Nov 08

Interface Design is a Waste of Time

When I first began work in Digital Humanities, I was too ignorant to anticipate how often I would be told this as a developer. So often, it turns out, that I’d like to start an argument.

It seems that a digital humanist who is capable of programming prefers the command line, where she can break into anything she wants. If she is smart enough to research and program, went the reasoning, she is clever enough to decide what customizations make the perfect tool for her research. On the other side, at an institution with the resources for great minds and strong technical support, the most erudite researcher can configure a task so precise that even an uninitiated programmer can run an appropriate analysis and return wonderful data or at least a helpful visualization to the (often digitally hypo-literate) taskmaster.

The pyramids and evolution have shown that if you throw enough bodies at something, it will get done, but a tool is something special. Every craft has a rich history of interplay between those who pushed the limits of possibility and the new designs that made sure that limit was ever-expanding.

Digital Humanists represent a very different audience from most web design or software projects – an opportunity that is often missed. Time taken to restrict bad data input causes conflict with data models that may be based on now incomplete or incompatible scholarly conventions. The interface is adjusted; the tool is improved. This loop creates a tool that generates better data and more completely describes the scholarly work while simultaneously creating (de facto) or reinforcing data standards. The result is well-composed knowledge that is completely portable, dissectable, criticizable, citable, and reusable.

This success is powered by the scholar, sharpened by the focus of the designer, and accelerated by the tool born from the interaction between them.

I am happy to share my experiences with people beginning projects. I am very interested in hearing from others who have completed reusable digital humanities tools and discussing what sorts of possibilities exist in disparate solutions applied to emerging problems.

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