Designing and assessing a visual online interface is hard, even for people whose vocation is based in visual analysis. As art historians, we learn to think critically at art and eventually, inevitably, we begin to experience the world through a critical-analysis lens. The problem we might run into with Interfaces–on websites, apps, museum guides–is that their quality is not determined solely based only the sum of their formal components. As with (most or some) art, these formal components are vehicles for meaning and message. The education we receive in art history through graduate coursework, independent research, attending conferences, going to look at art, etc. establishes a set of meanings and messages that we learn to look for in works of art. Because we understand something about the context of an object and the canon of art history, we can more easily begin to think about the meaning and message of an object. We generally don’t receive the same education in interface design so our formal and critical analysis skills only get us so far in understanding what an interface’s message and meaning is. Each element of an interface is designed to promote a specific behavior, if the element impedes the user from enacting that behavior the interface has some problems. A website can be beautiful, but if it doesn’t get a user to do the “right” behavior, it’s not succeeding in its goal. Not to mention the fact that the entire notion of guiding a user toward goal specified by the website creator quickly becomes problematic for arts institutions and those of us concerned with democratizing access to content.
In thinking about creating online collections, putting written content online, and creating interactive digital projects to accompany my research, my main struggle is imagining that the user will feel taken care of by whatever digital environment houses my content. I frequently struggle on websites associated with arts and education institutions and in the rest of my life actively avoid apps and websites with terribly clumsy interfaces. I just don’t want to make something that I wouldn’t want to use and am not sure yet how to avoid this plight. Grants? Collaboration? Optimism?