Digital Humanities and TMZ: Attractive Things Work Better

As someone who has spent several years working in museums, I truly appreciated what I perceived to be the main point of this weeks reading: design’s role as a controlling factor in the form and function of everything.  Within the context of museum exhibitions, memorials, and websites (just to name a few) design dictates what information your visitor is drawn to, shapes what they take away, and ultimately goes a long way towards determining whether or not an exhibit fulfills its stated goals.  Failure to fully grasp how design shapes the balance between form and function generally results in reviews like this one about the Martin Luther King Memorial here in Washington.  Among many other criticisms, perhaps the most damming is:

“And the mound’s isolation from any other tall objects, its enormity and Dr. King’s posture all conspire to make him seem an authoritarian figure, emerging full-grown from the rock’s chiseled surface, at one with the ancient forces of nature, seeming to claim their authority as his. You don’t come here to commune with him, let alone to attend to the ideas the memorial’s Web site insists are latent here: “democracy, justice, hope and love.” You come to tilt your head back and follow; he, clearly, has his mind elsewhere.”

Considering the role of design as it relates to form and function led me back to discussions last semester about the issue of definitions within the Digital Humanities.  Specifically, the issue is how to establish criteria for evaluating important subtleties that can determine the success of a particular design.  For example, if one accepts the premise of Don Norman’s article that “Attractive Things Work Better,” and we also accept one of Persuasive Technology Labs findings that people recoiled when they perceived a website to look “too professional” or like “it was designed by a marketing firm,” how does one go about identifying the boundary between the two?  I realize that “attractive” and “too professional” are not necessarily interchangeable definitions, but the point still stands: where is the line between attractive and over polished? How does go about evaluating something so subjective?  Can we rely on the point David made in a back channel discussion on the subject, that “we know it when we see it?” Do we have any other option, but to rely on the ‘know-it-when-we-see-it’ reasoning?  Perhaps because of the difficulties inherent in setting up evaluative criteria for something as subjective as a boundary between attractive and “too professional,” it may just have to do.  However, as someone coming in with no little design background, it does make me a little uncomfortable. Following the guidelines of works such as “White Space is Not Your Enemy” would seem to offer a basic rubric for beginners, but a flexible set of criteria might be even more useful for experts. Establishing this set of general criteria might prevent future websites from winding up like  this one.

One other quick question that arose from this weeks reading: the  2002 publication date of the Persuasive Technology Labs survey findings made me wonder what, if anything, has changed in the last decade regarding how people evaluate a websites credibility. The results of the survey made it pretty clear that what people said about the importance of carefully evaluating a websites credibility was not borne out in practice, which clearly indicated people determined a websites credibility in many instances by aesthetic factors. I searched around Persuasive Technologies website, wondering if they had made any attempt to address that question, but it appears their last prominent publication was about five years ago.  The website did make reference to the fact that several pieces of scholarship are in various stages of publication, but did not give the exact expected dates of publication.  Regardless, it could be useful to speculate about whether anything has changed in the way people evaluate websites in the past decade, because even the absence of change would be suggestive.

Also: please see my comments on Sheri’s post relating to some of the deeper issues that arise in keeping people from leaving your website once you have initially captured their attention.



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4 responses to “Digital Humanities and TMZ: Attractive Things Work Better

  1. Good point about the publication date. I hadn’t thought about that.

  2. Something that I also found interesting this week as someone with background in museum work and public history is how much so many of these design principles correlated to the principles of creating an exhibit. Much like a web site a museum exhibit is non-linear, it must appeal to a wide range of audiences, it tries to communicate a point while understanding that every word of every panel will not be read, it has to make these panels work together but also stand on their own, its layout, style, and design must help communicate its meaning. It seemed odd to me that in works by historians, for historians, that public history didn’t come up this week. But I suppose this might be another instance where even though digital historians consider themselves a hated step-child of the field, museum work is still the RED HEADED step-child of the field. Poor gingers.

    • Point well taken, Lindsey. Obviously, it was the applicability of design principles to the public history field that stimulated my blog post for this week. I was a little less surprised then you might think that public history did not get an explicit mention in this weeks reading–perhaps this because I saw the website centric comments as being equally meaningful to, and thus inclusive of, public historians. Then again, I could have just been reading my own biases into what the authors were talking about.

      My problem with the whole red headed step child complex is less that it exists, and more that academic historians continue to treat the public history field as some type of dumping ground for Phd’s who could not find “academic” jobs. This article does a great job of laying out this thought process without considering the fact that 1) public history sites want people committed to the idea of public history, not ones who will leave if/when a university comes calling, 2) where are these mystical jobs in the public history field they keep referencing?

  3. Pingback: January 30 Blog Comments « iprefertobecalledahacker

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