Looking at the Book


When I first applied to the Digital Humanities programme at Maynooth University, I was faced with a bit of a conundrum. Up to the point of my application, I had focused my research interests in the area of Anthropology, and I was most interested in how various cultures interacted with computer systems. Specifically, I wanted to explore what UI paradigms could be leveraged or created to overcome some of those culture boundaries that can often make the absorption of data difficult.  All of this was the result of countless nights of pondering UI interactions while completing my Masters thesis and the 2  years of subsequent work and personal study between the completion of my Masters and the inception of my PhD.

Flash forward to February of 2014 when I stumbled upon the Digital Arts & Humanities programme at Maynooth University.  As I read about the programme, I became incredibly excited.  This was exactly what I had been looking for! The notion of taking something analogue like history and presenting it in an online format was absolutely fascinating to me, but I was unsure how to tweak my research proposal, which had been written from an anthropological point of view, to work within the realm of Digital Humanities.  Furthermore, while cross-cultural barriers certainly exist in the consumption of the humanities information, was that a serious underlying problem to the field? Or was there something else for me to explore?  And that’s when inspiration hit me.  And it came in the form … of a book.

All in a Book

Go onto any online catalogue and find information that was originally stored in a book (or something electronic that mimicks a book such as an online journal). Over and over, you will see the same implementation of the UI for consumption – something called “the book metaphor”. In Interactive Design, a “metaphor” is known as a particular UI mechanism or paradigm that attempts to create a universal interaction that draws specific inspiration from some kind of interaction the user is already familiar with (see Wikipedia’s article entitled ‘Interface Metaphor‘ for more information). In this case, users are familiar with how to read a book (the turning of pages, the flow of data from top to bottom, left to right, etc), so the easiest implementation of this type of UI phenomenon is “the book metaphor”. And it is widely accepted and used. But just because something is widely accepted doesn’t mean its the best implementation.

Out of the Book

Let’s face it, we live in the digital age. More and more often, we turn to the internet for our information needs. Libraries are being used differently now. Instead of pulling books from shelves, users are leveraging the study space and pulling online copies of books to comb through. And hobbyist researchers troll Google looking for information on whatever subject happens to strike their fancy at the time. And we’ve become so accustomed to looking for information by reading text upon text that we’ve simply translated this metaphor from the analogue to the digital realm. But given the rate at which technology is growing, is this still the right path to take? That’s what I’m looking to explore in my dissertation. How do we get out of the book? What new ways can we visualise data to consume it? And for those cases that do involve combing through text, how can we make the UI interaction different or more efficient, so it moves beyond reading a book on a computer screen? Thus is the foundation for a large portion of my dissertation.

As I progress through my research, I’ll be exploring other topics as well (especially in the realm of data visualisations and common UI problems inherent in academic systems). And as I go, I’ll be blogging about my journey, so feel free to tune in and comment on what you see. I’ll do my best to keep you up to date on my progress and share with you this journey as I move out of the book and into the digital.

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