Evaluation of a Multimedia Product

Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914

John Powell

School of Information and Library Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109
jpow@umich.edu

NOTICE


Table of Contents


Introduction

The purpose of this document is to discuss my evaluation of a multimedia product. I found this to be an exciting project, since I have never operated a CD- ROM multimedia product nor have I had the time to do so. I chose this particular product since I grew up in Philadelphia and my ancestors participate in the Centennial celebration of 1876.

This paper will evaluate aspects of Who Built America? I will be examining the accompanying documentation, system requirements, loading the program, screen design, navigation through the program, the effectiveness of the hypertext, and the text itself.

I thought it might be interesting to include what others have said about Who Built America?. "A truly exciting, high-quality electronic book... Stimulating, thoughtful work," -- The Wall Street Journal. "The depth of the material is staggering; history comes alive." -- PC Magazine. "Sends readers deep into the experience of American daily life in the Gilded Age." -- Lingua Franca. Let me begin my evaluation.

Documentation

I believe one of the most valuable sources of information these days with computers and programs is the accompanying documentation. With the explosion of programs and new technology, it is difficult for everyone to stay abreast with all the latest programs. In order to do so effectively, we must rely on documentation. However, while I cannot point to any studies or scientific findings I have conducted, I feel the documentation that accompanies computer programs and software fall into two categories, either non-existing or written for a computer scientist. It seems all too often as one "surfs" the Net that she finds programs and services lacking documentation. Examples can be seen at almost any ftp site. While, on the other hand, exerts from the Microsoft Excel manuals can be like reading foreign language dictionaries.

The booklet which accompanies the CD-ROM is concise and effective. The writing style is clear and when accompanied by with the visual aspect of the monitor, all commands and instructions are evident. One aspect I cannot help but point out is the length of the booklet. It is seventeen pages long. This CD- ROM , "[is] based on a definitive two-volume history of the United States," according to the cover. It amazes me that before I begin the program, I need to read a seventeen page booklet. In contrast, when I want to read a book, I pick it up and begin. I do not have a secondary source I must first consult before I can begin to read the book.

System Requirements

This program runs on any color-capable Macintosh computer with a thirteen inch monitor and a processor running System 7 with 5,000 K of available RAM, and a CD-ROM drive preferable with double speed.

In my opinion, this historical electronic book is not intended for the poor or lower social classes due to the advanced technological equipment necessary to operate this program. As with any historical writings, there are certain biases and interpretations of events. My inclination is that even before I view this, only one interpretation will be presented. This, however, might be offset by the inclusion of archival audio, films, and pictures, if they are unaltered. This will allow the reader to decide for herself an interpretation of history.

Loading the Program

Since I have never loaded a CD-ROM on a Macintosh before, I figured I would be a good candidate to describe the process. The procedure was extremely easy. By following the instructions and "clicking" and "dragging" the helper applications from the CD to the hard drive, I was able to minimize the amount of time necessary to complete the installation. Upon completion, I was ready to launch the program.

This procedure was simple and easy to perform since I am an accomplished Macintosh user. However, I think that future releases should try to incorporate the self-extracting programs so the user only has to click on one icon and allow the computer to do the rest. I feel we have reached a time when computer programs have achieved a level of superiority and should be able to install themselves on a hard drive. Additionally, I refer to Jaye A.H. Lapachet's article Icon Advertisements in Online Services Software which discusses the over-use of icons. Their paper states that the use of icons is getting out of hand in so much that people are confused as to what a particular icon refers to. The use of icons in this program is not extensive but the choice of icons may not be evident as to what they stand for.

Screen Design

Once the program finishes loading, one might think she is reading a book. The screen design resembles that of a book. While this is helpful in forming a structure and selling the product because people know what a book is, I do not think it is required. There are other ways that this information can be presented. I feel that as the technology develops over the next several years, we will see new formats developing.

The opening screen is that of a title page with music playing in the background. If the goal of its producers is to create a product that resembles a book, they were successful. The default size of the window in which the electronic book appears, also is similar to the size of a standard paperback novel.

