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Interactive Architecture and the Role of the Designer

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IA Vision (1984) A Little Perspective
This article first appeared almost verbatim as my presentation at the Videotex \'84 Conference.

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Interactive Architecture and the Role of the Designer

  1. 1. INTERACTIVE ARCHITECTURE AND THE ROLE OF THE DESIGNER: THE NEW SYNTHESIS John Vaughan and William B. Porter The Communication Studio IncKEYWORDS: Videotex, NAPLPS, Graphics, Design, StandardizationABSTRACT: A review of design concepts and discussion of emerging trends and their potential impact onthe interactive service provider.INTRODUCTION"Videotex" is a term which has been used to describe the packaging of electronic databases and interactiveservices for distribution to untutored users and the general public. Videotex is often described as a "userfriendly" interaction between a local user terminal with color and graphics capability and a remote hostcomputer.As more and more interactive services come on-line over the next decade, it is the Videotex Screen/FrameDesigner who will put the finishing touches on the face of the product. Furthermore, the competitive edgeamong services will be determined in large part by the skill, talent, and effective coordination of thevideotex design staff.METAPHORS FOR A NEW MEDIUMAt times it seems that there is a substantial discontinuity between the "form" of NAPLPS screenpresentation and the interactive "function" of the database structure. Perhaps this lack of integrationbetween content and style is partly a result of the metaphors we use in describing the videotex industry.Videotex as PublishingInitially, videotex design was treated as an editorial issue. It dealt with the content of the screen primarilyas text on static "pages" bound in an electronic "magazine" and accessible primarily through a limited set of"menu tree" structures or indexes. It was assumed that the user would be self-motivated enough in theirsearch for information that they would be willing to navigate seveeral levels of indexes, menus and choiceoptions in order retrieve the data. This perception of the medium as driven by "information retrieval"behavior dominated the early development of the interactive industry. Videotex Service operators sawthemselves as maintaining a Library. The videotex database might be described as "Information Retrieval".The Publishing Metaphor describes the Videotex Designer as an EDITOR.Videotex as TransactionWith the increasing involvement of the banking community and retail stores, systems operators have begunto look at videotex systems more as information processors rather than as simple information retrievalservices. This perception has encouraged more dynamic database design and has resulted in theemergence of downloaded software, intelligent terminals, the use of parameter passing among applicationsand "videogame" style interaction as functianal aspects of a videotex service. Videotex Service operatorssaw themselves as "mediators" between the user and the raw data. At this level of sophistication thevideotex database might be described as "Information Processing". The Transactional Metaphor describesthe Videotex Designer as a TRANSFORMER.
  2. 2. Videotex as Visual MediumAs videotex matures, system operators and IPs are investing larger sums in the pursuit of the ever elusive"user friendly interface" as well as the lucrative revenues which other media have obtained fromadvertising. This means there will be an increasing emphasis upon videotex design as a presentationaldisplay. Here the information is seen primarily as a graphic issue; what might be described as the "Face ofthe Interface". Videotex Service operators saw themselves as "packagers". The visual Metaphor describesthe videotex database as a filmic/graphic "Information Presentation" vehicle. The Visual Metaphordescribes the Videotex Designer as an ARTIST.TOWARDS AN INTEGRATED OVERVIEW:Each of the metaphors above describes videotex in terms of its own proprietary language. Each of themetaphors is appropriate, but each is individually limited in that it describes only a particular aspect of thetotal picture.> The PUBLISHING METAPHOR deals with the Textual Content and the Database/Library contents.> The TRANSACTIONAL METAPHOR deals with the Interactive Functionality of the database.> The VISUAL METAPHOR deals with the Screen Design and Display of the database.In order to effectively coordinate these important aspects of the interactive database we must deal withthem in a holistic manner. We must have a context, a framework, an environment which deals withtransactional, editorial and visual interface techniques as an integrated and coherent whole.THE ARCHITECTURAL METAPHOR: THE INFORMATION COMMUNITYIn the Architectural Model, the videotex service is viewed as an information space in which the user isimmersed. We describe the highly integrated videotex service in spatial terms. The video screen, ratherthan pulling static "pages" out of a two-dimensional magazine, provides a "window" into amultidimensional structure of information. The user can move about within this structure freely, butperhaps