December 1996

Root Page of Article: Going Into the Woods, by Christine Boese

Get to know a subject the way a kid gets to know the woods

It seems deceptively simple. How does a kid get to know the woods? Some kids stay on the path. And Little Red Riding Hood goes straight to Grandmother's House. Lots of kids get to know a woods by climbing this tree, digging a hole over there, damming up the crick with rocks, and scavenging bits of cast-off corrugated tin and old street signs and rotten plywood for the best fort around.

This does not presume that all kids are mere browsers in the woods, the multimedia equivalent of channel surfers. The pathes are still there, and for some they provide a rewarding experience, for others, a quick route home at dinnertime.

And one can always choose to have a depth experience in the woods. Imagine the neighborhood Zen kid who spends hours reading and playing around one special tree. She can identify the leaves. She notices changes in the bark. She spies on the others from a hidden spot high up, between two generous branches. Sometimes she even falls asleep up there.

Can multimedia hyperfiction ever come close to the richness of a real woods? It is certainly safer. Not many parents can afford to let their children roam my idyllic, impossibly romanticized childhood woods anymore. The dangers seem larger, even compared to our watered down fairy tales.

Some researchers have raised concerns over the viablity of this exploratory model for hypermedia. Their findings show that users feel "lost" inside computer-based training applications. Users have reported confusion at undifferentiated information. They can't tell what they are "supposed" to know and be responsible for. Some users said they would like a hierarchical structure or some way they could tell what was valuable, and some way they could tell where they were in the program.

This may also be where we get the preoccupation with "mapping" our hypermedia creations. Personally, I suspect this attention to mapping will fade as users become more comfortable roaming the "woods."

We should be concerned at what is happening to people who are uncomfortable, confused, or bored with our nonlinear, polyvocal, multithreaded creations. Is this a generation gap problem about computer anxiety? Will it fade with the next generation of users? Or is it a design problem? If it is a design problem, is it a flaw in the basic exploratory model? Or perhaps could it be an effect of poor execution of the exploratory model, something years from now we might call the "early days of unsophisticated multimedia?"

What are the draw-backs? Is this really the best way to design multimedia?

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