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Interface communication management: A user centred multimedia design model

Andrew Litchfield
Southern Cross University, Lismore, New South Wales
This paper discusses emerging design processes in the production of multimedia programs. A design model is presented - Interface Communication Management - which centres the multimedia user within systematic, iterative media production processes. The media design processes incorporated into the model are generic and relevant to the production of multimedia programs for commercial, educational and other purposes.


Picasso showed an American soldier through his villa one day, and on completion of the tour the young man felt compelled to confess that he didn't like Picasso's weird way of painting, because nothing on the canvas looked the way it really is. Picasso turned the conversation to more acceptable matters by asking the soldier if he had a girl back in the States. The soldier proudly pulled out a wallet photograph. As Picasso handed it back, he said, "She's attractive but isn't she really small?" (Forsdale, J., Film Literacy, quoted in Heinich, R., Instructional Media, 1986, 206)
The development of multimedia technology has the potential of giving the individual the means of creative production of digital representations of all mediated human communications. Multimedia's potential is central to Toffler's (1990) prediction of "the rise of an entirely new system of wealth creation which is totally dependent on the instant communication of data, ideas, symbols and symbolism - a super symbolic economy".

Multimedia programs can perhaps be described as a screen that you can watch, hear and read with quick user-access to databases of digital representations of text, still image, audio, and moving image. All thew communication mediums of information, knowledge and meaning can now be created, accessed, manipulated, presented and distributed in the one technology - the networked desktop computer. A new medium of human communication is rapidly evolving and creating opportunities for designing new ways of using existing media, especially in the possibilities of interactivity and user control. As Ambron (1990) states, "we are at the beginning of an innovation in human communication as profound as the text page and the moving picture".

It is the current development of desktop digital video which is the key to multimedia's definition and potential for the means of production of the other digital mediums are already relatively well developed. The development of multimedia technology con only enhance the influence of the audiovisual medium as it offers viable solutions to the main disadvantages of existing audiovisual technologies; the high cost of production, linear presentation only, and the lack of viewer participation. The popularity of computer games attests to the appeal of interactive audiovisual multimedia.

In 1992 the first viable tools to enable video images to be accessed, manipulated and presented by the desktop computer became commercially available. In 1993 multimedia began its popular establishment and as Richards (1993) comments "there is a kind of feeding frenzy of suppliers but no one is quite sure where the food is". Through 1994 the establishment of multimedia should be hastened when the PowerPC and Pentium microchip computers are in the marketplace and a multimedia production unit could be available for maybe no more than $A5000, and multimedia players for less than $A1000 - the VCR of the 1990s.

Due to the low cost of multimedia production tools, relative to earlier analogue technology, both multimedia corporate and 'cottage' industries should proliferate, competition will be fierce, and quality outcomes will be crucial for commercial viability. To aid such outcomes this paper presents a schema - Interface Communication Management - which posits multimedia design and specific issues relevant to the new medium within established media production processes. These processes and issues are user centred and iterative to maximise design outcomes.

A user centred approach to the design of multimedia

What we call 'art' today is what the artist - working alone or in collaboration - has fashioned from the billions of data inputs that constitute their experience ... They have then expressed this experience in a distilled form, through their chosen medium - be it words, paint, music or film. But what they have created, essentially crucially, is a seamless, finished structure whose integrity is not interrupted by its consumption - which remains the same no matter how it is watched, seen, heard, felt or interpreted by its audience. By contrast, a multimedia program, however structured, is essentially unfinished. It lacks, and waits upon, the interactions of its audience. Even the words we use to describe the audience tell you this. In conventional media, they are the viewers, listeners, and readers. Whereas in multimedia, they are the users. (David Court, The Filmmaker and Multimedia Conference, Sydney, 10/1993)
As multimedia is such a recent and still evolving communication medium, specific principles and guidelines for program design are unresolved. Mohl (1990) observes that "other such historical developments like the printing press and cinema took many years to establish their own appropriate format and conventions. It took fifty years after Gutenberg for Aldus to set a standard for page numbers, table of contents etc. The first film makers set their cameras up in front of a theatre stage, filmed a play and then set their projectors up in another theatre and projected the play onto a screen. At took some time before people realised the particular advantages of the things you could accomplish in the cinema. We don't really know what interactive multimedia will become as its own unique characteristics are exploited, refined and widely adopted".

