Computers As Theatre

by BrendaLaurel ISBN 0201550601

My favorite part of the book is the (theoretical) explanation of the uselessness of explicit user models, that is, trying to model the user's state of mind inside a program. It goes like this:

A great book by BrendaLaurel. It has an excellent summary of MrAristotle's analysis of theater. It also describes the fallacy of the ExplicitUserModel- users always build a model of what is going on inside the computer. If you build a model in the computer of the user's model of the computer, that model becomes part of the user's model and then you need a model model and and and. So skip it- just write software with a clear and simple model and trust the user to figure out their own model.


Trouble is that if the user's model for how the system works is substantially different from the model you've implemented in the code, then there's a very good chance that bad things will happen -- like losing data or producing incorrect results. Indeed, this usually happens because, as Brenda tells us, the user's model begins before approaching the [application] and ends after it has been done with. It includes the cold coffee, the late train, the row with the boss/husband/child...

I'd recommend that your system should have a model. Then you can describe it in the manual, the online help, and in training classes. This will help the users form a somewhat similar mental model in their heads, which will help them use your system successfully. Try to use the same model, or a minimum number of appropriate models, across the system; try to be consistent with the models of other software your users are accustomed to using. -- JeffGrigg

Education is a form of theater -- ask or remember any teacher that really "got through" to you. Educators know that you are far more effective if you can provide several models. Some people will respond to stories, others to pictures, others to simulations, others to role play, etc. It can be tricky to provide them simultaneously without confusing the learner, but multiple models are used by the most successful educators. -- RonPhillips


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