After looking at this product for any length of time, it is obvious that its producers were concerned with screen design. Each screen falls into a standard layout. The standard screen is double columns. If a picture is included it generally falls in the middle of one of the columns. If there is additional information available on a topic on a page, in the lower right corner is a set of railroad tracks that link via hypertext to additional information.

Each page is organized with plenty of blank space, so that it does not look cluttered or busy.

I believe that if someone is actually going to read the "book" through its entirety the font and choice of color must be pleasing and comfortable to the eye. The font used is large enough - 12 point - with serifs so that the type set is clear and easy to read. The choice of color is also important. The colors are soft and easy to look at. There is no harsh treatment of color. Actually, I found myself enticed into reading and exploring more.

Navigation

In my opinion, navigation is the most important aspect of any computer program, especially those dealing with multimedia. Without clear navigation tools, the program is useless. It would be virtually impossible to read or browse through a program without useful hints and documentation.

I began Who Built America? without reading the documentation. (I think it has something to do with my stubbornness, i.e. not reading the documentation. You know, it's a book, you should be able to pick it up and read it. I hinted to this in the documentation section.) I took me some time to find the pull down menu which contained the navigational tools. If I were designing the program, I would set the default so that this window also appears along side the program window. You really need to have that window open to navigate through the program.

I will not go into detail as to how the navigation toolbox works, it is self- explanatory. However, I would like to discuss a few options that are at the users disposal. First, pictures that appear in the text are often not of high resolution. However, the producers of this product also have included the high resolution. To view the digital image, simply double-click on the image. All images are complete with a narrative as to the authenticity of the image. Second, in the lower right corner of the screen a railroad track frequently appears. This railroad track leads to a further discussion of the topic presented on the page. When following the links, the user can find herself retrieving motion pictures and sound files. I often found myself wondering what could possible be the link on the page. I think it would have been helpful if there was some indication as to what the link was about. This would have helped me in determining what I might need or want to see. Since this is not the case, if you want to get everything out of this "book" you need to follow every link. I, however, do not think this is necessary or a useful quality.

Special Features

There are several special features that this product offers that could not possible be offered in a printed book. The "book" contains "thousands of historical documents, including pictures, photographs, letters, archival audio, and films; along with 70 graphs and charts, games, quizzes, and the world's first crossword puzzle; and extensive expanded book research tools, including customized search, index, and notebook capabilities and Superfind for searching by subject and document type." (source back cover).

In highlighting the special features, I found the historical audio and film clips to very valuable. To me, it is one thing to read something in a book but it is even more powerful hear someone "on the scene" describe what is happening. You get more of a "feel" as to what was really happening. You can listen to the inflection in their voice, noise in the background, and the enthusiasm for which they tell their tale. I wish the producers would have considered working more of the railroad tracks into the document themselves rather than making them something separate. It almost seemed that there were two sources of information along the way and that you need to constantly get of the track and dig around for more information.

One of the features this product offers is its capabilities for full text searching using Boolean logic. As a user, if you are interested in looking for certain occurrences of words, you can search the full text. When doing a full text search, your results are displayed in a window indicating the chapter and page the occurrence falls. Additionally, you are presented with three or four words which surround the word you searched. This allows you to place some context on what you search. Searches can be limited to chapter. Once you have located the occurrence you want to pursue, simply double click on the phrase and the program will take you to the appropriate section.

The description on the reverse of the package does not give proper emphasis to an important, useful feature, that is the notebook. I think it is a fairly safe assumption to make that many people like to take notes on what they read or learn about. One advantage with this multimedia product is the program provides the user with a notebook which is searchable. It is possible to have your notebook and program window open at the same time. A convenient way to take your notes in a completely digital environment.

Hypertext

In this section I would like to discuss the hypertext of the document itself. As was stated before, the railroad tracks in the lower part of the screen indicate a link to further information. When examining the text in the body of the document, there is very little in the way of hypertext links. The links which are present are generally for geographic places. For example, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is always highlighted. You can double click on Philadelphia and see the location of Philadelphia within the United States. This is all right for placing cities, but I expected more. The map, itself, is accessible in one of the pull down menus. I was hoping to find out more about the place than the location. It seems deceiving that when you double click on a geographical location, all you get is a map of the United States. I think this should be changed. Either have the map stand alone with no hypertext links for the text or have hypertext links to information about the location.

