Tom Erickson
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Coherence and Portrayal in
Human-Computer Interface Design

Thomas Erickson

Human Interface, Advanced Technology Group, Apple Computer

(now at)

Published in Dialogue and Instruction (ed. R. J. Beun, M. Baker & M Reiner). Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1995.


This chapter argues that feedback can play two important roles in future human-computer interfaces: coherence and portrayal. Coherence has to do with human-computer dialogs that have many stages; it is what provides continuity across the different stages of an extended dialog. Portrayal has to do with the model that the system presents to its users. Portrayal is important because it affects the user's experience with the system: how the user interprets the system's behavior, how the user diagnoses errors, how the user conceives of the system.

The chapter begins with an analysis of types of visual feedback, and the roles that feedback plays in today's graphic user interfaces. Next, we examine a commercial program with sophisticated functionality that illustrates two problems that are likely to be common in future application programs. Finally, we discuss an example of an interface design that illustrates the use of feedback to address these problems.


A decade ago life was simple for the interface designer. Personal computers--at least those used by ordinary people--were relatively straightforward. They ran one and only one application program at a time. The program was passive: the user specified an action and the computer did it. Most interactions consisted of a series of unconnected action-response pairs: the computer made no attempt to keep track of what the user had done. Human-computer interaction occurred through a few input and output channels: the user typed or used a mouse; the computer displayed text or graphics, or beeped.

Today things have changed. A user can run multiple application programs at once, switching between them at will. Programs are no longer passive: they may carry out tasks without direct supervision by their users; they may interrupt their users to request information or to deliver results. Human-computer interaction is much more complex: not only may the user be communicating with several of the programs that are running simultaneously, but some of those programs may be initiating the communication. Finally, there are many more channels through which humans and computers can interact: the user can type, use a mouse, use a stylus to write or gesture, and speak; the computer can display text, graphics, synthesize speech, and play complex sounds and animations. All of these factors impose new demands on the human-computer interface.

What should interfaces of the future look like? How should they support the increased complexities of human-computer interaction? As desktop computers begin to offer voice recognition and speech synthesis capabilities, conversation becomes an increasingly popular candidate for the interface of the future. Certainly human conversation has many attractive properties. Multiple people can participate in a conversation, taking turns, interjecting comments, requesting clarification, and asking questions, all in a remarkably easy and graceful interaction. And best of all, people already know how to converse.

Unfortunately, turning computers into conversants is a difficult challenge. Consider some of the fundamental ways in which human-human conversations and human-computer dialogs differ: The object of a human-computer dialog is for the human to specify an action for the computer to do; the object of human-human conversation is usually to accomplish more abstract ends such as imparting information or altering beliefs. Second, human-human conversations occur principally through the medium of speech, which consists of a serial stream of transitory input used to construct and maintain a largely mental model; in contrast, human-computer dialogs are mediated by an external, visible representation, which can display information in parallel, and which persists over time. Third, a human-human conversation is a two way process in which the participants jointly construct a shared model (e.g., Clark & Brennan, 1991). In contrast, a human-computer dialog is primarily a one way process which results, at best, in the user understanding the computer's model of the situation. In no real sense can the computer be said to participate in constructing a model, or even to adjust its model to approximate that of the user. Related to this point is that participants in a human-human conversation are intelligent, whereas the computer is so lacking in intelligence--about both the process and content of the dialog--that even the term 'stupid' is a misnomer. When a human-human conversation breaks down, human participants are typically aware of the misunderstanding and take steps to repair the breakdown; when a human-computer dialog fails, the computer is typically oblivious; it is only in a few well-defined situations--anticipated by designers--that the computer can detect the misunderstanding and repair the breakdown.

The basic difficulty is this: Because human-human conversations occur through the transitory medium of speech, which produces no lasting, external representation, considerable intelligence and continuous interaction and feedback between conversants is required to effectively maintain the mental model of what is occurring. Computers are far from having the requisite intelligence to do this. Instead, I believe that the most promising approach is to use one of the strengths of computers--their ability to produce a persistent visual representation--to instantiate some of the more general properties of human conversations.

