While this week’s readings were fairly diverse, I felt the major theme stretching across them was the important relationship between design and content. According to the results of the Stanford Credibility project, a webpage’s design and appearance are, in many cases, more important than its actual content in determining its perceived credibility to the average user. Nor is this phenomenon limited to the web, as Hagen and Golombisky make the same point, if less explicitly, in their discussion of design considerations for print media.
Clearly then, any website that hopes to achieve credibility, not to mention actually attracting and keeping visitors, must consider its design and aesthetics as a element almost as important as its content. Additionally, as pointed out by Hagen and Golombisky, this design should compliment the content rather than just provide a pretty interface for the cutting and pasting of content. Design and content must be developed side by side, not independently and joined together in the final product.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the intersection of design and content is provided by Donald Norman in his article on why “Attractive Things Work Better.” Norman argues for the use of design to engage the overlapping of the three levels of brain processing: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Essentially, by using to design to engage a visceral reaction we can improve the reflective processing of the content. For websites, the implication of this is that a design that provokes a positive affective response will encourage the curiosity, creativity, and learning ability of viewers (resulting in prolonged visits and increased understanding of content). An important consideration for the design of websites (and other media), this also perhaps partially explains the results of the Stanford Credibility Project.
But while website designers will primarily want to focus on achieving positive affect, in certain circumstances the use of negative affect is also useful. Negative affect, according to Norman, produces high focus and concentration (often to the point of tunnel vision), which may be more desirable to designers for some tasks than the creativity engendered by positive affect. Norman’s example is of the monitoring station at a nuclear power plant, which uses positive affect (attractive, pleasant environment) during normal operations but imposes negative affect (alarms) to achieve increased focus. This also has important implication for designs that are intended to be used in situations with externally introduced high stress. In these cases, rather than designing to introduce affect, designers need to focus on accounting for the visceral effect of outside factors. The designer of a Heads-Up Display for a fighter aircraft, for example, should concentrate on making the display as simple and intuitive as possible, so that even during the tunnel vision resulting from high stress combat pilots will be able to quickly and effectively use the display.
A second major theme engaged by this week’s readings is the permanence or impermanence of the web. Despite the efforts of projects like the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine, millions of websites have been written over or deleted. More importantly, even those that have been saved can be difficult to find due to the problems with navigating Web Archives. While not as a big a concern for our projects this semester as the intersection of design and content, this obviously holds huge implications for the future of our profession as historians. While historians increasingly use the web for research and citations, and digital historians especially argue for the increased transparency of using links in footnotes, the credibility of this methodology is called into question when these links are dead, or more dangerously, overwritten with new material. Thankfully, perma.cc provides at least a partial solution to this problem by saving a permanent link to the website as cited. Yet this solution suffers from the fact that its viability is dependent on the continued existence of a third party institution, and also will obviously only work for links to digital scholarship, and does nothing to protect websites listed in footnotes of print works.