So, some of you seem interested in semiotic approaches, but also are uncertain as to how to pursue one. For example, Yujia writes in her blog post,

I don’t see how camera angle, depth of the field and montage can be applied to interaction

More generally, Yujia writes that she is not quite sure how to use some of the semiotics readings to do her own. I suspect that she is not alone in this, and so what I want to do in this post is maybe shed some light on how you can use those papers as models for your own thinking. I’ll start with Yujia’s point about some of the film theory.

Those aspects of film she mentions all have an effect on the way (or style with which) reality is presented. A low camera angle (looking up at the actor) magnifies the actor, making her or him look bigger, more imposing; a high camera angle likewise diminishes the actor. Thus, decisions like that establish a relationship between the audience and the actor–of superiority or inferiority, in the case of vertical camera angle.

How do interactions present reality? How do they structure users’ relationships with their reality? What paradigmatic alternatives could have been chosen that were not? (Example: every shot of an actor must have a camera angle; there is no such thing as no camera angle at all. But among all the possible camera angles–close, far, low, high, etc.–that could have been chosen, why was that one chosen for that shot?)

Notice what I am doing here. I am not trying to directly apply a concept from film semiotics to interaction in a literal way (though I would say that you can apply some film theory directly to interaction in the case of cinematic interactions, e.g., contemporary video games). Instead, what I am doing is asking, “what does this semiotic theory actually do for film?” Then I ask, “what could fill the same kind of role for interaction”? Thus, instead of trying to apply camera angle or depth of field to interaction, instead I ask, “given that camera angle and depth of field get at issues of ways that cinema presents reality in certain ways to viewers, how do interactions present reality to users, and what are the techniques and options interaction designers use to present reality in certain ways?”

We can apply a similar approach to other readings.

Let’s look at Entwistle’s power dressing paper, which looks at ways that clothes are enmeshed in discourses that construct subject-positions for people who wear them. If a woman wears a feminine uniform, she is constructed as a “laborer” with no upward mobility. If she wears a power suit, she is constructed as a “professional” and even an “entrepreneur.” (We talked about this in class last week.)

How might that apply to interaction? Well, what are the ways that interactions construct subject-positions for people to inhabit? Example: OneStart and Oncourse look different for students and faculty. What views, data sets, and operators are available to faculty but not students? And vice-versa? How are these two types of users constructed as subjects by the system? To what extent do these discursive constructions align with the empirical reality/needs of actual users (to rephrase: what is the difference between Oncourse users-as-addressees and Oncourse users-as-recipients)?

Another example.

In the resume cover letter example we talked about weeks ago, the phatic relationship between addresser and addressee was one of polite, formal submission. The addressee was constructed in a position of power–to decide who gets a valuable resource (the job)–and the addresser is constructed as a candidate seeking both the job itself, and more immediately, the approval and interest of the addressee. The point here is that the cover letter establishes a phatic relationship between addresser and addressee that is inscribed with a power relation.

Can you think of a software application that just by using it puts people in phatic power relations? I can imagine, for example, project management software differentially empowers managers and employees. I can imagine even a calendar application in which some types/classes of users publicly post their entire calendars for all colleagues to see, while other classes of users do not, and the latter class signs themselves up for meetings with those whose calendars are always available. There is a surveillance aspect to such calendars, and while one person (the latter) is always able to take the action of signing up to meet the other (the former, whose calendar is always posted online), the former cannot sign up to meet with the latter, because the latter’s calendar is not available to view!

So these are some examples I just made up. The point is that I encourage you to abstract a little from your readings in order to apply them to interaction; don’t try to apply them directly. Instead, ask the question, what does the semiotic approach get for a film/fashion critic, and then seek to get that same thing for yourself for an interaction.