I found that every time I came across a hypertext link, I needed to see what it was about. Lately, I have been spoiled with Netscape which remembers for a certain period of time which I define how long to follow traced links. In so doing, I know what I have already viewed. I find this to be extremely valuable that way I do not have to look at every link I cross.

Finally, in this section I would like to discuss the use of hypertext links in documents. I am getting really tired of links created simply because they can. I find that links can actually hinder the learning process rather than compliment it. (I think I see a research project in the making!) It is my impression that it is easy to get confused and off the subject with too many links. I do agree that hypertext is a valuable teaching aid since it can be used to define terminology or concepts in a different place other than in the midst of something else. However, too many links allows the user to get distracted and lost with the "main" focus of the work. My impressions with this product is it could safely move the links it has as railroad tracks and link them to some text within the particular page they fall. I think the number of links this document has is appropriate for its subject and length.

Text

I must admit that I did not spend much time evaluating the actual text of this product. I am not a historian so I could not prove or disprove the facts presented. I am wondering how did this document come about? Was it originally published in print form? If the answer is yes, how do the two compare. Is one better than the other? If there was a print edition prior to this product, we would be able to determine if the multimedia aspect of this product helped or hinder the deliverance of the historical facts of the work.

I am interested in who the producers thought this material is aimed at? If it's for school children, do you think they will be keep interested through the entire book? Today, kids like to see fast, action packed adventure. It is rare to see kids sit and read computer screens like books rather than books. If teens are the target for this product, how do producers see kids using this product. In other words, is it something you sit and read from start to finish?

And finally, I would like to see more detailed bibliography. I want to know the sources that were consulted. So, if I were a centennial American history scholar , I could identify easily the authenticity of the work. The opposite is also true. If I were a student want to learn more about the period by having a bibliography, I could tell who the leading scholars were in the field.

Conclusions In conclusion, I would like to reiterate what I have already stated. I really enjoyed working with this product. I think it is an interesting hybrid of electronic resource and printed book. However, I do not think that publisher or producers of this type of material must concentrate so heavily on the print format. They need to explore new ways of delivering information. This is a beginning. However, there is still a long way to go.

What follows are issues that I do not think worked extremely well in this product. 1. Once you view a link, there is no mechanize to tell you which links you have already viewed. 2. Links were sparse through the documents text. More links could have been included within the text of the "book." 3. I found the railroad tracks to be distracting. You cannot tell what was on the other side. You had to look at them or you would have missed all the multimedia this program has to offer. 4. I think this "book" presents a narrow view of history. Since it relies heavy on archival movies and audio clips, we miss other aspects of history told through a diversified people of the time. Granted, that might not always be possible, but it is something we must be aware of. Similarly, history is not written at the moment it happens. It is judged with what comes before and after it and can be rewritten many times. I am wondering if we set something up in a computer file, are more people likely to believe the computer over a printed volume? I do not know the answer, it's just a question.

I would also like to comment on the outstanding observations I have on Who Built America. I really liked the movie and audio clips, still pictures and charts and graphs. I think they added a lot to the presentation of the materials and allow the individual to explore the issues for herself before accepting or rejecting what the authors have said. This allows the user to think for herself and draw her own conclusions based on the facts presented. I think we all to often are not given that challenge.

Finally, I would like to conclude with did this format help or interfere with the purpose of this item? I am not really sure how to answer that question. Again, like the subject matter of the disc, I think time will tell. There are many excellent innovations that help this program tremendously. However, there are some real pitfalls. In either case, this is a new technology that is changing daily. Multimedia producers need to get busy and produce different types of packages and see how successful they are. I believe some day we will see a new format develop which will utilize multimedia. This is part of the evolutionary process in the dissemination of information.


Submitted by John Powell / February 17, 1995
jpow@umich.edu