Within the field of computer software design, Karat and Bennett (1991) recognise "that design and development of a system is a lengthy and complex process involving problem solving trade offs among multiple perspectives, and that though we hope to increase understanding of 'good' design we are not likely to find or develop a cookbook recipe for it".

Given that there is no 'cookbook recipe', it is essential to realise that the reaction and the outcomes from the users of multimedia programs will ultimately decide the success or otherwise of any program design. With its unique opportunities for user control and user outcomes multimedia has the most potential for cybernetic interaction and individualised learning of any technology so far available. More than with any other communication medium the multimedia designer must collaborate with the user. As Court (1993) notes the designers "have to establish a framework for the user's participation in the unfinished work - a framework that anticipates the user's intelligence and can respond to it".

However most media design models are client or objectives based, not user based. At the 1992 Symposium, Reynolds and Ehrlich presented a 'Decision Model for Multimedia Design' stating that "a systematic approach to design should be firmly in place and it should have as its driving force the needs and goals of a particular learning situation". Though based on established instructional principals this model is not necessarily user centred for the needs and goals could be those of the funding source - client or institution - rather than the user. The model fails to highlight the user as the central consideration of the design process.

Particularly in the mid-1980s videotape programs were very popular and in both business and education many costly, ineffective videotapes were produced. Invariably the program design was focused on serving client needs rather than the user/audience. Unappealing design, hastened by current economic conditions, has recently seen a significant decline in the use of videotape communications as funding sources have realised that the expected results or benefits are not being delivered at the costs predicted.

Romiszowski (1986) has traced a similar pattern in the rise and fall of programmed instruction from 1967 to 1975, and in the use of educational television during the same period in the USA. "The rapid rise, sudden death and slow rebirth of a technology, from 'its own ashes' has been called the 'phoenix syndrome' - the enthusiasts must so abuse the technique that it inevitably dies, to be reborn, painfully through the work of later more systematic, not so blindly enthusiastic specialists, who identify and exploit the techniques true worth".

The objective based design tradition presumes that knowledge exists in its perfect form in the world outside the user and that each user possesses a more or less perfect understanding of that perfect form Pedagogic practises based on this view often incorporate behavioural learning theory whereby learning was viewed as primarily dependent upon the arrangement of stimuli and the reinforcement provided for various responses. Most computer based training has been designed from such a behaviourist perspective. Reeves (1992) observes that generally these instructional technologies have had disappointing results. "Although there is some evidence that these programs are effective for learning concepts and procedural knowledge, their efficacy in the development of the higher order learning required in most education and many training contexts has been limited".

The design of multimedia interaction will increasingly be based upon principles developed from contemporary cognitive psychology as multimedia programs only come into existence when users perceive and interpret the digital data. The quality of interaction is determined by the skills and experience users have with the medium and the degree to which the medium has been designed to support the interaction. As Reeves (1992) notes, "just as an academic library void of intelligent faculty and students capable of utilising its resources is merely a warehouse, multimedia without the interpretative acts of (users) is only a collection of textual, graphical, and audio [and video] elements".

Maintaining a user centred perspective within the design process appears essential to maximise interactive outcomes. Karat and Bennett (1991) define 'user centred' to mean "that the total system function is crafted to meet requirements for effective user learning and efficient user access to that function. That is, the eventual users must see the system as useful and useable in their ongoing environments in addition to the system being affordable, logically complete, and technically sound".