With this approach in mind, I begin by presenting an analysis of the types and roles of visual feedback used in today's graphic user interfaces. I suggest that two uses of feedback, supporting coherence in multi-stage dialogs and providing system portrayals, have important roles to play in making future human-computer interfaces more conversational. Next, I describe a commercial program with sophisticated functionality that illustrates two problems that I believe will be common in future application programs. Finally, I give an example of an interface design that illustrates the use of feedback to address these problems.

Types of Feedback in Human-Computer Interaction

In this section, I analyze some of the ways in which feedback is used in the Macintosh graphical user interface (Apple Computer, Inc., 1992). The goal is to provide some categories and language for talking about the use of feedback in future graphical user interfaces. I focus mainly on temporal properties of feedback; other chapters in this volume (Wroblewski, et al.; de Vet; Jacob), discuss other aspects of feedback in human-computer interaction.

In interface design the term "feedback" typically refers to providing information relevant to the interaction in which the user is currently involved (note that "feedback" is used in a more restricted sense by conversational theorists). Feedback can be presented in a multitude of ways. It may be visual, auditory, or tactile; it may be either ephemeral or relatively persistent. Feedback may use multiple attributes of the modality in which it is represented--thus, visual feedback may involve the use of text, graphics, color, or animation; and of course, feedback need not be confined to a single modality. Examples of feedback in graphic user interfaces range from simple beeps, to dialog boxes, to animated pointers.

Types of Feedback

Feedback can be divided into three types based on its temporal relation to the user's activity: synchronous feedback; background feedback; and completion feedback. As I describe these types of feedback, I'll provide examples by referring to the feedback that occurs during a single operation: copying a folder that contains many files by selecting its icon and dragging it to a window on another volume (figure 1).

Figure 1. Types of feedback that occur while copying a folder on the Macintosh. Feedback can be divided into three types according to its temporal relationship to the activity of the user and the system: a) synchronous feedback occurs in synchrony with the user's actions; b) background feedback occurs after the user has completed specification of the action but while the computer is carrying out the action; c) completion feedback occurs when the system finishes the action.

Synchronous Feedback

Synchronous feedback is closely coupled with the user's physical actions; in most cases, it is important that there be no perceptible time lag in the coupling between the user's actions and the feedback. For example, the Macintosh usually displays a pointer that moves in synchrony with the mouse. On the Macintosh, synchronous feedback is the default state: at virtually any time, a user's physical interactions with the system ought to--in some way--be mirrored by the interface.

When a user copies a folder, several kinds of synchronous feedback occur: the pointer is shown moving to the to-be-copied folder in synchrony with the user's movements, the folder icon turns black when the user clicks on it to select it, and the outline of the folder is displayed as it is dragged to the new window, again in synchrony with the user's movements of the mouse (figure 1a).

Background Feedback

Background feedback is provided after the user specifies the action, but before the system completes the action: it represents the activity of the system as distinct from that of the user. Its basic purpose is to let the user know that the system is carrying out the specified action. Originally, when the Macintosh was single-tasking, the user could do nothing else during this period; now the user can initiate other actions. It is important that background feedback be provided whenever an operation takes longer than about half a second.

In the folder copying example, after the user drags the folder to the new window and releases the mouse button, it may take the system some time to copy the contents of the folder: in this case, the system puts up a progress indicator to assure the user that the system hasn't crashed, and to allow some estimate as to how long the system will take to complete the operation (figure 1b). The background feedback in this example also tells the user two other things: the presence of a stop button in the progress indicator tells the user that the operation may be interrupted; the presence of the title bar along the top of the indicator tells those who understand the Macintosh's visual language that another operation may be started before this one finishes.

Completion Feedback

Completion feedback is simply an indication that the operation has been completed or at least that the system can do no more (in the latter case it may need more information, or an error may have occurred). Completion feedback fulfills two purposes: it represents the new state of the system, and it may be used to notify the user that a lengthy operation has been completed.

In the case of the copy operation, an icon representing the newly copied folder is displayed (figure 1c). Completion feedback differs from synchronous and background feedback in one noticeable way: the other types of feedback are usually ephemeral--they last only a short time, vanishing after the operation is completed (although the idea of wear as feedback proposed by Wroblewski, et al., this volume, can be viewed as giving synchronous feedback some persistent components). Completion feedback often has components that are persistent. The persistence of components of completion feedback can serve as an important way of reflecting what has been achieved by a series of operations.

