The Communication Studio

Design Perspective

I was also a member of the IP / SO (Information Provider / Service Operator) Committee of the Videotex Industry Association. We represented the "content implementation" roles.

Though the majority of the committee members represented large (huge) corporations with very specific market agendas, a subset of us represented the independent design-and-implementation boutiques.

Our perspective was more of a "worm's eye view", inasmuch as we serviced a range of the larger players. As a result, we had a unique understanding of the practical dynamics of the marketplace.

The emerging Teletext-Videotex Industry, particularly in the United States, has, to this point, been primarily concerned with the development and definition of standards for encoding, transmission, and decoding of the information to be provided. Much time, effort, and money has been spent designing and testing various hardware configurations in order to achieve the optimal cost—effective system for a given application. These efforts have resulted in a number of mature products such as the NAPLPS graphics display conventions and the advanced geometric frame creation terminal.

What was Videotex / Teletext? These were the generic terms for the early attempts to provide interactive services to the marketplace ' before we called it the Web'.

I spent the first years of my digital interactive career working in this arena.

In the ANSI 7 layer model, we can say that levels 1-6 have been fairly well defined, developed and delivered, with the seventh or application level being the only remaining frontier to be explored. The major issues left to be defined in this area are those regarding the nature of the end user terminals, the kinds of Information and types of services to be provided, and the form of presentation of those services and information.

The ANSI "7-layer model" (now known as OSI, which was formalized in 1983) is an international standard which describes - in comprehensive technical terms - an interactive network. Net/Net: It' describes how the Web works. Most of the model describes what is "under the hood", but Level 7 - the Application layer - is where 'user interaction' takes place. I realized early on that this was where I wanted to work.

Throughout the industry, many people are heaving deep sighs of relief as the initial pressure eases. The systems work, the standards are meaningful, and most of the major players in the field are into the later stages of their tests or are implementing reel commercial services. It has been a long and difficult struggle to reach this point, and many organizations seem to feet that all that remains is to gear up for production. This Is a tragic misconception which may well prove fatal to many of the first entrants into the market place. In order to avoid the pitfalls, we must not lose sight of our original objectives.

Primacy of the End-User

Whether an organization is going to make money or throw it away, will ultimately be decided by the end-user. All the hardware miracles, all the standards and conventions, all the millions of dollars invested will mean nothing if, in the end, the customer finds the information services to be unwieldy, incomplete, or unfriendly. The hard fact is that all of our efforts to date have merely been the prerequisite, preliminary groundwork which will now allow us to begin to tackle the real issues, to answer the hard questions, and maybe even have a little fun. The point is that now that we’ve built ourselves a system, we’re back to the question which brought up the systems issue in the first place, namely, “What are we gonna do with it?”

This made sense to me. But it was a minority view at the time. The focus of most early players was on technical logistics, legal & political issues, and strategic marketing.

There was no real model or advocacy for user-centricity or interaction design.

The Misconception of Electronic Publishing

In the early days, these new media were often referred to loosely as “electronic publishing,’ because of the surface similarity between teletext and the traditional ink and paper media. This buzzword bandwagon quickly gave rise to all sorts of metaphoric terms such as “pages,” “chapters,” and ‘indexes” which are now used with wild abandon and with the most unfortunate consequences. When one looks a little closer at the new media through the eyes of experience acquired over the last few years, it is difficult to find a practical basis for this analogy between the print and electronic media.

One of the reasons the print media metaphors have become so popular in the electronic media is that so many IP’s are coming from, the publishing industries. They are attempting to employ concepts which are familiar to them in order to dispel the strangeness of the new environment in much the same way as settlers in any new frontier are apt to give place names from the homeland to their new home environment, regardless of the appropriateness in the new context. It is imperative that the design decisions made by an IP be independent of forced analogies to a familiar but dissimilar media. Therefore, the services of a designer native to the new environment ore invaluable when charting a path through the wilderness. The designer can be considered a kind of scout, familiar with the flora and fauna, the native languages, and the surrounding terrain, into which the new pioneers might wish to venture.

The metaphor of Electronic Publishing is not necessarily incorrect — but It is often inadequate to describe the real developmental potential of the new media. Furthermore, in many ways It is misleading. Print terminology such as “page” or “chapter” inappropriately describe the dynamic nature of videotex in which the textual and graphic face of one screen may change substantially (through timing commands, overlays, high­lights, etc.) Does the term “page” adequately describe an interactive sequence in which the information on the screen changes dramatically over the course of a transactional dialogue between IP and user? If a given screenful (“page”) of information can be accessed in several different contexts, does the notion of a ‘chapter” still hold?

Ah, metaphors. This was one way to make the crazytalk a little more accessible.

If Electronic Publishing is an inadequate metaphor for describing the new media, perhaps we should look at how human communication has developed

"Literacy" ... or Communication

The primal medium of communicatlon was audio visual in nature: a series of gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations. Around the same time, we were developing a visual syntax of drawn or painted images as well. Over time these sounds, gestures, and images became more formalized, and in their abstract form they could be encoded into a visual representation of specific concepts. The written word became at this point the first technologically dependent visual communications medium.

With the development of highly technological societies, writing became the preeminent form of communication. Indeed, to this day, education, skill, or expertise in any technology or technique is described as “literacy.” Few people would doubt the value of reading and writing skills - and yet one wonders if the emphasis on “The Three Rs’’ has not also excluded a large number of people whose skills and interests lie more in the more primal areas of visual art and music.

Disclaimer: Before entering the digital interactive arena, I'd had a previous career in video and animation.