Although user requirements may be explicitly considered at some points in the design process, the continued focus is often difficult to maintain. Karat and Bennett (1991) note "trying to maintain a cumulative user perspective (ie, design a system that meets user needs) simultaneously with a technology perspective (ie, design a system that can be built within resource constraints) is very difficult. Thus shifts in focus and repeated iteration are essential to keep user and computer aspects evolving in parallel". Despite the difficulties, a user centred perspective ensures the numerous needs of individual users are centrally focused in a systematic and iterative design process.

Presumably multimedia programs will be effected by Romiszowski's 'phoenix syndrome' as their initial popularity is undermined by inappropriate use. Such inappropriate use can be minimised by the application of good design principles. As Mohl (1990) has observed, "we should not put all our eggs in one technological basket. The technological base will continue to change. But basic principals of representation, learning and interaction will transfer across many technologies. As authors and designers, we should develop an understanding of how to use the media effectively. Many of these general principals should apply to future technology and future applications even if the specifics change in unforeseen ways".

The model presented here - Interface Communication Management - is a graphic representation of a user centred approach to multimedia design which encourages the participants in a collaborative design process to build a shared understanding of user sensitive issues of how to meet requirements for ease of use, audience appeal, consumer satisfaction and learner outcomes.

Interface Communication Management (ICM)

TECHNOLOGY [17c: from Latin technologia, Greek tekhnologia, systematic study, from tekhne craft, and logia speech, study]. (Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992.)
ICM is a schema for the management of multimedia design and project development. The model is generic and relevant to the production of multimedia programs for various purposes. In many discussion concerning multimedia design there is a lack of the media production perspective. For example educators consider performance assessment as a central design consideration (Reynolds & Ehrlich, 1992), whereas a media producer would posit such concerns as pad of the specific objectives for a particular educational project. An appreciation of established media production process could reduce 're-inventing the wheel badly' and could improve quality outcomes in multimedia design.

The development of the model was initially influenced by Michael Kaye's theory of 'Adult Communication Management' which addresses issues of communication for people within organisations from a constructivist perspective. Kaye (1992) argues that though the term 'communication' is a much abused term, "at the heart of all different conceptions is the conviction and reality that communication is basically a cognitive process. In practice all people tend to act and communicate on the basis of their interpretations of their worlds and their experiences.... this approach defines interpersonal communication as the reciprocal construction of meaning".

Due to multimedia's singular capacity and requirement for cybernetic interaction, the designer's principal task, more than for any other media, is to collaborate together and successfully manage interface communication - the reciprocal construction of meaning - between the user and the screen based media information. As Farmer (1993) notes the multimedia designer needs "to visualise and express; ideas visually. To know each medium's strengths and conventions and to use material for the different senses to complement, and reinforce rather than simply to duplicate meaning". The application of ICM may assist this task.

Diagram: ICM

Design process

The development of design skills can be considered as a never ending process of self development - design is a life long creative process. Knowledge and skills acquired in one project are utilised in the next and so a recognition of the primacy of iterative process is paramount.

Design outcomes are the result of a collaboration between the designer/s, funding sources, and the consumers of the design product. This collaboration is ongoing through each specific design and a successful outcome invariably depends on the designers ability at cooperatively managing this process. Cooperation, rather than conflict, allows for the pursuit of design excellence.

Successful designers require self and team management skills, knowledge of financial and client management strategies, and an understanding of each designs particular consumer.

ICM extends this generic design process to the production of multimedia programs. In ICM processes of project development, project production and specific multimedia design issues are posited in an iterative, user centred approach which encourages the designers to build a shared understanding of how to meet user needs. For design success the eventual users must consider the multimedia program as useful and useable in their ongoing environments. For commercial projects this involves maximising audience appeal and consumer satisfaction, and in educational contexts maximising learner outcomes.

Design proposal

A specific design development process commences with, the formation of a design proposal. A proposal consists of the project's concept, objectives, required resources and consequent constraints. These subjects need to be researched, analysed, and clearly stated.

