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Unit #2: Interrogating the Interface

(Worth 15% of your grade; due on October 22)


An interface, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is a “point of interaction or communication between a computer and any other entity, such as a printer or human operator.” As a “human operator,” you encounter “user interfaces” every day: your cell phone, your laptop computer, the CD player in your car, an ATM machine — all of these devices have interfaces that have been carefully designed to facilitate specific technical functions and guide you, the user, through the range of available tasks within the system.

With the rise of web-based applications for productivity and social interaction, we have become immersed in user interfaces, and most of us have grown adept at switching from one interface to the next without skipping a beat. In fact, we use so many different systems on such a regular basis that the design of these interfaces becomes invisible. This assignment asks you to step back and take a critical look at the interface of a web-based application, document your findings in an analytical essay, and present your conclusions to your classmates in a short, rapid-fire oral presentation.

Completing the Assignment

For this assignment, you will complete four interrelated tasks:

1. Choose an application: To help us become familiar with as many applications as possible, each student in the class will analyze a different application. As you begin thinking about which application you would like to study, you will likely take one of two paths, either selecting a website with which you are intimately familiar, or selecting a website you have never used before but which you would like to explore. This initial choice will shape the structure and content of your essay, so select your application carefully.

The following applications are eligible for this assignment:

Before you go to bed on Sunday, September 23, email Dr. Warnick with your top three choices, plus an additional application that does not appear on the list above. (Rank your four applications in order of preference.) Assignments will be announced in class on Monday, September 24. [Update: Here is the list of finalized assignments for Unit #2].

2. Conduct the analysis: Once you have selected an application, you will begin analyzing its user interface. Exploring the basic functionality of the application is a good place to start, but your analysis should not merely describe what the application does; it should investigate how the application controls or influences your interaction with it and/or other users of the application. Considering two broad questions might help you get started: 1) What are the affordances of the application? In other words, what does the application allow or encourage you do? What does it make easy for you? 2) What are the constraints of the application? In other words, how does the application limit your ability to do things you want to do? What does it make difficult for you? Think about which features of the application are intuitive and which features are “hidden” or only available to advanced users. If the site has a mobile version, visit it in your phone’s web browser or download the official app. What shortcomings do you notice when you use the mobile version? Does the mobile version have any advantages? Rather than thinking abstractly about these questions, create an account on the site and begin exploring the user interface of your application, taking notes and screenshots as you do so. The answers to these questions will form the basis of your essay, which is the primary component of this assignment.

3. Draft your essay: The parameters for this essay are intentionally broad, which should allow you to focus on the aspects of your application you find most relevant and interesting. However, please remember that your essay should analyze and evaluate the application, not just describe or summarize it. Using first-person voice (“I”) may be appropriate in places, but your essay should not merely express your personal opinion about whether or not you like the application. Rather, it should thoughtfully critique the application’s interface and the company (or group of people) that designed it. We will use Google Sites, a tool for creating simple web pages, to publish our finished essays. Your essay should be 1200–1600 words and should include screenshots of your application that enhance and reinforce your written text.

4. Present your findings: At the conclusion of this unit, you will share your analysis with the class using an “Ingite”-style presentation. This presentation format consists of 16 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds; hence, every presentation will be exactly four minutes long. This format demands some careful planning, but the rigid structure can be liberating, too — your presentation becomes a series of 15-second chunks, each of which is illustrated by a single slide. (Don’t worry — we will watch some Ignite presentations in class and practice with this format before you deliver your presentation.) Your presentation shouldn’t be just a cheerleading routine (“This website is great! Look what it can do!”) or a smear campaign (“This website is evil! You shouldn’t use it!”). Rather, you should briefly describe what the application does, then discuss how the interface improves the user experience (its affordances) and how it limits the user experience (its constraints). You may also want to include some type of recommendation (which will help your classmates decide whether or not they should use this application) or comparison (which will help us place your application on a continuum of other applications that perform similar functions). [Update: Here is the PowerPoint template we will use for Unit #2.]

Assignment Details

Your in-class presentation will take place on Monday, October 22. We will finalize the presentation schedule as this date approaches.

Your essay is due before you come to class on October 22. To submit your essay, simply email Dr. Warnick with the URL for your Google Sites page. Your PowerPoint presentation should be submitted by Sunday night, October 21. To submit your PowerPoint file, create a folder in your Dropbox titled “Full Name Interrogating the Interface” (e.g., my folder would be called “Quinn Warnick Interrogating the Interface”), place your file in the folder, and share the folder with email hidden; JavaScript is required.

Evaluation Criteria

Your essay will be evaluated based using the following criteria:

  • Completeness: Does the essay contain 1200–1600 words? Does the essay focus solely on the assigned application?
  • Organization: Does the essay exhibit a logical structure and organization? Does it introduce the application to readers who may not be familiar with it before analyzing and critiquing the application?
  • Analysis: How effectively does the essay analyze (not summarize) the affordances and constraints of the interface?
  • Critique: Does the essay draw conclusions and provide recommendations that would help users of the application make informed decisions about their computer habits?
  • Multimodality: Does the essay incorporate visual elements (screenshots) in ways that strengthen and extend the written arguments?
  • Grammatical Conventions and Mechanics: Does the essay adhere to the conventions of standard written English (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.)?

