HCI’s Teachings on Transparency II

In this post I’ll continue trying to glean knowledge from the study of transparency of interactive systems in HCI, which I began in an earlier post.

Back in the mid 1990’s there was a flurry of activity in HCI in trying to understand the explainability and transparency of interactive systems. Paul Dourish published extensively in the area and is known for his book, Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction, which (among other things) connects ideas from ethnomethodology with those of technology and system transparency.

A key concept studied in relation to ethnomethodology is that of accountability, meaning “observable and reportable” or able to be made sense of in the context in which an action arises. It addresses not just the result or outcome of an action but also includes how the result was achieved. Dourish sums it up thus, “Put simply it says that because we know that people don’t just take things at face value but attempt to interrogate them for their meaning, we should provide some facilities so that they can do the same thing with interactive systems. Even more straightforwardly, it’s a good idea to build systems that tell you what they’re doing.”

An account then is something that provides accountability in a software interface. The goal of an account is to provide some explanation for how the sequence of actions up to a moment results in a system’s current configuration. Why did each action in the interface affect the state in the way that it did? This is extremely similar to the notion of the transparency of mechanics that I developed in a previous post. Too bad Dourish beat me by a decade or so.

In his paper, Accounting for System Behavior: Representation, Reflection and Resourceful Action, Dourish posits a compelling definition for an account: “Accounts are causally-connected representations of system action which systems offer as explications of their own activity. They are inherently partial and variable, selectively highlighting and hiding aspects of the inherent structure of the systems they represent.” The notion of partiality of accounts is troubling with respect to journalistic transparency since information exclusion entails a danger of bias. But journalistic transparency can be maintained even in partiality if decisions about inclusion / exclusion are explicated. Decisions about inclusion / exclusion can however also be made algorithmically, which confounds the problem for interactive systems. The classic example is in the (lack of) transparency of ranking algorithms used in online search engines.

Another connection that I see to journalistic notions of transparency is that accounts are context sensitive: more general statements of transparency are less context specific whereas less general statements embedded in the actual context of the running system are highly context specific. “The account that matters is one that is good enough for the needs and purposes at hand, in the circumstances in which it arises and for those who are involved in the activity,” writes Dourish in Where the Action Is. What are the needs of the user in some particular situation? A journalist writing interactive software would need to answer the question: “What states need to be observable?”.

Furthermore, in journalism, transparency happens at varying degrees and levels of granularity and is thought of in a practical light where, for instance, it would not make sense to be transparent about all of a reporter’s notes in a newspaper since there are space constraints. Practicality, efficiency of communication, and usability of an interface, can be subverted if everything must be transparent. What is the appropriate level of transparency, both mechanical and journalistic, for interactive games and info graphics?

Johnson and Johnson have also written about another important facet of transparency that is relevant here. The nature of the knowledge that is being made transparent, whether declarative or procedural knowledge can have an impact on how that transparency is presented. Is it easily citable or does a complex process need to be explicated? I think this gets manifested in journalistic transparency as a difference between transparency of reference and transparency of construction.

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