Brenda Laurel – Computers as Theatre


As early as the beginning of the 1990s, Brenda Laurel hit on the idea that usability alone would not suffice when it came to the design of successful applications. She therefore articulated a theory of interaction which leveraged her knowledge of theatre with her experience in HCI. “The real issue,” she claims, is “How can people participate as agents within representational contexts? Actors know a lot about that, and so do children playing make-believe.” Laurel brings the resources of theatre, film, and narrative “to the fore and [begins] to use them in the design of interactive systems” (21).

Using Aristotle’s Poetics as a basis for dramatic theory, she explains how concepts such as catharsis, engagement, and agency manifest in digital (i.e. “representational”) contexts. She adds to the conversation by bringing in the rich vocabulary of theatre, which she convincingly points out is strikingly similar to HCI. Although her examples are now badly dated, her concepts and theoretical framework remain relevant for those interested in multidisciplinary ways to think and talk about usability and UXD.

Laurel’s project can be nicely summed up as follows: “Even in task-oriented applications, there is more to the experience than getting something done in the real world, and this is the heart of the dramatic theory of human-computer interaction. Our focus is not primarily on how to accomplish real-world objectives but rather how to accomplish them in a way that is both pleasing and amenable to artistic formulation—that is, in a way in which the designer may shape our experience so that it is enjoyable, invigorating, and whole” (120).

Quotes & Ideas Pertaining to Interface Design and UX

A Definition of UXD
“Designing human-computer experience isn’t about building a better desktop. It’s about creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality—worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act” (33).

My Questions

1. Usability and UXD literature tends to indicate that mental models and metaphors are used to anticipate and support user tasks and behavior (Laurel, Norman, Nielsen, Young). The literature also makes it clear that proper use of mental models and metaphors makes for a useful and usable interface. However, it is less obvious how (or if) mental models are discussed / employed for emotional purposes. The same is true for metaphors, which are also discussed in terms of supporting interaction. Laurel sums it up well when she says, “The theory is that, if the interface presents representations of real-world objects [e.g. a ‘folder’ on a ‘desktop’], people will naturally know what to do with them” (128). This is true, for the most part. Yet, it is also true that people often know how they are supposed to feel and, more importantly, what role(s) they are expected to play in a representational context. However, current discussions of mental models and metaphor in interface design have shed no light on how or why this is the case.

Are ‘emotional mental models’ being leveraged in web design? If so, how? And to what end(s)? Is the work on “emotional design” (Norman, Coates) basically articulating what emotional mental models are and how they might be employed?

2. Brenda Laurel argues that “human-computer activities [are] more like plays than stories” (94). In fact, articulating a theory of “dramatic” (i.e. theatrical) HCI is the main project of her book. She explains that the 3 key differences between plays and stories have to do with the Aristotelian concepts of “enactment,” “intensification,” and “unity of action versus episodic structure” (94-95). Beginning with a discussion of these elements, then moving on to incorporate other writers who argue for the importance of narrative, turn Laurel on her head and explain why UXD is more like a story than a play.

Enactment – “the stuff of narrative is description, while the stuff of drama is action” (94)

Intensification – “incidents are selected, arranged, and represented, in general, so as to intensify emotion and condense time. Narrative forms generally employ the reverse process, extensification, where incidents may be reported from a number of perspectives and in ways that expand or explode time” (94)

Unity of action versus episodic structure – “narrative tends to be more episodic; that is, incidents are more likely to be quasi-independent and connected thematically rather than causally to the whole” (95)
3. Brenda Laurel conceptualized ‘engagement’ as something similar to the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ She says it is “the state of mind we must attain in order to enjoy a representation of an action” (113). She goes on, “Engagement is what happens when we are able to give ourselves over to a representational action, comfortably and unambiguously. It involves a kind of complicity. We agree to think and feel in terms of both the content and conventions of a mimetic context. In return, we gain a plethora of new possibilities for action and a kind of emotional guarantee. One reason why people are amenable to constraints is the desire to gain these benefits” (115). How is interpellation similar to and different from engagement? What is the “emotional guarantee” Laurel mentions?

Fundamental to Laurel’s idea of engagement is that “the representation is all there is” (116). Can the same be true for interpellation in online environments? What does Shedroff say? Krug? Is interpellation non-representational?


~ by ahatter on September 3, 2009.

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