I guess it figures.

In recent years, the emergence of electronic media has made possible the mass distribution of audio (radio, records) and visual (film and TV) communications media as well. The response has been overwhelming. Through advanced technology we may, perhaps, achieve more efficient communication than was possible through the more limited technology of pen and ink.

The International Symbolic Code

Clearly, one of the first software conventions to be implemented in the new media will consist of some form of an “International Symbolic Language,” a pictographic system to provide visual cues, prompts and rewards, and database road signs which can be readily comprehended across lingual end cultural borders.

Music has often been referred to as “the Universal Language.” This refers not so much to literal communication as to the pan-cultural emotive responses to musical sound. This phenomena of a universal human emotional experience and Its expression in sound will play a significant role in any language—independent communications environment such as Videotex.

Gettin' a little spacey here, but I like to believe that it was a 'visionary insight'.

Here come the emoji's!

It becomes obvious that the development of an “International Audiographic Symbolic Code” will be a powerful part of any international user interface. A vocabulary of visual graphics (such as the Olympic symbols) to represent literal or material concepts, supported by a vocabulary of audio symbolics to convey emotional concepts will undoubtedly become one of the most pervasive and often—called sectors of the world database.

Menus and Maps

We are all becoming aware of the limitations of the current generation of “menu driven” interactive structures. In the British teletext experiment, ft was found that the average user made an error in selection after having passed through only four levels of menu tree structure 50% of the time. This was not gratifying in a system which required an average of’ 6 to 8 layers of menu selection to access a desired item.

Keyword recognition systems are also limited by a number of factors. Keyword recognition implies a substantial two—way communication between the user and the database. It implies a large number of sophisticated algorlithms, hardware processing, machine time, and short-term memory, all dedicated to the keyword recognition process. When viewed in the context of a large database trying to service thousands of users in a real time context, this system appears quite unwieldy and very expensive.

Ho ho ho. This observation about the unlikeliness of metadata, 'tagging' and keywords seems absurd in retrospect - but it is a fair reflection of the technical limitations of that moment.

We just weren't there yet. But what I called the Elemental Database was 'the vision thing'.

A new generation of interactive indexing and dialogue are beginning to emerge such as those employed by the Apple Lisa. Those user-friendly, Symbolic-based structures appear to be very promising for many applications, but are still in their infancy. Videogames have provided some of the most innovative developments in the areas of audio and graphic cues and prompts.

However, we may still be conceptually tied too closely to the menu—driven concept. Moving through a database by successive menu selection is analogous to driving down a highway in unfamiliar country. You try to discover where you are in, relation to where you want to get to, but your only source of information is to read the exit signs describing those towns and thoroughfares that are immediately available along your present route. What you really want is a road map of the whole area and, unfortunately, there are no friendly service stations in our current interactive structures.

A road map is useful because it allows you to determine quickly where you are in the midst of the total network of options available. Once you have determined your position from the local road— signs, you can plot an efficient course to your destination which would not be apparent from the road signs alone.

It's an awkward definition, but I believe that I was talking about designing the interface based on something like workflow or an experiential journey, rather than an abstracted logical structure.

We believe that an efficient, transparent method for database access will come with the appropriate use of all of these techniques:

  • menu tree indexes for local routing
  • keyword recognition for express routing
  • audiographic symbolics for “road signs” along the information path
  • database maps to provide a comprehensive overview

Until some method of achieving these goals developed, user frustration will continue to be a major limitation to the acceptance of these proposed services.

Stylistically, print text has a tendency to take a germinal idea and embellish It for subtlety and sophistication of meaning. The emerging editorial parameters for videotext (with its spatial constraints) will be to take a developed message and reduce the text to the necessary germinal idea. Embellishment of the message (on the screen level) will be a function of graphic and audio imagery, while symbols, color coding, keywords, and prompts will indicate the interrelationship of the screen context to other information in the database.

Interestingly - to me, at least - many of the earliest interactive services look very much like the flat & lean designs that we embrace today.

Cooperation in the Network Environment

The original motivation for the development of the NABTS and NAPLPS standards was to ensure compatibility between services and transportability of data in order to ensure a competitive cooperation between providers from which everyone stands to benefit. It would be foolhardy for any individual IP to expect to develop and maintain a sufficiently complete and comprehensive database so as to be all things to all users.

In the end, IP’s will be far better off maintaining specialized databases in their area of expertise, with the public pool of end users accessing the appropriate databases through a common packet switching network as the need arises. Why, then, are so many IP’s involved In trying to develop and protect proprietary, specialized, and exclusive interactive structures?

A qualified Systems Designer should be able to demonstrate easily the superior advantages of allowing access to all users on any system. It is to everyone’s advantage to develop universal standards of interactivity, symbolics, and routing procedures. In the same way as has been done for hardware specifications. In the end, it is conceivable that end users will be employing intelligent active terminals to develop their own customized or personalized Interactive routines with which to search the databases of many different IP’s in order to obtain the specific information.

Today we call it the " browser". Then it was called a 'terminal' - or a 'decoder' (how nerdy is that?)

In any case, it was clear that ownership of the experience must reside with the user.

To this end, we recommend the establishment of a cooperative Laboratory supported by all the players in the market to ensure the development of a common procedural vocabulary which will allow for the effective use of the large packet switching networks which are expected to emerge in the next few years.

This last section was a warning and also a cry for help. It was obvious that the big business players in the early videotex venture into interactivity just didn't get it. They failed - spectacularly.

And in doing so, the early failure of Videotex allowed the collaborative Web to prove the market value of cooperation. Huzzah.