged by two major criteria: correctness and efficiency (Crosby 1979, Juran & Gryna 1980, McCall et al. 1977). In the 1970s, research into broader markets for computing products began at a few places, most prominently at the newly formed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. Its mission was to develop comparatively small and lightweight computers expressly aimed at the office environment. Consequently, a new question emerged: how can software be made useable by nontechnical people? Eventually this became a third criterion for evaluating computer products, typically called usability. For the last forty years, research has been conducted under this label of usability. We prefer, however, to call this new criterion aesthetics (see Aesthetics over usability p. 24).
The term “aesthetics” derives from the Greek aisthetikos, meaning "perceived by the senses." Human beings have five senses with which to recognize the world. Aesthetics was associated with the appreciation and pleasure of beauty in art, craftsmanship and nature (Udsen & Jørgensen 2005). In the 1700s the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten in his Reflections on Poetry (1735) and Aesthetica (1750) redirected the term to mean the study of good and bad “taste,” thus good and bad art, linking good taste with beauty. That is, just as logic (conceived as the science of thought) seeks to understand our relationship to the true, so aesthetics (conceived as the science of sensation or feeling) seeks to understand our relationship to the beautiful (Thomson 2011). This debate generated philosophical debate around this new meaning of aesthetics. Baumgarten is credited with developing aesthetics in a broader sense as the science of sensuous knowledge and the science of the beautiful (1735), which analyze how humans experience the world through their senses (Ibid.) 1 . Baumgarten put it this way:
What determines thinking, that is, logic, and what thinking comports itself toward is the true . . . What determines human feeling, that is, aesthetics, and what feeling comports itself toward is the beautiful. (in Heidegger 1977b, p. 90)
Immanuel Kant, who followed and expanded upon Baumgarten’s ideas, applied the term to judgments of beauty in both art and nature. Kant regarded aesthetics as a unitary and self-sufficient type of human experience (Kant 1790, p. 19). In his The Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant argues that aesthetics involves the distinctive features of the faculty of judgment, certain states of mind, and all of the attitudes and emotions involved in the sensuous experience.
Aesthetics is all about perception, how a person perceives things—objects, events, signs, forms, messages—and recognizes them. Aesthetics also deals with the appreciation of beauty—are the things pleasing? Here is where art plays a role. In the context of art, aesthetics takes the issues of sensation and perception into emotionally moving judgments. Of these two important aspects—perception (the recognition aspect) and beauty (the judgment aspect)—perception usually has the higher priority in people’s minds (Tractinsky 2004).
In computers, aesthetics appears in the user interface2. The earliest concept of an interface derives from the Greek prosōpon, which literally means “a face facing another face" (Heim 1993, p. 78). It is described as “the contact surface of a thing” (Laurel & Mountford 1990, p. xii). In HCI, it is where the human makes contact with the computer and attempts to use it for some working goal or process. Meanwhile, the computer has its own working processes. The term “interface” addresses both the interaction between these two processes (or “phases” to use Sommerer’s term) and the representation of the two processes (Sommerer, Jain & Mignonneau 2008, p. vi). The form and quality of the interface reflect the characteristics of the entities involved. The idea of a graphical user interface (GUI) did not arise for several decades of computer use, and then it did not come from artists; it came from engineers, computer scientists, and psychologists. When it did appear, the graphic quality of the design—particularly in the area of data visualization—had a great influence on the user’s interpretation of and interaction with the interface. Thus graphic designers necessarily have an important role to play in shaping their visual aesthetics.
In HCI research the two great capacities of the mind meet: the intuitive, emotional, direct “right brain”, and the distanced, rational, indirect “left brain”. Utility and pleasure must both be present for a product to be judged correct, efficient, and aesthetic. In terms of doing research, this created a fascinating situation. Strictly formal, mathematical reasoning had to be combined with informal, intuitive, aesthetic feeling. The gulf between the two cultures—the scientific and the literary (Snow 1959)—had to be bridged if the small computer on the desktop was to obtain wide acceptance. In HCI, the user interface has progressively emerged as the primary focus. However, this term is misdirected. As Jonathan Grudin pointed out, the term “user interface” is technologically centered. It denotes the computer interface to the user and not the user’s interface to the computer (1990). Taken from an engineering perspective, Grudin states:
Ironically, “user interface” is a technology-centered term: the computer is assumed, the user must be specified. And indeed, consideration of the history of that interface goes more smoothly if we position ourselves at a distance and think of the “computer interface” to the user and the world. This perspective affords us a single view that takes in the period before the term “user interface” was used and extends more gracefully into the future (Grudin 1990). 3
In the 1980s, resistance to the term “user interface” began to appear because many nontechnical people confused or misapplied the term “user” to computer “nerds” and other highly skilled technicians. Liam Bannon (1990) suggested the terms “casual” or “discretionary users,” though they failed to gain popularity. And nontechnical people ironically preferred the term “computer interface” to “user interface” (Ibid.). That seemed a better description of it from their perspective. Even so, we will stick to the agreed term, while at the same time adopting Grudin’s perspective, considering the “user interface” to be the “computer interface to the user and the environment.”
More support for including aesthetics in discussions of computer products may be found in the nature of human thought. On a human level, productive thought is visual in nature. Aristotle believed that “The soul never thinks without an image” (Aristotle 350 B.C.E.). Rudolf Arnheim in Visual Thinking gave extensive evidence that “vision is the primary medium of thought” (1969, p. 18). Al-!asan Ibn Al-Haytham4 in Book Of Optics (1028 CE) stated that “cognition and vision are different; image is related to thinking and reasoning…and perception mediates between seeing and cognition . . . Visual thinking is fundamental for our cognition and recognition” (Alhazen 1983 [1028 CE], Part III). Jacques Hadamard in The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field5 (1954), explored how mathematicians invent new ideas by examining the creative experiences of great thinkers [...]
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