Hist 697: It’s how you say it.

[This post is for week 1 of History and New Media]

The readings from today’s class were a helpful reminder that, at the very least, it is as much how you say it as what you say. Content may be king, but if you present your content in a way that is frustrating, illogical, or visually immature, you undermine your content.

From my experience, work done in the humanities is both already very aware of modes of presentation, and also very un-reflective upon those modes of presentation. There is a high value placed on properly formatted footnotes and citation styles, and the format of papers is largely dictated from ‘above’. Those formats are to be transgressed at ones own peril. So while we pay a lot of attention to formatting our work to the academic standards for print, we don’t spend much time thinking about whether those standards are most conducive for presenting our content. And because our standard formats are aimed at print presentations, we are able to get away with not thinking about the connections between content and presentation.

But the web is not print. And the same standard formatting and presentation elements that are acceptable in print are detrimental to web-based content.

This is where digital humanities becomes exciting to me, because it offers a chance to rethink the standard modes for presenting content and, at the same time, offers the opportunity for different types of content to be created and presented.

While all of the readings for this week were interesting and argued for the value of and need for focused attention on design in the creation of web content, the two I found most productive to place in conversation were Donald Norman’s “Attractive Things Work Better“[pdf] and the Consumer Reports study on how people evaluate a web site’s credibility. If Norman is correct in his description of human mental functions, that we use our cognitive abilities to assign meaning and our affective responses to assign value, we may have a clue as to why people rely upon design to assess credibility. A well designed site puts us at ease and reduces focus, we are less likely to scrutinize the content and are more likely to engage with the content presented. A poorly designed site, according to the same logic, would put the user ill at ease, increase his or her focus, and that user would both be more critical and less receptive to the content being communicated.

On the one hand, while I think that this is plausible, it makes me realize just how gullible or easily rigged the human decision making and value-assigning process is. But that aside, it makes it all the more important that those with strong historical content create sites that are well designed, lest they be dismissed because of their presentation. Just as a paper with sloppy footnotes and formatting is less likely to be taken seriously, so too a website that does not conform to basic principles of design is less likely to be seen as authoritative. So on to learning this new set of presentation guidelines and standards for the world of the web!


Commenting: I commented on Lindsey’s post To Code or Not To Code