Roles for Feedback

Operational Support

The typical role of feedback is to support the operation the user is currently performing. Moving the cursor in synchrony with the mouse enables the use of the mouse to become an automatic process; providing background feedback provides assurance that the system hasn't crashed, and often provides some indication of how much longer it will take; the completion feedback, of course, alerts the user that the operation has finished, and often provides a new representation on which the user may perform direct manipulation. The use of feedback for these purposes is essential in allowing users to gracefully complete operations. Ideally, skillful use of feedback permits users to automatically perform operations without thinking about the details of what they are doing. For example, it's very natural to say 'Now click on the OK button'; only the rawest novice needs to be told 'Use the mouse to position the pointer on the screen over the OK button on the screen and then press the button on the mouse.' It is synchronous feedback that permits the user to meld the physical operations of moving and clicking the mouse with clicking the OK button on the screen.

Maintaining Coherence During Extended Dialogs

A second role for feedback is to create coherence across the stages of extended dialogs. An extended dialog is a series of operations all aimed at accomplishing a particular, high-level goal. Examples of extended dialogs include retrieving a useful set of records from a database, changing the layout of a document, and reading and managing electronic mail. However, today computers have almost no awareness of extended dialogs: the fact that one user-action follows another has no relevance; the system typically does not recognize that the user may have a goal that goes beyond completion of the current operation.

A limited example of supporting coherence in extended dialogs is the way the Macintosh deals with some error conditions. For example, suppose a user tries to empty the trash (this is graphical user interface parlance for deleting files) when the trash contains a running application as well as other files. The first stage in the dialog is when the user chooses the "Empty Trash" command. In response, the system displays a standard dialog box that tells the user how many files will be deleted and asks for confirmation. Once the user provides confirmation, the system will attempt to delete the files and will discover that one of the files is a running application that we will call X. Since deleting a running application is likely to be a mistake, the system initiates a new stage of the dialog: it displays a dialog box that explains that the trash contains a running application called X that it can not delete, and gives the user the choice of stopping or continuing (deleting the other files). The key point here is that the system is still aware of what the user did in the previous stage of the dialog, and gives the user the option of deleting the other items in the trash and thus accomplishing as much of the original goal as possible. While this seems like a sensible response, unworthy of special remark, the fact is that today's systems would be more likely to abort the entire operation. In general, today's systems do not recognize higher level goals, and do not support incremental progress towards them.

Feedback as Portrayal

As computing systems begin to manifest increasingly complex functionality, it is becoming increasingly important that users receive feedback that allows them to build up a mental model of the system. That is, rather than just supporting the current operation, feedback can work in a global way, helping the user understand not only the state of the current operation, but the structure of the application program, and the ways in which the program accomplishes actions. I call this portrayal.

An example of portrayal can be found in the use of background feedback in an electronic mail and bulletin board program called AppleLink. After a user launches AppleLink and enters the password, it accesses a modem and connects to a remote, mainframe computer. Since it takes several seconds to make this connection, AppleLink displays a connection storyboard showing the stages in connecting to the remote computer (figure 2 illustrates two states of the connection storyboard).
The connection storyboard plays two roles. First, it plays an operational role, showing the user that the program is doing something and indicating approximately how far along the system is. Second, the storyboard also provides a portrayal by depicting a simple model of the system and the connection process (although the model could be improved, as it contains some frivolous and obscure elements). By watching the connection storyboard, users can learn that the system is working over a phone line, that it is connecting to a different computer, that it is using the password the user entered to gain access to the other computer, and so on. None of this is immediately useful information. However if something goes wrong-there is trouble with the phone system, or the mainframe is down-the user has a better chance of understanding the problem.

Figure 2. Two phases of the AppleLink connection storyboard. Notice that the storyboard is fulfilling two separate purposes: it is showing the user that something is happening, and it is providing a model of the relevant parts of the system.


This section has presented an analysis of feedback according to how it temporally relates to the activities of the user and the system. It identified three types: synchronous feedback, background feedback, and completion feedback. Feedback can play at least three roles in human-computer interaction: First, it can be used for to support the user in smoothly completing the current operation. Second, feedback can be used to add coherence to a human-computer dialog by recognizing that users' have higher level goals, and supporting extended dialogs by preserving information across the stages of the dialog. Finally, feedback can assist the user in forming appropriate mental models of the overall structure of the system and its processes: portrayal.

