Researchers in Humanities Computing are frequently involved
in the production of new online software systems. The
specifi c roles vary, with some researchers work primarily
as humanists interested in building a tool in order to carry
out their own next project, while others may be archivists
creating a digital collection as a public resource, programmers
developing prototype systems for testing a concept, or
designers experimenting with new approaches to interfaces
or visualizations. The semi-serious slogan of the Text Analysis
Developer’s Alliance (TADA) summarizes the activity in this
way: “Real humanists make tools.” In the case of design of the
tools, it is useful to consider three levels, which in some contexts
we have referred to as basic, advanced, and experimental.
A basic tool is one that will run without diffi culty in every
contemporary browser. It provides functionality that everyone
expects. A search function is a good example. In a basic tool, it
is usual to follow the current best practices for online design,
with due attention to the standard heuristics that can help
Digital Humanities 2008 _____________________________________________________________________________
ensure that the result is usable. Nielsen (2000) provides a list
of ten such criteria: (1) Use simple and natural dialogue. (2)
Speak the users’ language. (3) Minimize user memory load.
(4) Consistency. (5) Feedback. (6) Clearly marked exists. (7)
Shortcuts. (8) Good error messages. (9) Prevent errors. (10)
Help and documentation.
An advanced tool is a basic tool with more features. For
example, an advanced search function might provide support
for Boolean operators, or allow nested queries, or include
proximity searches, where a search is successful if the target
words occur with in a specifi ed number of words from each
other. Advanced tools may have an experimental dimension,
but they are still largely recognizable as something a typical
user can be expected to have seen before. They are still within
the realm of contemporary best practices.
In the case of experimental tools, however, the goal is not
primarily to implement the current best practices, but instead
to experiment with new visual forms for information display
and online interaction. Often the prototype will serve as the
basis for user testing involving a new opportunity for action.
Examples might include Shneiderman et al’s (1992) concept of
direct manipulation, where the data and the interface are so
tightly coupled that the visualization is the interface, Bederson’s
(2001) approach to zoomable user interfaces (ZUIs) where
levels of magnifi cation become central to interaction, or Harris
and Kamvar’s (2007) constellation approach to emotional
expression in the blogosphere, where the results of blog
scrapes are plotted as patterns that dynamically emerge from
a constantly changing visual fi eld. As Lev Manovich put it during
a question and answer period in a paper session at Digital
Humanities 2007, “in this line of research, a prototype is itself
The experimental design of interfaces and visualization tools
is a special case for researchers in humanities computing,
because it involves the extension of concepts into areas that
are not well defi ned. In our research projects, we typically
have a content expert, programmer, and visual communication
designer working closely together in a cycle of static sketching,
kinetic sketching, prototyping, and refi nement, where each
iteration may require as much as several months or as little as
a few hours. One of our ongoing interests is in fi nding ways to
facilitate the process.
In this paper, we describe our initial experiments in creating
an online system that encourages the research team to focus
on details taken one at a time, in order to support rapid
turnaround in design and development. Hackey provides
the designer and programmer with a means of focusing on
individual issues in the process, and rapidly exchanging idea,
sketches, and prototypes. The game also includes a third role,
in the form of the “pit boss” who lurks on the conversation
and can step in to provide guidance or suggestions. Either
player can also choose during a turn to address a question to
the pit boss, usually in the form of clarifi cation or appeal for
arbitration of some kind.
In addition to encouraging rapid turnaround, Hackey is also
intended to encourage fun. By treating the exchanges as a
kind of collaborative game, there is room for the players to
contextualize their activity as more than a task list or a series
of Jira tickets. Hackey provides a framework for discussions
that can be at the same time serious and lighthearted. The
principle is that the bounds of discourse are opened slightly
by the game metaphor, to allow for mutual interrogation of
the underlying assumptions held by both the designer and the
programmer. This framework addresses an ongoing diffi culty
with interdisciplinary collaboration, where experts from
two fi elds need to be able to fi nd common ground that can
accommodate the expertise of both, without undo compromise
of the disciplinary expertise of either party. What we would
like to avoid is the situation where the programmers feel that
they are “working for” the designers, or the designers feel that
they are not considered important partners in the process by
the programmers, and that their proposals can be rejected out
of hand without discussion. In this respect, the third party “pit
boss” role is useful, since in extreme situations it can serve as
a court of second appeal for either of the players, and under
normal conditions it constitutes a presence that helps maintain
the spirit of free and open exchange of ideas.
The Hackey prototype is still in its early stages, and we are still
in the phase of experimentation, but we hope to make it more
widely available for interdisciplinary teams who are seeking
new methods for collaborative work. By logging their dialogues
in the system and treating these records as an objective of
interpretive study, we hope to be able to elaborate the original
concept with additional features appropriate to the general
Bederson, B. 2001. PhotoMesa: A zoomable image browser
using quantum treemaps and bubblemaps. Proceedings of the
14th annual ACM symposium on user interface software and
technology. 71–80. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/502348.502359.
Harris, J. and S. Kamvar. 2007. We feel fi ne. http://wefeelfi ne.
MONK. 2007. Metadata Offer New Knowledge. www.
Nielsen, J. 2000. Designing web usability: The practice of simplicity.
Indianapolis, IN: New Riders.
Shneiderman, B., Williamson, C. and Ahlberg, C. (1992).
Dynamic Queries: Database Searching by Direct
Manipulation. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human
factors in computing systems. pp. 669-670. http://doi.acm.
org/10.1145/142750.143082. Accessed March 10, 2006.
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