Introducing myself, Alison Black

Technology change over the centuries: the top picture shows Stephen Fry filming the reproduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, with staff of the Typography Department; underneath, an iPhone app developed as coursework by one of our MA Information Design students

I am Professor of User-Centred Design in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, where I also lead the Centre for Information Design Research. The Typography Department has a long-standing interest in the impact of changing technologies on the way people do things. As we worry about ‘information overload’ today it’s worth reflecting on the impact of earlier technology changes; for example, how the development of the printing press in Renaissance Europe led to similar concerns to ours about managing information. Scholars responded by creating some of the indexing and referencing tools we use today. Now, almost 600 years on, as the dissemination and consumption of information spreads from printed documents to the interfaces of computers, phones and other digital devices, researchers in our Department are interested in the tools and techniques that help people use and manage information digitally.

I have a ‘bit part’ on Digitally Ready, ensuring the needs of a wide range of people are kept in mind. The Systems Engineers who are leading this project for the University would be the first to admit their passion for all things digital. My role is to complement their enthusiasm with my own focus on ensuring that end users’ experience of technology is the best possible; that technology is designed to meet people’s needs, rather than constraining them to perform tasks in ways that don’t feel natural. We all struggle a bit when we first encounter new technologies (even the iPhone, despite its reputation for ease of use, takes a bit of learning). But the technologies that persist tend to be those that make it easy for us to complete the tasks we want to do and find new things to do that we hadn’t previously thought of. Take Facebook, for example: whatever one may think of its impact, the paths it offers for sharing and communicating pictures have created a step change in on-line communication (and real world behaviour, too).

Apart from contributions to this blog, I also contribute to Typography at Reading and make periodic notes on things that catch my interest on my own blog, Brain Attic.

If you visit our Department, incidentally, you’ll be able to see the reconstruction of Gutenberg’s printing press, pictured above, built by Alan May (centre), for Stephen Fry’s BBC documentary on the development and impact of printing with moveable type.

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