Two Design Problems

DowQuest (Dow Jones & Co., 1989) is a commercially available, on-line system with sophisticated functionality. It provides access to the full text of the last 6 to 12 months of over 350 news sources, and permits users to retrieve articles via pseudo natural language and an information retrieval technique called relevance feedback (Stanfill & Kahle, 1986). Relevance feedback means that users instruct the system on how to improve its search criteria by showing it examples of what is wanted. Relevance feedback allows users to say, in essence, 'find more like that one.'

While the version of DowQuest described here does not have a state-of-the-art interface, it has two characteristics of interest to us: it is based on the assumption that its users will interact with it through multi-stage dialogs; it appears to possess some degree of intelligence. These characteristics are relevant because they seem likely to be true of many future computer systems and applications, and because they both give rise to usage problems.

How DowQuest Works

Let's examine the process of retrieving information in DowQuest.

The Natural Language Query

The user begins by entering a query describing the desired information in natural language. As the user's manual says, DowQuest "lets you describe your topic using everyday English. You don't have to be an expert researcher or learn complicated commands." For example, the user might enter: "Tell me about the eruption of the Alaskan volcano." However, DowQuest does not really understand natural language; instead it uses only the lower frequency words of the query in conjunction with statistical retrieval algorithms. In the example shown, the system eliminates the words "tell," "me," "about," "the," and "of," and uses the other, lower frequency words--"eruption," "Alaskan," and "volcano"--to search the database.

The Starter Retrieval List

In response to the initial query the system returns a list of titles called the "Starter List" (figure 3 shows the Starter List for the "Alaskan volcano" query). The list is ordered by relevance, with the first article being most relevant, and so on; "relevance" is defined by a complex statistical algorithm based on a variety of features of which the user has no knowledge. While this list of articles may contain some relevant items, it also usually contains items that appear--to the user--to be irrelevant. The next stage of retrieving information is where the real power of DowQuest lies.

Figure 3. In stage 1 of querying DowQuest, the user enters a query and the system returns a list of titles of the 'most relevant' articles. The Starter List shown here is in response to the query, "Tell me about the eruption of the Alaskan volcano."

DOWQUEST             STARTER LIST         HEADLINE PAGE 1 OF 4     

	    INSIDE ENERGY, 11/27/98  (935 words)
	  2 Alaska Volcano Spews Ash, Causes Tremors
	     DOW JONES NEWS SERVICE , 01/09/90  (241)
	  3 Air Transport: Volcanic Ash Cloud Shuts Down All Four...
	    AVIATION WEEK & SPACE TECHNOLOGY, 01/01/90  (742)
	  4 Volcanic Explosions Stall Air Traffic in Anchorage
	    WASHINGTON POST: A SECTION, 01/04/90  (679)
	                   * * * * *

Relevance Feedback Retrieval

In stage 2 of the retrieval process the user employs relevance feedback to refine the query. A simple command language is used to tell the system which articles in the starter list are good examples of what is wanted. The user may either specify an entire article or may display an article and specify paragraphs within it (in the "Alaskan volcano" example, the user might enter "search 2, 3, 4"). The system takes the full text of the selected articles and chooses a limited number of the most informative words for use in the new version of the query. It then returns a new list of the 'most relevant' items (figure 4). This second, relevance feedback retrieval stage may be repeated as many times as desired. Because the real power of DowQuest lies in its ability to do relevance feedback, it is in the user's best interest to perform this stage of the query process at least once, and preferably a couple of times.

Figure 4. In stage 2 of querying DowQuest, the user instructs the database to find more articles 'like' 2, 3 and 4, of figure 3, and the system returns a new set of relevant articles. Note that the first three, 'most relevant' articles shown here are those that were used as examples (an article is most 'like' itself); the fourth article is a new item.