The proposal is often the basis for raising the project's financial budget before the project moves into the production phase. During the design in progress, difficulties can often be resolved by referring back to the project's stated proposal.

Design production

Media production processes are well known and perhaps the most appropriate for multimedia is an extension of the audio visual production process. As Nelson (1990) observes "in what field have the psychological and visual effects of screens been widely experimented with, and come to great prominence? Why movies of course. Many people have now noticed that interactive software is in some ways like movies, and that the process of making software is in some interesting ways like movie making".

Using the audio visual analogy, the design extends into pre-production and script development leading to the production phase and collection of data. In post-production the data is edited, evaluated and re-edited and eventually the program is considered to be ready for marketing and distribution.

Design facilitation

Posited in the ICM model are issues, fields of knowledge, relevant to the facilitation of multimedia design. In this paper they are presented as discussion points only.


"News Corporation is in the entertainment business to get into people's homes. People will buy a television set or a satellite dish in order to watch entertainment, not news" (Rupert Murdoch, The Australian, 16/10/93, p.6).
Many in the computer industry predict that by the year 2000 about 90% of all media will be produced using digital technology. A convergence of the computing, publishing, broadcasting and telecommunications industries is occurring. In a similar way that word processing and desktop publishing have revolutionised the way the print medium is produced, so multimedia's development incorporates these changes and radically impacts on the methods of production and distribution of the mediums of audio and the moving image. AN mediated communications will increasingly be both produced and interactively presented and distributed via digital representation.

Multimedia production and publishing is already an amazingly profitable industry. In 1992 Nintendo and Sega, the video game publishing giants, grossed more than the combined US film and music industries. As Casimir (1993) observes, "think about that next time you write off games as culturally irrelevant"!

The other profitable multimedia applications appear likely to he the video phone and interactive television as demonstrated with the announcement on 13 October 1993 of the merger of Bell Atlantic, a major US phone company, and TeleCommunications Inc, the world's biggest cable television company, "to form an information industry conglomerate of unprecedented scale and scope. The deal is breathtaking; it will create a company worth about US$60 billion (A$91 billion). But the merger's true significance is even larger. It embodies a revolution in communications that is going to change the world. What approaches is the age of multimedia." (The Australian 18/10/93, p.16)

In education, as Laurillard (1987) notes, "a new technology should address the needs of students in some way, and this is always questionable, because the technology never appears in response to a cry for help from teachers or students". Fortunately the development of multimedia raises the possibility that at last a communication technology exists that is capable of accommodating various learning styles and which allows the learner to be highly self directed in their exploration of a subject area. These developments should encourage the shift towards learning by inquiry on a information base, rather than by progression along a prescriptive path as is still the case in most educational sites. Rather than the repository of knowledge, the teacher will increasingly become a facilitator, an expert learning guide, assisted by multimedia information resources.

The rapid development of multimedia technology and applications is central to what Castells (1989) describes as the 'informational mode of development'. "The main process in the transition from the industrial to the informational mode of development is not the shift from goods to services but the emergence of information processing as the core, fundamental activity conditioning the effectiveness and productivity of all processes of production, distribution and management".

Multimedia is such a unique and still evolving medium of communication specific design guidelines and principles for program production are far from being resolved. This paper argues that perspectives gained from an iterative, user centred approach and existing media design processes are relevant to assist achieving multimedia's potential for improving human communication. The application of the ICM model can perhaps assist the production of quality multimedia design outcomes.


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Author: Andrew Litchfield
Lecturer, Centre for Media Communications
Southern Cross University, PO Box 157, Lismore NSW 2480
Tel: 066 203 129 Fax: 066 221 683
Email: alitchfi@alsvid.une.edu.au

Please cite as: Litchfield, A. (1994). Interface communication management: A user centred multimedia design model. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 298-303. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/km/litchfield.html

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