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Semiotics and the interface
by Thomas Wendt| New York City,
Tuesday, 1 May 2012
tags: americas, art & design, clients & brands, emergence, experts & agencies, semiotics, technology
The fields of semiotics, human-computer interaction (HCI), and user experience have flourished in the past years, mostly exclusively of one another. Each has evolved into fields of study for both business professionals and academics–semiotics from academic roots, user experience from business, and HCI from a mix of both. Many thinkers have tackled the subject of semiotics and the digital experience with impressive rigor, but few have applied their insights to a strategic business setting. As user experience and interface designers focus on delivering comprehensive documentation to their clients, there is a disconnect between business objectives and how the proposed design speaks through its interface.
For the purposes of this discussion, we can define “interface” as anything that filters information and re-presents it in a meaningful way. The implications of such a broad definition are that the interface is something that both provides access and mediates information. As such, this interface is an active force and influential factor in the relationship between objects and their representations.
In the results-focused world of user experience and interface design, it is easy to forget the nuances of meaning amidst interface and experience. The end goals of user experience and interface design are to create a means by which users of software can access information in a way that is meaningful, intuitive, and serves the objectives of the software creators (or a brand). In certain cases, these two objectives can conflict with one anther.
Take for example a financial services company whose audience includes a segment with particular interest in travel. They are older, retired people with the leisure time and money to take vacations around the world. The brand’s website is focused mostly on product offerings, which are of fleeting importance if they are not linked to core audience interests. There is a conflict between the business, which wants to sell products, and this audience segment, who want to know how best to allocate funds to leisure activities. The company needs a way to communicate with its audience in a way that is meaningful for them, within the context of their interests. This is a semiotic challenge, but brands seldom think about business problems in terms of meaning production.
The company might go about solving the problem by adding some travel information on their website, writing a couple blog posts on popular travel destinations, and starting to talk about travel on Facebook. This approach is short-sighted, specifically because it does not consider is the entirety of the digital experience. It changes the interface at a few touch points but fails to positively affect the more wide-ranging brand interaction in a way that an approach informed by semiotics might. Perhaps a better approach would be to reframe certain products within the context of travel and leisure, without specific attention to a particular channel. The difference is that the second approach is integrated into all the brand’s interfaces; it’s a systemic change rather than a manipulation of limited touch points.
I see the main benefits semiotics can provide in a business setting residing in this idea of contextual manipulation. Business and design problems are rarely so singular and isolated to warrant limited solutions; however, at the same time, companies are hesitant to entertain systemic changes because of budgetary reasons or the anxiety caused by thinking about their brand as a constantly evolving entity. Professionals who are influenced by semiotics should work to better establish a theoretical framework that makes sense to clients and can be executed in a business setting. They should elucidate how their colleagues are actually semioticians, even if they don’t articulate it or even know it. The first step toward incorporating semiotics into a business setting is to strip away its esoteric qualities.
This topic will be explored further in a forthcoming essay.
© Thomas Wendt 2012