Your presentation will be evaluated using the following criteria:

  • Content: Does the presentation effectively explain the application to a general audience? Is it obvious that the presenter knows his or her subject?
  • Delivery: Does the presenter speak clearly and confidently? Is it obvious that the presentation has been carefully planned and rehearsed?
  • Multimodality: Does the presentation effectively blend images and spoken text? Does the presentation maintain a consistent visual appearance?
Where am I?
This is the class website for English 3984: Writing and Digital Media, taught by Quinn Warnick at Virginia Tech in fall 2012.
Worthwhile Reading
The links below are the most recent additions to my collection of bookmarks that are relevant to this course. You can find a complete list of ENGL 3984 bookmarks on Pinboard.

  • Buffy vs Edward Remix Unfairly Removed by Lionsgate
    A long, carefully documented saga about fair use. Great case study.
  • The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy
    Nice guide from Lifehacker: "First, we'll walk through the basic privacy settings that determine what you share, then look at a few lesser-known settings you'll want to tweak, and finish with a few third-party tools that will help keep your Facebook information private."
  • The enduring mystery of Roberto Clemente's bat
    Great writing by Kevin Guilfoile, but also a beautiful example of multimedia storytelling.
  • tapestry: a new way to write
    John Borthwick explains what tapestry is and collects some examples of great tap essays: "When we started developing tapestry it struck us that there weren’t many native reading experiences on the iPhone or iPad. Our goal is to build such a tool. A space to slow things down and let you create or experience, short, tappable stories in a simple, clean, distraction free reading environment."
  • All You Need Is (Facebook) Love: ‘Compliments’ Accounts Go Viral at Colleges and Universities
    Time magazine reports on an encouraging trend: college students setting up Facebook pages to collect compliments for/from their fellow students.
  • Demand a Plan
    Online effort to improve gun control, started in response to the Newtown school shooting.
  • Causes.com
    "Causes is a free online platform that provides easy-to-use tools for driving change. We help passionate people share ideas, find supporters, raise money, and make an impact."
  • What Ancient Greek Rhetoric Might Teach Us About New Civics
    Ethan Zuckerman: "If we want to prepare people to be effective citizens, we need to think about teaching this new civics as well as older forms of civic participation. Citizens need to do more than watch or read about the issues and then vote. They need to know how to report, to advocate, to coordinate, to propose and test solutions."
  • SPOT Survey - Fall 2012
    Students: If you haven't completed the SPOT evaluation for this course, please do so during class on Wednesday. I take this feedback very seriously, and I use it to revise my classes each semester, so please be specific about the aspects of the course (and my teaching) that you found successful and unsuccessful.
  • Popcorn Maker
    New web-based app from Mozilla: "Popcorn Maker makes it easy to enhance, remix and share web video. Use your web browser to combine video and audio with content from the rest of the web — from text, links and maps to pictures and live feeds."
  • The People's Bailout
    David Rees explains how the Rolling Jubilee works: "OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)"
  • Understanding Digital Civics
    Ethan Zuckerman: "I’m beginning to think that certain types of civic participation are simply organic to the internet. Once we have the ability to create and share our own information, we create and spread media to promote the causes we care about and raise money to support the causes we value."
  • Google Docs Stories Builder
    Fun little tool to create text-based stories in which various characters interact within a Google Doc. (Sound confusing? Yeah, you kind of have to see it in action.)
  • Twitter Is A Truth Machine
    John Herrman: "Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace. To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: That we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity."
  • The Fallacy of Digital Natives
    Amen to this: "Sure, there may be a larger percentage of Millennials that tap into technology first compared to their elders, but oversimplifying the division of generations to suggest one prefers an all-technology learning style whilst the others use it when necessary is preposterous. Learning and technology has nothing to do with generational divides."
  • Click and Drag
    An amazing, endless xkcd comic.
  • Nice piece in Transom explaining Cowbird
    Annie Correal: "Our goal is to build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as part of the commons."
  • Being Online Has Become So Common That Some People No Longer Identify It As Being Online
    Techdirt, quoting a study by Forrester Research: "Our analysis revealed that 'being online' is becoming a fluid concept. Consumers no longer consider some of the online activities they perform to be activities related to 'using the Internet.' In fact, given the various types of connected devices that US consumers own, many people are connected and logged on (automatically) at all times. The Internet has become such a normal part of their lives that consumers don’t register that they are using the Internet when they’re on Facebook, for example. It’s only when they are actively doing a specific task, like search, that they consider this to be time that they’re spending online."
  • Reddit's balance of power: community values are tested as a troll is unmasked
    Links to all of The Verge's coverage of the Violentacrez debacle.