Designing for Difficulty

One thing that really struck me about the readings for this week is the general skepticism about ease of use. Ramsay and Rockman (“Developing Things“) argue that while a tool that doesn’t call attention to itself is useful, it’s less likely to be formally valued as scholarship. Tenen (“Blunt Instrumentation“)  is cautious about tools for several reasons, but his principal objection is that tools hide their inner workings in a way that can compromise the work done with them.  In order to do good, scholarly work using a tool, you need to understand exactly what it’s doing, and the best way to do that is to build it yourself.  Posner (“What’s Next“) takes this argument a step further, arguing that ease of use is often privileged above critical thinking.  The familiar is easy to use, but it doesn’t challenge the colonial point of view that the broader culture promotes.

Posner uses the Knotted Line as an example of a project that presents history in a more challenging way than the traditional timeline.  I spent some time looking at this website. It’s a history of freedom in the United States, and brings together information about slavery, education, mass incarceration, segregation, immigration, etc on a timeline that, as the title suggests, is neither straightforward nor orderly.  To reveal the different events of the timeline, there is a window that the website user must pull and tease until the image becomes clear.

Image of the timeline from the Knotted Line

Part of the timeline of the Knotted Line. Paintings are revealed by pulling on the line. Image taken from

The Knotted Line is more physically strenuous than most websites, and it can also be frustrating – much like the struggle for freedom in American history. Obviously, these things are far from equivalent, but the fact that the reader has to work for this information helps to challenge narratives of progress and emphasize that the struggle is still ongoing.

This is a different kind of difficulty than that experienced by users of NLTK in Tenen’s chapter.  I haven’t used NLTK yet, but according to Tenen, it’s difficult because you have to understand exactly what it does. It doesn’t hide its inner workings behind fancy interfaces, but provides lots of careful documentation to facilitate well-informed (should I say expert?) use.

Ramsay and Rockwell discuss the “transparency” of tools, meaning the ability for tools to fade into the background as the user thinks about the task instead.  Both these projects are specifically against this kind of transparency. Instead, they offer transparency of a different kind, the kind that comes from letting the user look behind the scenes.

I’m a librarian, so I spend a lot of time hearing about how library users want ease of use, how complex interfaces drive people away and nobody cares about how the searches work, and how advanced searching is for librarians only because it requires searchers to understand how a record is put together.  I’m uncomfortable with most of those arguments, so I found Tenen and Posner really refreshing from that perspective, especially since Posner is a professor of library science!

Some of this is audience specific. Both NLTK and the Knotted Line are designed with a very specific audience in mind, and an audience with which the people who designed the tools were very familiar. And then, a lot of it is about designing carefully and intentionally.  It isn’t always bad for users to be confused and even frustrated, as long as it’s for the right reason.

7 thoughts on “Designing for Difficulty

  1. Sean Patrick Palmer

    I don’t buy Tenen’s “If you don’t build it, you can’t trust the results from it” thoughts on tool use. Part of that comes from his analogy with astronomers fails: if the astronomers aren’t sure their new telescope is working properly, they can always focus on an area in space that has been well mapped, and see if there are disturbances from there.

    Should we research to see what tools are already out there? Absolutely –why reinvent the wheel? Once we find those tools. should we do research on tools before we use them? Absolutely.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t build our own tools. Sometimes it’s the best or only option. I just don’t agree with Tenen’s apparent hostility towards using a tool created by someone else.

    Also, I agree with your final paragraph. However, I have limits. If I remain frustrated by something over a period of time, I will likely walk away — peruse another line of inquiry or hunt for another, more intuitive (at least for me) tool.

    1. Nancy Foasberg Post author

      After some searching, I haven’t been able to find it, but I believe that Jane McGonigal talks about finding the right level of difficulty for a game. Too difficult, and people will give up; too easy, and they’re bored. I think she’s likely drawing on Csikszentmihalyi here?

      In any case, this is what I mean about *intentional* difficulty; it has to be included thoughtfully and at the right level, as opposed to the more common case of poor design.

      1. Sean Patrick Palmer

        I agree with that.

        I also think that a plan B is necessary. We’ve all taught that lesson or made that assignment that we thought was 100% clear and wonderful only to discover that we were wrong. OR sometimes, what works well in one class just simply doesn’t work in another.

    2. Carolyn

      Sean — I had your post in mind while reading Tenen. I also found flaws in his argument/s (the astronomer analogy had me particularly nuts b/c my husband is big into astronomy and I’ve watched him make a telescope out of a shoebox, if need be.)

      My biggest criticsm of Tenen is that I couldn’t tell if he was praising Python’s NLTK, dissing it or both. His essay strikes me as a little “high horse-y” in tone (and yet with a glaring grammatical error when he writes “must have ‘went’ into” vs. ‘gone’ — wowza! Hello copyeditor in the house?)

      My train is pulling in so to be cont’d…

  2. Farah Zahra

    Thank you Nancy for sharing your thoughts on this week’s readings. Just like you, I found Ramsay and Rockwell’s article intriguing as it problematizes normative definitions and traditional boundaries of scholarship (what is and what is not). The article mentions the MLA guidelines for evaluating work in DH and Digital media. I was looking at the professional societies I’m member in (Middle East Studies Association MESA and the Society for Ethnomusicology). Interestingly, the MESA refers to Todd Presner’s intervention on “How to Evaluate Digital Scholarship” without much engaging with or adapting it to their own area study. I wonder what the status of this matter is at other professional organizations.

    I also agree with you all about your take on Tenen’s argument “the best kind of tools are therefore the ones that we make ourselves”. He also echoes Ramsay and Rockwell’s critique of “ease of use”. This attitude however seems to be at odds with Presner’s vision of the DH as creative of “new models of culture and society” by being cultural-critical praxis “rooted in an ethic of participation and curation” and Gallon’s notion of digital recovery projects (or black DH) that should interrogate and disclose how the humanities and the DH have developed out of systems of power rather than simply “moving forward with digitizing, text mining, topic modeling”. So while Tenen and Ramsay’s projects seem technical-elite-oriented, Gallon and Presner’s orientation was more democratic and engaging of wider publics— did you get this impression too?

    1. Nancy Foasberg Post author

      Yeah, that’s a really important point. The biggest danger of difficulty-of-use is that it could exclude the participation of a wider audience — possibly precluding Presner’s DH utopia of “participation without condition.” And I think you’re right about how Gallon’s and Presner’s work engages wider publics, where Ramsay and Rockwell’s was specifically concerned with tenure-track faculty members (although they do nod to other kinds of participants).
      I think it’s a little more complicated with Tenen. He calls for students to be engaged in DH projects, and one of his arguments is that developing platforms and tools for wider use is that it diverts resources from other projects, projects which may involve working more closely with the community. He hopes that DH can be a way to “enact meaningful change in our communities.” (a little less ambitious than Presner to be sure!) So although he is very clearly writing from within academia, and that perspective very much shows in his writing, I don’t think that he’s arguing for a technical-elite version of DH, or at least, if he is, I don’t think he knows it.
      ON THE OTHER HAND, he does fail to take into account the need for people to participate from wherever they are in the process. When he expresses dismay that his intermediate students aren’t aware of the tools that already exist, he’s envisioning DH as a curriculum, which is certainly exclusionary in some ways. There is definitely the potential for gatekeeping there and he doesn’t address that.

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