Unit #3: Interrogating the Interface

(Worth 20% of your grade; due on November 12)


An interface, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is a “point of interaction or communication between a computer and any other entity, such as a printer or human operator.” As a “human operator,” you encounter “user interfaces” every day: your cell phone, your laptop computer, the stereo in your car, an ATM machine — all of these devices have interfaces that have been carefully designed to facilitate specific technical functions and guide you, the user, through the range of available tasks within the system.

The word interface has become so common in our vocabulary that we now use it as a verb. Most of us “interface” with so many different systems on such a regular basis that the design and functionality of these interfaces becomes invisible. This assignment asks you to step back and critically examine the interface of a web-based service or mobile app, then document your findings in a multimodal analytical essay published online.

Assignment Guidelines

For this assignment, you should follow four sequential steps:

1. Choose an application: To help us become familiar with as many applications as possible, each student in the class will analyze a different application. The following applications are “pre-approved” for this assignment:

In addition to considering the applications on this list, you should seek out additional applications designed to support writers, photographers, filmmakers, storytellers, public speakers, programmers, etc. As you begin thinking about which application you would like to study, I encourage you to select an application you have never used before but which you would like to explore. Before you go to bed on Monday, October 19, email me with your top three choices, plus an additional application that does not appear on the list above. (Rank your four applications in order of preference.) Assignments will be announced in class on Tuesday, October 20. [UPDATE: Here is the finalized list of assigned applications.]

2. Conduct the analysis: Once you have selected an application, you will begin analyzing its user interface. Exploring the basic functionality of the application is a good place to start, but your analysis should not merely describe what the application does; it should investigate how the application controls or influences your interaction with it and/or other users of the application. Considering two broad questions might help you get started: 1) What are the affordances of the application? In other words, what does the application allow or encourage you do? What does it make easy for you? 2) What are the constraints of the application? In other words, how does the application limit your ability to do things you want to do? What does it make difficult for you? What causes the application to “break”? Think about which features of the application are intuitive and which features are “hidden” or only available to advanced users. If the site has a mobile version, visit it in your phone’s web browser or download the official app. What shortcomings do you notice when you use the mobile version? Does the mobile version have any advantages? How often does the website or app crash? Can you determine what causes these failures? Rather than thinking abstractly about these questions, create an account on the site and begin exploring the user interface of your application, taking notes and screenshots as you do so. The answers to these questions will form the basis of your essay.

3. Draft your essay: The parameters for this essay are intentionally broad, which should allow you to focus on the aspects of your application you find most relevant and interesting. However, please remember that your essay should analyze and evaluate the application, not just describe or summarize it. Using first-person voice (“I”) may be appropriate in places, but your essay should not merely express your personal opinion about whether or not you like the application. Rather, it should thoughtfully critique the application’s interface and the company (or group of people) that designed it. Be careful of veering too far into praise or blame — your essay shouldn’t be a cheerleading routine (“This application is great! Look what it can do!”) or a smear campaign (“This application is evil! You shouldn’t use it!”). Rather, you should briefly describe what the application does, then discuss how the interface improves the user experience (its affordances) and how it limits the user experience (its constraints). You may also want to include some type of recommendation (which will help your classmates decide whether or not they should use this application) or comparison (which will help us place your application on a continuum of other applications that perform similar functions).

4. Publish your essay: We will use Medium, an online blogging tool, to publish our finished essays. We will spend time in class workshops familiarizing ourselves with Medium and learning how to use it effectively. Your essay should be 1200–1600 words and should include headings, pull quotes, and screenshot (or embedded videos) that enhance your text.

Submitting Your Essay

Your essay is due before you come to class on November 12. To submit your essay, simply add your Medium.com essay to our class publication and email me with the URL for your essay. If you would like me to review or consider any additional materials, please upload them to a “Unit 3” folder on Google Drive.

Evaluation Criteria

I will evaluate your essay using the following criteria:

  • Completeness: Does the essay contain 1200–1600 words? Does the essay focus solely on the assigned application?
  • Organization: Does the essay exhibit a logical structure and organization? Does it introduce the application to readers who may not be familiar with it before analyzing and critiquing the application? Does the essay make use of headings, lists, and/or pull quotes to guide readers through the text?
  • Analysis: How effectively does the essay analyze (not summarize) the affordances and constraints of the interface?
  • Critique: Does the essay draw conclusions and provide recommendations that would help users of the application make informed decisions about their digital habits?
  • Multimodality: Does the essay incorporate visual elements (screenshots and/or embedded videos) in ways that strengthen and extend the written arguments?
  • Grammatical Conventions and Mechanics: Does the essay adhere to the conventions of standard written English (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.)?