Interrogating the Interface Assignment

English 213: Interrogating the Interface

(Worth 15% of your grade; due on February 21)


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 MP3 player, your laptop computer, the CD player 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 of these interfaces becomes invisible. This assignment asks you to step back and take a critical look at the interface of a computer software program, document your findings in an analytical essay, and present your conclusions to your classmates in a 5–7 minute oral presentation.

Completing the Assignment

For this assignment, you will complete three interrelated tasks:

Choose a software program: To help us become familiar with as many software programs as possible, each student in the class will analyze a different program. As you begin thinking about which software program you would like to study, you will likely take one of two paths, either selecting a program with which you are intimately familiar, or selecting a program you have never used before but which you would like to learn. This initial choice will shape the structure and content of your essay, so select your software program carefully. When you have chosen your software program, you will share your choice with your classmates in a discussion forum on the class website. Before you add your post to the forum, please read your peers’ posts; if someone else has already chosen the program you had in mind, you will need to select a different program.

Conduct the analysis: Once you have selected a software program, you will begin analyzing its user interface. Rather than focusing on what the program does, try to think about how the program controls or influences your interaction with it. Considering two broad questions might help you get started: 1) What are the affordances of the program? In other words, what does the program allow or encourage you do? What does it make easy for you? 2) What are the constraints of the program? In other words, how does the program limit your ability to do things you want to do? What does it make difficult for you? Rather than thinking abstractly about these questions, sit down at a computer and begin exploring the user interface of your program, taking notes as you do so. Think about which features of the software are intuitive and which features are “hidden” or only available to advanced users. Try to use a feature of the software you haven’t used before; does the program “help” you figure things out, or are you left on your own to navigate its hidden paths and dark corners? The answers to these questions will form the basis of your essay, which is the primary component of this assignment.

Present your findings: At the conclusion of this unit, you will deliver a brief (5–7 minute) presentation to the class in which you will introduce your software program to the class as if they were new users of the program. Your presentation shouldn’t be just a cheerleading routine (“This program is great! Look what it can do!”) or a smear campaign (“This program is evil! You shouldn’t use it!”). Rather, you should briefly describe what the program does, then discuss how the interface improves the user experience (its affordances) and how it limits the user experience (its constraints). Your presentation should conclude with some type of recommendation (which will help your classmates decide whether or not they should use this program) or comparison (which will help us place your program on a continuum of other programs that perform similar functions).

Assignment Details

Your essay should analyze and evaluate the software program, 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 software program. Rather, it should thoughtfully critique the program’s interface and the company (or group of people) that designed it. Your finished essay should be 1200–1600 words (approximately 4–6 double-spaced pages). You may wish to enhance your essay by including screenshots of your program; if you do so, the images should be clearly labeled and referenced in the text of the essay.

The essay is due at the beginning of class on February 21; your in-class presentation will be scheduled for either February 19 or 21. When you have completed your essay, please save the file as “Full Name Interrogating.doc” and upload it to the class website. In addition, please bring a printed copy of the essay to class on the 21st.

Evaluation Criteria

Your essay will be evaluated based on how well it:
  • introduces the software program to readers who may not be familiar with it.
  • analyzes the affordances and constraints of the interface.
  • draws conclusions and provides recommendations that would help users of the program make informed decisions about their computer habits.
  • exhibits a logical structure and organization.
  • adheres to the conventions of standard written English (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.).