	  1 Air Transport: Volcanic Ash Cloud Shuts Down All Four...
	    AVIATION WEEK & SPACE TECHNOLOGY, 01/01/90  (742 words)
	  2 Alaska Volcano Spews Ash, Causes Tremors
	    DOW JONES NEWS SERVICE , 01/09/90  (241)
	  3 Volcanic Explosions Stall Air Traffic in Anchorage
	    WASHINGTON POST: A SECTION, 01/04/90  (679)
	  4 Alaska's Redoubt Volcano Gushes Ash, Possibly Lava
	    DOW JONES NEWS SERVICE , 01/03/90  (364)
	                  * * * * *

Problems Encountered by DowQuest Users

Users encountered difficulties due to two general problems: failure to support multi-stage dialogs, and unrealistic expectations of intelligence.

Multi-Stage Dialog Support

One problem with DowQuest was that although users had to go through two stages of dialog before getting the benefits of the system's power, the only support provided for extended dialogs was to display the number of iterations the user had gone through. In general, the system erased commands after they were executed, and provided no feedback on which articles had been accessed. Thus, users had to rely on their memories or, more typically, jotted notes, for information such as the text of the original query; which articles had been opened and read; which articles had been sent to the printer; which articles or paragraphs had been used as examples in relevance feedback; which titles in the retrieval list had shown up in previous iterations of the search; and so on. This missing information made the search process cumbersome.

Misleading Expectations of Intelligence

Although no explicit attempt was made to portray DowQuest as intelligent, new users of DowQuest generally expected it to exhibit intelligent behavior. One reason for this is that DowQuest's behavior implied intelligence. It appeared that DowQuest could understand English; the fact that DowQuest dropped words out of the search query and used a weighted keyword search was never made explicit in the interface. It appeared that DowQuest could be given examples of what was wanted, and could retrieve articles that were like those examples; the fact that this was an entirely statistical process was not made clear to the users. It appeared that DowQuest could order a list of articles in terms of their relevance; the fact that DowQuest's definition of relevance was very different from its user's definition was not evident. Finally, the fact that some users knew that DowQuest ran on a supercomputer may have contributed to the expectations of intelligence.

Users' expectations of intelligent behavior were usually not met. For example, one user typed in a question about "Ocean Technologies" (a maker of optical disk drives) and got back a list of stories about pollution control technologies (for controlling pollution produced by off-shore oil rigs). He responded by concluding that the system was no good, and never tried it again. While such a reaction is perfectly appropriate in the case of conventional applications--a spreadsheet that adds incorrectly should be rejected--it prevented the user from proceeding to a point where he could have benefited from the system's power.

Interactions Between the Problems

It is interesting that in spite of such disappointments, many users continued to act as if DowQuest was intelligent; in fact, assumptions of intelligence were used to generate reasons for the program's behavior in extended dialogs. For example, one study revealed an interesting problem in the second stage of a DowQuest query (Meier, et al. 1990). Users would ask the system to retrieve more articles 'like that one.' In response, the system would display a new list of articles ordered by relevance. Typically, the list would begin with the article that had been used as the example for relevance feedback. While computer scientists will be unsurprised to find that a document is most relevant to itself, ordinary users lacked this insight. Instead, some users assumed that the only reason for the system to display something they had already seen was that there was nothing else that was relevant. Thus, some users never looked at the rest of list. This behavior is in accord with Grice's (1975) conversational postulates, where a conversational partner is expected to provide new information if it is possessed; this reasoning fails when one of the 'conversants' is utterly lacking in intelligence.


While DowQuest does not have a state-of-the-art user interface, it is a useful example because it has two properties that will be common in future applications and computing systems. Its users need to interact with it through multi-stage dialogs, and it appears to understand natural language and to possess other capabilities that seem intelligent. As we have seen, both of these characteristics can give rise to problems.

Using Feedback for Portrayal and Coherence

In this section I describe elements of a new interface design for a system with DowQuest-like functionality that illustrate the use of feedback for portrayal and coherence.

