March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Workshops: Description

Semiotics and Museum Web sites: "Do users understand your interfaces?"

Nicoletta Di Blas, Politecnico di Milano, Italy
Paolo Paolini, Politecnico di Milano, Italy
Caterina Poggi, Politecnico di Milano, Italy

Very often usability evaluation "stumbles" on minor elements of the interface: e.g. the labels of links (often unclear or misunderstood by users), names appearing on menus (often of obscure semantics for users), "categories" (of artefacts, for examples) or "types" (known to cultural heritage specialists but unknown to users), "icons" (suggestive in the minds of their authors, but obscure to anyone else, etc.). If these types of "interface inconveniences" make up for the largest amount of usability faults in general, they are of specific relevance for museum Web sites, where interface elements often relate to cultural background: the historical period of "high middle age" used as a label for a link, for example, may mean slightly different time frames in Italy, France or Germany, and nothing at all for a user of Asian culture and background.

For most museum Web sites, unfortunately, there is still a crucial gap between the knowledge and cultural assumptions underlying the choice of interface elements, and the actual background of the users (belonging to different part of the world, with different levels of education and expertise, etc.).

Designers of museum Web sites, apparently, are more conscious of cultural diversity when they write content than when they decide about interface elements. Designers, in fact, apparently do not wonder whether and how their users are familiar with the terms and concepts which are shared within a specific community of people. As a consequence, the interface language used by the Web site — that is, how the Web site actually "talks" to the user, through which terms and which concepts — is often different and misaligned with the one used and known by the user, thus risking to compromise a successful user experience

This half-day workshop will first give an overview of basic semiotic principles; it will then address the specific domain of cultural heritage applications, showing and critically discussing some examples of bad and good practices; after coffee break, the attendees will be asked to apply what they have learned to museum Web sites of their choice; a final discussion will be used to compare the different analysis and to discuss possible ways to fix the most relevant (semiotic) problems of the interfaces that they have analyzed.

Target audience

  1. Developers of applications
  2. usability evaluators
  3. users of Web sites

Learning objective

At the end of the workshop, participants will be able to:

  1. read and analyze from a semiotic point of view web interfaces
  2. understand the "semiotic" troubles that users may have with web interfaces
  3. design better web interfaces (from a semiotics point of view

The workshop is highly interactive providing ample opportunity for sharing experience and visions among participants.


9.00 - 9.30: Semiotic basic principles

9.30 - 10.30: Discussion of examples of semiotic elements from Museum Websites

10.30 - 11.00: Coffee break

11.00 - 11.40: Hands-on session (attendees, divided into groups, will analyse the semiotic elements of Web sites)

11.40 - 12.30: Presentation of the results of the groups' work and final discussion

Workshop: Paolini / Poggi / DiBlas [Morning]

Keywords: semiotics, usability