Project 3: Interrogate the Interface

Important Dates

  • February 27: Sign up for a interface to analyze in class
  • March 18: Sign up for a presentation time slot in class
  • March 20: Peer Review
  • March 23 to April 1: Oral Presentations
  • April 1: Due Date
  • April 8: End of grace period; no work accepted after 11:55 PM

The Project Assignment

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 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 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, to document your findings in an analytical web essay, and to present your conclusions to your classmates in a short oral presentation.


Step 1. Choose an application
To help us become familiar with as many applications as possible, each student in the class will analyze one of the following applications:

  1. Audioboom
  2. Audiopal
  4. Coggle
  5. Digital Vaults
  6. Fetchnotes
  7. Heganoo
  8. History in Motion
  9. Inklewriter
  10. MapStory
  11. Masher
  12. Meograph
  13. MindMup
  14. MyHistro
  15. PearlTrees
  16. PlayFic
  17. Popplet
  18. PresentationTube
  19. Text 2 Mind Map
  20. Thematic
  21. ThingLink
  22. TimeGlider
  23. TimelineJS
  24. Trello
  25. Tridiv
  26. Twinery
  27. Vialogues
  29. WhenInTime
  30. X-Ray Goggles

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.

In class on Friday, February 27, you’ll sign up for the tool you will analyze. The selection is first come, and only one person per tool. I urge you to come to class on the 27th with a first, second, and third choice.

Step 2. Conduct the analysis
Once you have signed up for 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. Your webtext should include a rhetorical analysis and discussion of design choices in the context of your analysis of the affordances and constraints of the tool.

Consider two broad questions to 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? 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?

Rather than thinking abstractly about these questions, create an account on the site and explore 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 web essay, which is the primary component of this assignment.

Step 3. Draft your web essay
The parameters for this web essay are intentionally broad, which should allow you to focus on the aspects of your application you find most relevant and interesting. Your web essay should consider all the following areas of analysis:

  • Rhetorical situation: Audience, Purpose, Context, Author, and Genre.
  • Design choices: Emphasis, Contrast, Organization, Alignment, and Proximity.
  • Modes of communication: Linguistic, Visual, Spatial, Aural, and Gestural.
  • Affordances and constraints

Keep these guidelines in mind as you compose:

  • Remember that your essay should analyze and evaluate the application, not just describe or summarize it. You’re the analyst, not the play-by-play announcer.
  • 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.
  • You will publish your finished essay on your WordPress site. Because it is a webtext, you may break it up over more than one page on your site, using a clear navigational structure.
  • Pay attention to the spatial mode as you design your essay by arranging the information on the pages with attention to organization, proximity, and the flow of the document.
  • Your essay should include well-integrated screenshots of your application that enhance and reinforce your written text. You may also include video recordings. Be sure to make clear connections between embedded images (and any videos or other media) and the linguistic text of the web essay.

Step 4. Present your findings
You will present your findings to the class in a five-minute presentation, which will include a slideshow that focuses primarily on visual elements (that is, the use of linguistic elements on the slides should be limited to a title slide, image credits, and only occasional highlights). Exemplary presentations will use the 1/1/5 organizational strategy (using no more than 15 slides) to present the information to the class..

Your presentation shouldn’t be just 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).

Example Projects