Coherence: Support for Extended Dialogs

There is no single method for using feedback to support coherence. In general, the approach is to make use of completion feedback which persists over the many stages of extended human-computer dialogs. The example that follows shows five stages in a dialog in which someone is retrieving documents; it is based on a prototype system known as Rosebud that uses agents called Reporters to conduct searches of databases distributed across a network (see Erickson and Salomon, 1991, and Kahle, et al., 1992, for more information). Note that the interface described below provided feedback by using color and other subtle graphic effects that are not easily reproducible in black and white figures; where necessary, these effects have been transformed to make them visible (e.g., color to italic text). [[This has, of course, been converted from publication format to the web -- some day I may redo the figures with color... --TE]]

Results of the Initial Search

The dialog begins with the user entering some initial search terms and specifying databases for the system to search (this stage of the dialog is not shown). After the user presses the Search Now button, the dialog box in figure 5 appears. In the top pane, the system lists the initial set of documents it has found. These items are all displayed in a special highlight color (represented here by italic text), that indicates that this is new information that the user has not previously seen. In the next to the last pane, the system retains the search terms previously entered ("Motorola Lawsuit")

Figure 5. The dialog box after the user has entered the initial query ("Motorola Lawsuit") and pressed the Search Now button.

At this point, the user can scroll through the Results List in the top pane, looking at the document titles to see whether any seem relevant. In the second stage of the dialog the user will select one of the retrieved documents.

Selecting a Document

See figure 6. At this stage in the dialog, the user has selected the second item in the Results List by clicking on it. That item is highlighted, and a "preview" of its contents is shown in the second pane in the window. Note that the original search terms are still visible in the lower part of the window, and the retrieved documents are still shown in the new information highlight color. Completion feedback which persists across turns is being used to provide coherence.

Figure 6. The dialog after the user has selected the second document.

At this point the user reads the preview, and decides that this is a good example of the information being sought. The third stage of the dialog involves a diversion from the main goal of retrieving information: having discovered a relevant document, the user wants to make sure that it is saved to his system.

Saving the Document

See figure 7. The user has asked the system to save the document to his computer by pressing the "Save" button. The system does so, and marks the document icon with an "S" as a persistent indicator that it has been saved.

Figure 7. The dialog after the user has saved the selected document to the local system by pressing "Save."

Now the user returns to his original course of action: retrieving information. In the next stage of the dialog the user instructs the system to use the selected document as an example of what to retrieve.

Specifying the Example Document for Relevance Feedback

See figure 8. The user has just clicked on the Add to Search button (telling the system that the second document is a good example of what is wanted). At this point, the document icon and title showed up in the bottom pane of the window; the document title and icon are displayed in the new information highlight color (as indicated by the italic typeface). The goal is to help the user distinguish between information that was entered previously (and that has determined the current set of results), and information that applies to future stages of the dialog (e.g., when the next iteration of the search is carried out). The Search Now button is also highlighted with this color because pressing it will make use of the new information.

Figure 8. The dialog after the user has added document 2 as a search criterion).

Initiating the Relevance Feedback Stage of the Search

See Figure 9. The user has pressed the Search Now button, and the system has carried out a search using the new information. The new results appear in the top pane. Documents that have not been retrieved before are shown in the new information highlight color (indicated here by italic text); documents that had been brought back by previous searches are no longer highlighted. Similarly, the Search Now button has reverted to its ordinary color. Highlighting new items shows the user that new items have indeed been found, and directs the attention to the most relevant portion of the results.

Figure 9. The dialog after search using relevance feedback; notice that the system uses the new information color-here shown in italic typeface-to highlight the new information returned by the system, thus distinguishing it from information returned by previous iterations of this search.

Notice that persistent completion feedback has built up over the course of this extended dialog. Looking at the dialog box the user can see what the query is ("Motorola Lawsuit"), which documents were used as examples for relevance feedback ("Technology: Motorola Hitachi Reach a Draw "), which documents have been saved, which documents are new information, and which documents have been seen in previous stages of the search.

Portrayal: Controlling Expectations of Intelligence

Having looked at ways of using feedback to support coherence over five stages of an extended dialog, let's turn to the problem of controlling expectations of intelligence. There are two complementary approaches. First, designers need to avoid creating unrealistic expectations to the extent possible. This is difficult because, as systems take on increasingly sophisticated and complex functionality, the easiest means of explaining the functionality is through analogy to intelligent behavior. But as we have seen in the case of DowQuest, unrealistic expectations can lead the user astray.

