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person speaking with "computer-head"

The Media Equation and Metaphors We Live By offer complementary perspectives on human beings and the technology with which we interact ... together they imply that people have a strong tendency to use our own bodies and our relationships with each other as the basis for understanding everything in our world -- no matter how modern or new that world becomes. The further implication is that designers can look for guidance in the real world to help themselves make design decisions, and that designers cannot assume people will behave differently than usual just because they are using technology.


sketch of the Microsoft paper clip butting in to user's work

Think about the kind of person who would look over your shoulder at what you are doing with the computer, then interrupt your work without saying, "Excuse me ..." and offer you advice without being asked. Even if this person meant well, you might find that behavior difficult to tolerate.

Who am I interacting with ...

Reeves and Nass (1996) describe many experiments they have carried out to test the theory that people interact with media as if it were other people. They have shown in multiple ways that even when people know objectively that images of people on television screens are not real, or that computers are machines instead of human beings, we treat these things as if they were real -- were human. This turns out to be true even though people declare firmly that they know better. In actual behavior, people demonstrate politeness toward computers and become more aroused when characters on television come closer to the camera. You have probably experienced this phenomenon most directly during the times when you are struggling with your computer over some task that is not working out as you planned. Have you found yourself saying or thinking, "Come on, you sorry excuse for a thinking machine -- cough up my file!" That is the media equation in action.

"BOB," the anthropomorphic computer system interface developed directly out of this work was not a success. This is likely because the theory was applied in a very simplistic way to the development of BOB (and the Microsoft paperclip character). First, the designers seem to have concentrated on creating interfaces that imitate humans, rather than on understanding positive interactions between humans and making sure that analogous interactions with computers will share the same qualities. Second, because of this oversight, the designers have created markedly unlovable personalities for these characters. They interrupt your work, assume they know what you want, and either talk down to you or speak in jargon that you can't understand. No wonder people don't want to spend time with them!

Designing interactions - including navigation - is a matter of emotion and culture, not just of structure diagrams, task analysis and buttons on the screen. What do we consider to be polite behavior between people? What responsibilities do we think that we assume when we speak to each other, or work with each other? How about the responsibilities of the other party? Do I consider it to be rude (at the very least) if someone I have just met directs me down a hallway and leaves me in a room from which I discover there is no escape? Very likely -- and so will your users if you do the same to them in hyperspace.

Reeves, B. & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation: How people treat computers, television and new media like real people and places. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press. (May be able to get as low as $11.01 at )

This book is another one that you will not want to miss if you are intending to do more work in interface design. The basic premise of this work carries important implications for media designers.

copyright 2001 Elizabeth Boling and Indiana University
Elizabeth Boling
18 March 2000