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NEW(S) MEDIA The linear route Internet readers have to follow defies nature

It's tough being a 2D interface in a multidimensional world.

Take the Internet, for example. Theoretically, it is possible to link any given point in the 'Net to all other points so that a user can move from here to anywhere in a single step.

The Web, of course, has proven somewhat less flexible. Even if one were to forgo minor details such as putting actual content on a Web page, there's an all-too-finite number of links that can go on a single page.

So the World-Wide Web has become the World-Wide Strand. Designers put in a link to the next page, a related page, the home page, the contents page and a search page -- and that's all she wrote. Users are forced to travel up and down single strands until they reach a juncture -- a home page or a search engine -- so they can pick a new direction.

This is a terrible defect in the user interface, if you think about it. It violates just about everything we know about the way people actually use information. People like to browse, to go from one item to the next. Think of video stores, libraries and book stores.

Think of newspapers.

Newspapers are set up for browsing. Pick up the A section, or Business, or Lifestyles, or Sports, and find a category of articles neatly arranged for browsing. Read today's top local story, then slide right over to the top national story right in the next column.

Now imagine a newspaper arranged like a web site. Look at the front page; select an article. Read it to the end, then glance at the sidebar. Now you want to look at another article? You'll have to return to the section front before you can select something else to read.

There's no need for despair, though. This is the natural progression for any new technology. Think of the early days of television, when cameras were dropped into static positions at theaters and used to film plays.

Look at how that has progressed to the handheld camera work and jump cuts of shows such as "NYPD Blue." Wild, jerky camera shots, things barely seen, disorienting pans -- the camera work itself now creates

the dramatic tension of a police chase or a shootout.

In other words, the camera work has become part of the user experience -- part of the user interface, as it were.

Consider the microwave oven.

The first microwave ovens -- sometimes referred to as "radar ranges" -- pretty much retained the original radar controls. Just popping a bag of microwave popcorn required figuring out the power of your oven in watts, the cooking time for that power oven, and then how to set the mode and time.

Now, you just push the "popcorn" button.

That's called a transparent interface. All that stuff actually still happens; it's just that now the machine takes care of it, rather than making the user handle all that stuff. Another transparent interface is the one that runs the automatic transmission on most cars. Put it in "D" and off you go. The tranny is clutching and shifting, hunting for the best gear for the driving conditions -- and you're singing along with the radio.

Who knows how it works? Who cares? That shouldn't be the user's job.

That's the problem with current 'Net interfaces, which make the users do the grunt work. Think of it this way: In a browsable environment such as a library, you can work your way to the right area, then browse for the things you need.

Say you are looking for a copy of the original Waiting for Godot. You head for the theatre section and look at the English playwrights. But for reasons outside the purview of our discussion here, Irish poet, author and playwright Samuel Beckett wrote in French, not English. The original is En attendant Godot.

In a library, of course, French plays are still in the theatre section, so you browse right over and find it. On the 'Net, a mistake like that with a search engine nets you a "404-File Not Found."

Which do you consider more user friendly?

Which brings us back to the subject of avatars, the topic of last month's column. One of the great advantages of a voice-controlled avatar for 'Net navigation is that the avatar can be sort of an information iceberg, with most of the logic hidden, rather than in the user's face.

The 2D nature of web pages limits the number of links that can be squeezed onto a screen. A voice-controlled avatar, however, can have an unlimited number of links nestled in its underlying code, hidden away until they are invoked by a user. Avatars that are independent objects can even be scripted to load and unload sets of commands as the user traverses the 'Net, providing for context-sensitive help and navigation.

-- Christopher J. Feola
COPYRIGHT 1997 The Cole Group
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Oct 27, 1997
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