A more positive approach to the problem is to use background feedback to portray what the program is actually doing. A storyboard could be used to reveal the mechanism that underlies information retrieval (see figure 10). In this case, the storyboard explicitly tells the user that it is dropping out common words like 'Tell', 'me', 'about' and only using keywords to search; and it also provides an explanation of why a particular document was retrieved. Using background feedback in this way does two things: it lessens the chance that users will assume the system is intelligent, and it gives the user a chance at understanding why the system did not produce the anticipated results, and thus provides the option for users to appropriately adjust their strategies. Because the user and the system really don't have a shared model of what is happening, it is essential that feedback be used to portray the system as accurately as possible.

Figure 10. The use of background feedback in the form of a storyboard to provide a model of the the underlying retrieval mechanism.


In human-human conversations, parties to the conversation establish a common ground, a shared set of mutually understood terms, concepts, and referents. As the conversation proceeds, both parties repeatedly refer to the common ground, thus mutually reminding one another about it, and gradually extending and refining it. While this works well in human-human conversations, the verbal establishment and maintenance of common ground is likely to be beyond the capabilities of computers for quite some time.

In the absence of such intelligence, a valuable course to pursue is to use feedback to represent the common ground of the human-computer 'conversation.' In this chapter we've looked at the use of visual feedback to provide coherence and portrayal in the dialog between human and computer. We looked at the use of completion feedback to provide coherence over five stages of an extended dialog. It was used to indicate selected items, the state of retrieved documents (saved to the user's disk or not), and to distinguish between new and old information. In general, completion feedback was used to build up a persistent, explicit model of the what had happened. Similarly, background feedback was used to lower expectations of intelligent behavior by explicitly portraying the basically mechanical processes of the program. Portrayal is important because, in the absence of an explicit model, the user may make unwarranted assumptions about the system's intelligence, and misinterpret the system's responses. Even as feedback is used to provide the human computer dialog with coherence closer to that of a human conversation, feedback must also be used to make it clear that the dialog is being carried out between a human and a non-intelligent system.

Feedback is a vast topic, and I have touched on only a few of the more important points. I see two important directions for further research. First, we need a better understanding of how visual feedback can be used to support human-computer interaction. One important line of research is the study of design conversations. A variety of investigators (e.g. Tang, 1989; Minneman, et. al., 1991; Lee, this volume) are examining conversations among members of design teams; such conversations occur in parallel with the use of visual and other physical representations and reveal interesting interactions between conversation and persistent visual feedback. Understanding the ways in which people use physical representations to help support design conversations is likely to yield insights into ways of improving visual feedback in graphic user interfaces. A second direction for investigation is the use of sound as feedback. Sound has great potential for enhancing portrayal through both synchronous feedback (e.g., Gaver, 1989) and background feedback (e.g., Gaver, 1991; Cohen, 1993), but has not yet received sufficient attention.


Gitta Salomon was a co-designer of the Rosebud interface described in this chapter. Other people who contributed to the design and subsequent implementation of Rosebud are: Charlie Bedard, David Casseres, Steve Cisler, Ruth Ritter, Eric Roth, Kevin Tiene, and Janet Vratny. My ideas on conversation and feedback have benefited from discussions with Susan Brennan, Jonathan Cohen, Gitta Salomon, and Yin Yin Wong. Jonathan Cohen and an anonymous reviewer provided helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of this chapter.


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Meier, E., Minjarez, F., Page, P., Robertson, M. & Roggenstroh, E. (1990) Personal communication.

Minneman, S. L. & Bly, S. A. (1991) Managing á Trois: A Study of a Multi-User Drawing Tool in Distributed Design Work. Human Factors in Computing Systems: CHI '91 Conference Proceedings , 217-223.

Stanfill, C. and Kahle, B. (1986) Parallel Free-text Search on the Connection Machine System. Communications of the ACM. 29:12, 1229-1239.

Tang, J. C. (1989) Listing, Drawing, and Gesturing in Design: A Study of the Use of Shared Workspaces by Design Teams. PhD Dissertation, Stanford University, 1989. (Also available as a Xerox PARC Technical Report, SSL-89-3, April 1989.)

de Vet, J. H. M. Feedback Issues In Consumer Appliances. This volume.

Wroblewski, D. A., McCandless, T. P., and Hill, W. C. Advertisements, Proxies, and Wear: Three Methods for Feedback in Interactive Systems. This volume.


Tom Erickson

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