not randomly. It is the task of the information architect to provide a meaningful set of utilities formoving about within this complex community of information.This "information community" may offer a broad range of services: electronic mail, directory information,maps, published information, banking, shopping and other transactions, games and entertainment, andmore. Some of these may be maintained in-house by the system operator. But as the industry evolves,users will have access to a far broader range of nodal service providers through a network of "seamless"gateways. In order for these to be coherent and managable they will have to share a common set ofconventions of interaction much as a physical community shares common conventions regardingmovement and the use of space.The Architectural Metaphor encourages us to deal with the integrated videotex system as we might amultidimensional physical environment (an information community), dynamic, complex, interrelated, onein which the context of the information is as important as the content. The strength of such a system ismeasured by the quality of the connections, rather than the quantity of the data.To a goodly degree the architecture must be responsive to a variety of behavioral patterns both amongindividual users and in terms of the operational "personalities" of the interactive services on the system. * The design of structures must be conducive to movement and allow efficient traffic patterns. * Navigation techniques must be consistent, easy-to-use, and appropriate.
  3. 3. * There must be "windows" to allow complex multi-tasking (especially for transactional services). * There must also be appropriate on-screen access to relevant reference information (such as "Help" functions,an extended list of options, or more detailed descriptions). * Information retrieval functions may need to be configured to allow a quick scanning utility * A flexible architecture should allow several different sets of menu-driven paths through the database. * The database design should accommodate downloaded interpretation software and intelligent local terminals * Screen display of sophisticated materiel can be sped up through the use downloaded Macros and DRCS sets. * The screen design should provide the user with unambiguous indications and prompts as to the location, nature, and structure of the information on the databaseTHE VALUE OF ENTERTAINMENTIt is not enough to identify a service need and then provide the information "raw". The data must beaccessible in a non-frustrating interaction, and must be attractive, legible and coherent in its presentation.Presentation - as they say - is half the meal....so, what are some of the architectural and designconsiderations of providing a gourmet service?There is an overwhelming tendency on the part of business service providers to discount entertainmentvalues as frivolous and irrelevant, unsuited to the serious business environment. By the same token manyconsumer service providers have exhibited what almost amounts to unbridled frivolity in an attempt tomake their products "fun". Both of these editorial approches are extreme.Any database interaction can be made more friendly, and thereby seem faster and more rewarding byproviding some form of entertaining embellishments to the process. This allows the user some gratificationwhile moving through the fixed database to the desired segments. Tasteful warmth and humor appropriateto the consumer profile is sadly lacking in most existing services. Embellishments of this kind can be assimple graphic development from screen to screen, or as broad as Burma Shave signs. Just how to go aboutmaking your particular consumers feel right at home is the job of the Interactive Architect and his designteam.THE EMERGING ROLE OF THE INTERACTIVE ARCHITECTPerhaps some clue to our emerging role can be found by looking at the technological medium we workwith from the users perspective.As a communication vehicle the videotex screen is: 1: Textually limited both in terms of the number of characters that can be on screen at any given moment and user fatigue at various densities and text sizes, etc. 2: Highly dynamic. The screen changes often and dramatically and can take advantage of coherent "packets" of information
  4. 4. The videotex database, on the other hand, is often structured as a static, linear, text-dominated menu-drivenstructure.The Architectural Metaphor describes information as multi- dimensional environment requiringmultidisciplinary skills. The Architect must be sensitive to both visual aesthetics and human dynamics, aswell as the technical constraints of the media within which he works.He must design an overall coherent theme which is non-chaotic but which is also flexible enough to allowfor diversity within its structure. The Information Architect deals with the creation of an information spacein much the same manner as that he would design a shopping mall, a planned community - or anamusement park "playspace".THE INTERACTIVE ARCHITECTURE SKILL BASEThe Interactive Architect provides Content Integration through Context Management. In the role of"integrator" the architect is a generalist who embodies a range of interactive skills. The InteractiveArchitect should be: * Sensitive to visual aesthetics in Screen Creation * Responsive to the dynamics of human behavior in the Editing of Content * Familiar with transactional techniques in the Design of Functional Structure * Knowledgeable of the technical parameters of the Operating System * Skilled in the Economies of Database Production and Maintenance * Fluent in the working "languages" of interactive videotex: Level 6 of the OSI model; the Presentation Level and Level 7 of the OSI model; the Application LevelSOFTWARE APPLICATIONS UTILITIESThere are 2 major areas of software applications in rendering a videotex product:The one area deals with the User Level. This area is obviously critical to broad popular acceptance ofelectronic information retrieval among consumers and the business community. Given the rather pervasiveacceptance of NAPLPS, we may soon see a move toward industry standards and conventions for suchcommon "user utilities" as Log-on and Log-off procedures, navigational functions, keywording, prompts,etc.The other area - no less critical to the success of a videotex service - deals with the Designer Level ofApplications. These "designer utilities" would assist in the creation, management, and maintenance of acomplex database and might include such functions as: NAPLPS Code Disassembler Automated Text Entry Automated Screen Layout Global Editing Features Routing Structure Audits Database Structure Maintenance Automated Field Headering Picture File Management
  5. 5. Such software would be attractive to a whole range of videotex implementation personnel, including:system operators, information providers, interactive programmers, content editors, screen designers, andinteractive architects.As such standardization emerges at the Design Level, it becomes more likely that a system operator will beable to provide an easy and seamless gateway for the delivery of a wide variety of services through adistributed "nodal" network. It allows information providers and advertisers to distribute their product onseveral different systems without incurring redundant production and database reconfiguration costs. And,due to the exceptional range of services that such standardization makes accessible, system operators canbe more flexible in configuring appropriately targeted packages for a discriminating population ofinteractive videotex users.The implementation of ideas such as these will impose new requirements in other areas of consideration aswell.THE ELEMENTAL DATABASEDatabase architecture as it is currently being implemented is unsuited to the medium which it serves. The"page" concept continues to haunt us mercilessly, leading to a dull and lifeless static screen presentationwhich ignores the powerful animation, reformattability, parameter storage, and overlay capabilities ofNAPLPS. Videotex technology is capable of a dynamic form of presentation which sets it apart fromtraditional text presentation in a fundamental way.Videotex is a real-time presentation medium capable of overcoming the limitations of the screen bydynamically updating the relevant portions of the display. This allows the user to control various aspects ofthe screen display according to his own needs. In this manner the effective information density of a given"screen" or "page" is substantially increased, interaction time becomes real time within a given screen,intellegibility is increased, interest is stimulated, and the overall quality of the users experience isenhanced. This real time interaction is the primary advantage of any Electronic Transactional Medium,although it is not yet being effectively implemented in Videotex.The architecture of a database is determined by the structure of the information it contains as well as theform of presentation. The individual Graphic Design Elements, or "packets" of a dynamic screen displaycan be utilized more efficiently than discrete pages. For example, a single background can serve severalconsecutive "packets" of related text and illustrations. Large numbers of graphic elements can be reusedand recombined in a variety of ways for various applications allowing significant byte economies intransmission and memory storage requiremets for backgrounds, borders, embellishments, templates, logos,symbolic icons, commonly used illustrations etc. With the implementation of automated packet assemblyroutines, once an IP has purchased or produced a basic library of Design Elements for its service, framecreation needs are reduced to text update/entry, automated assembly, and special illustration tasks.The advantage of the elemental approach to database design is that larger numbers of smaller presentationelements can substantially increase the "apparent" size of the database to the end user. By eliminatingredundancies in the database the elemental approach more than compensates for the relatively smallamounts of memory required for additional software and addressing. When used in conjunction with theMacro abilities of NAPLPS these techniques become extremely powerful tools for the clear, concisepresentation of complex information, at far greater speed and byte efficiencies than are currently beingachieved.INTERACTIVE DESIGN: COST & VALUEThis seems like a good opportunity to address the ever-popular question:
