Designing for Interactivity: From Diagrams to Virtual Reality

Yvonne Rogers, Sussex University, UK

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University March 1, 1996


Advances in graphical technology have now made it possible for us to interact with information in innovative ways, most notably by exploring multimedia environments and by manipulating 3-D virtual worlds. Many benefits have been claimed for this new kind of interactivity. Within education, there is much excitement about how learning can be enhanced. For example, the ability to travel through virtual bodies and move around in a simulated world of dinosaurs, made possible by the new technologies, is thought to provide enriched ways of discovering knowledge and understanding the world.

Such optimism about the capabilities of the new graphical technologies begs the question of what is actually gained through interacting with explicit, dynamic 3-D worlds as opposed to good-old fashioned, single media, e.g. books, films and audio? Why, for example, should a 3-D virtual model of a heart that changes in response to user interaction be more effective at teaching how the heart works compared with a schematic diagram representing it? What is the added learning value of these new ways of visualising and manipulating information?

In my talk I will begin by pointing out how little we know about how interacting with multimedia and virtual environments can enhance learning. Furthermore, despite the hype, designers have had little guidance as to how to create effective commercial interactive educational material. Instead, there has been a tendency to follow a general principle of 'more is more' and develop CD-ROMs consisting of a mish-mash of images, video, text, animations and audio combined with overly complex and poorly 'stiched' together interfaces.

What is needed is a better understanding of interactivity. In the second part of my talk I will describe our research project called ECO-i, in which we are developing a theoretical and methodological framework with the goal of 'designing for interactivity'. Our approach has been to conceptualise interactivity in relation to how we 'read' and integrate multiple representations of information and the kinds of externalising activities (e.g. annotating, making notes) that we use in this process. From this analysis, we show how the key to designing interactive graphical representations - that can enhance learning - is to know how to combine and convey different abstractions of information. As an example, I will show how concepts in ecology have been represented in commercial CD-ROMs and compare these with our own design solutions.


Yvonne Rogers is on sabbatical from the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at Sussex University (UK) and is currently a visiting professor in the Computer Science Dept at Stanford University, where she is teaching a course in CSCW and groupware CS377C . Her research interests are in graphical representations, external cognition, HCI and CSCW. The research project reported on is funded by the UK's ESRC Cognitive Engineering Initiative.


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