Embodying conversational characteristics in a graphical user interface

Singer, Ronald A. (1992). Embodying conversational characteristics in a graphical user interface. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000e035


In the history of Intelligent Tutoring Systems, SOPHIE (Brown, Burton, and Bell, 1974), now considered a classic, contained many important ideas and features. One of these was its natural language user interface. Today, the trend has moved away from natural language interfaces towards graphical ones although the argument in favour of natural language user interfaces, both from Human Computer Interaction and natural language researchers, still persist. Is this argument correct?

This thesis explores this question by investigating how SOPHIE might be re-implemented with a graphical direct manipulation interface instead of a natural language one, with the goal of improving its standard of usability. It begins by analysing the features that seem to have been central to SOPHIE's usability. These, it argues, were not so much an ability to accept well formed complete English sentences, as an ability to accept and interpret correctly a wide range of abbreviated inputs.

Two models of interaction, Circuit 1, a pilot, and Circuit II, a fairly full implementation of SOPHIE were implemented and tested. Both employ free-order syntax that allows users to specify the components of a full command in any order. The combination of deixis and free-order syntax supported allows completely general ellipsis which achieves, in extended interaction sequences, the same economy and naturalness that SOPHIE achieved through its use of anaphora and ellipsis.

Whilst the free-order syntax. technique is little used at present in user interfaces, the results of observational studies conducted have shown that it saves users time and convenience. Thus, considering key linguistic features of a natural language user interface has shown how novel features can enhance the usability of direct manipulation interfaces. This thesis argues that user interfaces can be improved by employing structures found in natural language or at least conversation which can be constructed within direct manipulation interface styles.

This approach was further expanded to support topic shifts between different circuit contexts. Circuit II, like SOPHIE, supports three different topics: normal circuit behaviour, a circuit with an unknown fault, and circuits with user-hypothesised faults. Drawing on Reichman's (1981) work, Circuit II uses natural language cue phrases of the type "by the way", re-implemented in the direct manipulation style, to facilitate shifts between topics in a smoother and more natural way than SOPHIE which , used clumsy explicit commands.

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