  6. 6. "How much does a videotex frame cost?"Obviously, frame design costs reflect the amount of work that goes into creating the screen design.However, a major non-apparent factor in the price of a videotex frame is the cost of maintaining the frameover time (assuming that the database is dynamic and evolving). A database using integrated incrementalDesign Elements will, by virtue of its structure, allow updating, alterations, reconfiguration, and reroutingto be accomplished quickly in an efficient and cost effective manner.Assuming that the database architecture consciously integrates the interactive structure, textual content, andscreen creation through the use of Design Elements, utilities for frame management may be "engineered"into the design of the videotex frame.In that sense the cost of an individual frame is not determined by the complexity and sophistication of thescreen display. The cost is driven rather by other factors: * The number of times that Design Elements are used in the database * The ease with which the Design Elements can be updated and manipulated * The ease with which the integrated database structure can be maintainedWith this perspective, the costs of maintaining even a dynamic database begin to stabilize and the creationof new Design Elements (or the embellishment of old ones) becomes a "value added" cost.EXTENDED MARKET POTENTIAL FOR VIDEOTEXCorporate Environment:One of the currently hot areas in the industry is caused by the sudden realization by videotex developers ofthe existence of a huge group of existing Nodal Databases in the business market. Not only are thesealready networked to a large degree, but they are and have been very successful special interest serviceproviders. The Office Automation Market has been begging for years for quality business graphics that arecost-effective to produce, transport, and store. NAPLPS is now in hot pursuit of the traditional ASCIIdatabases, and once they get to know each other, a lasting marriage is sure to result.This is great news for Videotex/Teletext IPs, in that big business is the primary market for in-depthspecialized professional information services, which are currently limited by traditional media. The DowJones service is a profitable example of a successful service of this type.Videotex technologies offer a memory-efficient cost effective, high quality image standard for OAapplications including internal communications and electronic mail, sales presentations, teleconferencing,business-to-business communication and public relations which are currently implemented on paper orgreen phosphor displays at one end or the financial extravaganzas involving slides, video and four-colorprint media.Education and Training Environment:NAPLPS is also being looked at as a cost-effective adjunct to established Instructional Media for businessand educational purposes. The recent arrival of software decoders (which support a range of popular PC-based graphics cards) allow inexpensive transportability and access to the thousands of PCs in schools andeducational centers across the country. Several large universities have now installed videotex systems ason campus, and are looking towards extending their online educational services to the community at large.Retail and Public Access Environment:
  7. 7. A number of public Information Kiosks and Automated Retail Information Systems are now appearingwhich use both Videotex and Videodisc technologies. Although just getting started, there is a lot ofmovement in this market area and timely entry of a major retailer could produce the first ubiquitousapplication of the medium. Hybrid systems offering Videotex/Cable TV and Videotex/Videodiscs whichoffer both full bandwidth video, audio support, updateable text/graphics and interactive order entrytechnology are ideally suited to catalogue card purchase transactions. In the Public Access arena videotex-based kiosks are being used to serve the travel and retail markets as online directories.Audio Visual Media Environment:NAPLPS decoder support is now available for a range of microcomputer-based graphics boards, allowingthis transmittable, updateable graphics protocol to also be used for sophisticated standalone A-Vpresentations. Slide capture devices and the emergence of recordable NTSC technology (which allows thecreation of "broadcast quality" images from NAPLPS on a PC) have further expanded the market forvideotex technology into the established industrial video and A-V markets.Consumer Environment:In the end we must not lose sight of the original goal of "videotex" - to provide a ubiquitous, resentationallysophisticated, standardized, easy-to-use, interactive information system. With the impending de-regulationof local RBOCs there will begin to appear network service providers to supply the physical networkrequired by the IPs who have managed to successfully target their markets and design their servicesaccordingly, and now wish to expand their service base. And with the networks comes the revolution, fornow we will indeed have a huge generic database accessible by the consumer from his livingroom or office;it will then be routed to the appropriate nodal database as needed and billed accordingly. And that is whatits all about in the long run.