Starships and User Interfaces
Some 300 years from now the great Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard will gaze out upon the star flecked void of space from the command bridge of the starship Enterprise, and remark, “Space: the final frontier…” in an accented tone that is as suave and confident as it is decidedly not French. Picard will have a mission of course, as any self-respecting space captain must–a mission to seek out and learn of new worlds, cultures, and beings. What the Enterprise and its crew will need more than anything else on this galaxy spanning investigatory mission, more than planet shattering firepower and high powered shields, is knowledge and an infrastructure for its rapid collection and recollection, deployment and redeployment. Medical staff, Engineers, Linguists, Historians, Tacticians, and so on–all the distinct elements of a Starfleet crew require access to an immense corpus of knowledge to further any task or situation which might arise, and they need to be able to access it quickly and efficiently. Which of course, they can, partly (mostly) because Gene Roddenberry and co. said they could, but theoretically because the systems on a hyper advanced starship would be more than capable of digitally storing information as well as an optimized interface for accessing that information. Nowadays, that they could possess such a system is probably one of the most mundanely believable elements of the fiction that is Star Trek because well, we can already do those things. We have digital archives, encyclopedias, databases, and more Star Trek fan-blogs than we can count without the assistance of computers (and we could digitally store their contents fairly easily).
While the age of holodeck simulators, jumpsuits, and wise-cracking androids is still too long a way away for us twenty-first century types to hold out hope for their help, many researchers, professional and amateur alike, can still sympathize with the need for an effective means of storing, organizing, and recalling vast amounts of information. We may not have the ability to traverse the void of space in search of knowledge and interplanetary cooperation, but hey, at least we have the internet right? As historians Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig have argued, digital media and the globe spanning network of the internet have provided us with an unprecedented ability to store, preserve, present, access, and interact with knowledge and data in its myriad forms. In order to get on with all the fun business of engaging and interacting with data however, a user must first be able to jump through a number of hoops and, given the mass of attractions and distractions the internet has to offer, the fewer hoops the user has to jump through to access content, the better. This is where an effective and efficient user interface comes in to play.
An effective UI enables users to quickly and effectively navigate the digital landscape, parsing out irrelevant information and features to get to the crux of the matter at hand. In the case of digital collections websites like that offered by institutions like the National Museum of American History, an effective UI allows users to start digging through data and building up a personal library of material relevant to themselves and their interests. An ineffective UI on the other hand takes everything that is great and useful about digital media, and then adds the elements of frustration, confusion, and discouragement into the mix. When information is hidden behind cryptic presentation methods, or what author and web designer Vincent Flanders has referred to as “Mystery Meat Navigation,” the entire purpose of digital preservation goes up in smoke, and ends with the user closing tabs with a more than usual amount of gusto.
For educational institutions like the Smithsonian, who seek to draw in a diverse and geographically scattered audience, maintaining an online presence is a great way to engage members of the public who may not be able to make the trip to Washington. The thing is, when it comes to the internet, the Smithsonian is up against stiff competition for users’ attention and time. People spend their time with thrift online, there’s always another Youtube video, another movie in your Netflix queue, a new track on Soundcloud that could just as easily occupy a user’s time as an online exhibit. Which is why effective UI is just as important as content. You can have the most fascinating story or artifact in the world, but if its tucked behind a plethora of sub-menus, archaic features, or requires an in-depth tutorial to use, you’re only going to lose viewers. Even something as simple as asking people to make an account can be a step too many You’d probably lose me at least. Which brings us to an interesting but flawed experiment in digital exhibit design published by the NMAH in the early days of the web, HistoryWired.
HistoryWired was a digital exhibit created for the Smithsonian in 2001 and it began with a great idea; to create a platform that would allow internet users the opportunity to explore a portion of the NMAH’s collections. To accomplish this a sample of 450 items, each accompanied by text profiles and links for further reading, were organized roughly by category, forming a digital map. Each tile on this map represented an object and, according to New York Times writer Matthew Mirapaul, each tile’s size was determined by user vote. On the surface it was an interesting concept but, for users looking to hone in on specific topic, there were certain difficulties. The map itself bears no immediate indication as to its contents, forcing the user to remember which of the blank tiles contained objects of interest to them. Some help came in the form of thematic tabs and an adjustable date slider which could highlight groups of objects, but these served only to narrow down the number of opaque tiles the user would have to wade through to find what they were searching for. A search box presented another tool, but seems to have been limited to single term searches.
Certainly it could be said that HistoryWired, as a digital exhibit, was never meant to serve the same function as a digital archive and existed for an entirely different purpose. To my knowledge the Smithsonian never claimed it as anything more than an experimental exhibit meant to show off a sampling of their collections to internet users. With that said, even if the intent was simply to provide web visitors with an avenue to look at some of the museum’s collections, the visual format and user interface employed by HistoryWired does little to actually help the user spend their time efficiently and effectively. Rather than providing users with an actual tool through which to dig into these collections, HistoryWired seems more like a digital curiosity one passes by, clicks on a few squares, and then moves on to the next link.
The web exhibit was ultimately retired in 2016 and in its place stands the NMAH’s Online Collections page which, while perhaps not a poster child for trendy cutting edge web-design concepts, is a far more effective tool for examining the site’s collections. Users can browse by Subject or Object Group, and once a selection has been made, they can narrow their search through a number of more advanced filters in the sidebar. Overall there are more options available to the user (though the search bar still lacks an advanced search option and the filter options are somewhat limited), and those options are for the most part presented with greater clarity to the user.