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Levels of Guidance This paper was presented at HCI International, 2003, Crete. It shows how Dooyeweerd's aspects can provide guidance at various levels for the design of user interfaces.

Levels of Guidance

Andrew Basden

Information Systems Institute, University of Salford, Salford, M5 4WT, U.K.
Copyright (C) University of Salford, 2003. Used on All Of Life Redeemed website with permission of the author.

Abstract: Many sets of guidelines have been offered for, for example, web site design. But how complete are they? Often their categories overlap or lack an ordering principle. This paper shows how philosophy (that of Hart and Dooyeweerd) can be used to identify guidelines and their categories for web site design.

1. Introduction: Categories of Guidelines

Sets of guidelines for designing user interfaces, web sites, etc. abound. But, after using them for some time, we find ourselves wondering whether they cover everything important, we find the categories within some sets overlap or seem haphazard. This paper suggests a framework that can help us critique and refine categories of guidelines that is based on philosophy. We focus on the UI found in web sites, but at the end suggest how the framework may be extended to guidelines for other types of software.

The Evidence-Based Guidelines on Web Design and Usability Issues by the National Cancer Institute (NCI, 2003), contains 60 guidelines in the categories: Design process, Design considerations, Titles and headings, Page length, Layout, Font/text size, Reading and scanning, Links, Graphics, Searching, Navigation, Software and hardware, Accessibility. But these categories exhibit problems by virtue of having been assembled from empirical findings and the preferences of individuals found in other sources. Considerable overlap is evident, e.g. between Links, Navigation and Search, and some guidelines, e.g. "Establish a high-to-low level of importance for each category ..." occurs several times. The categories are not homogeneous (properties of site mix with user and design activity) and their order appears haphazard. We need categories in which the ordering principle is clear, not only to minimize overlap, but to allow us to judge, as guidelines proliferate, whether new categories are needed or categories may be merged or split.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (W3C, 2003) contains 21 guidelines under the categories: Perceivable, Operable, Navigable, Understandable, Robust. Though there is no overlap, their content is unbalanced in scope and depth. Navigable, for example, has six guidelines ('checkpoints') of general applicability while Operable has only three, all relevant only to specialised conditions. We also wonder whether other categories should be included, covering such issues as aesthetics, quality of content and cultural acceptability. We need categories that take on their intuitive meaning, are balanced in scope and depth, and cover all important issues of web site design.

2. Philosophy

Categorization involves ontological commitment. Hart (1984) has argued that, only philosophy, which concerns itself with the diversity and coherence of our experience, can provide us with both wide coverage and an ordering principle, and explores the philosophy of the late Dutch thinker, Herman Dooyeweerd (1955). We cannot rehearse his arguments here, but will examine how this philosophy can provide categories of guidelines. Dooyeweerd's ideas are interesting because he radically questioned the presuppositions underlying Western thinking and constructed a philosophical approach based on Meaning-oriented presuppositions that, while still in need of some refinement, is breathtaking in its scope and diversity.

2.1 Aspects

Perhaps the best known portion of Dooyeweerd's thought is his notion of irreducible aspects. Each aspect has a set of laws that enable meaningful functioning. Based on long reflection on both day to day living and scholarly writing, Dooyeweerd offered the following suite of aspects (though he made it clear his suite was to be criticised and refined):

  • Quantitative aspect, of amount
  • Spatial aspect, of continuous extension
  • Kinematic aspect, of flowing movement
  • Physical aspect, of energy and mass
  • Organic aspect, of life functions and maintenance of organisms
  • Sensory/psychic aspect, of sense, feeling and emotion
  • Analytical aspect, of distinction, abstraction
  • Formative aspect, of history, culture, creativity, achievement and technology
  • Lingual aspect, of symbolic meaning and communication
  • Social aspect, of social interaction, relationships and institutions
  • Economic aspect, of frugality, skilled use of limited resources
  • Aesthetic aspect, of harmony, surprise and fun
  • Juridical aspect, of 'what is due', rights, responsibilities
  • Ethical aspect, of self-giving love, generosity, care
  • Pistic aspect, of faith, commitment and vision.

While the earlier (at least first four) aspects have determinative laws, the later aspects are normative, enabling freedom in our functioning but acting as guides for it. Guidelines may be seen as verbal expressions of selected norms in the aspects. To Dooyeweerd, human activity and life involves, in general, every aspect, in rich coherence. This includes using a web site. He claimed that human activity works well when we function well in all aspects. Thus the web site works well only if the user functions well in every aspect when using it. No aspect, nor its laws, may be reduced to any other. This gives multiple levels of design freedom. But it also means we cannot assume that good functioning in one aspect will automatically engender good functioning in any other. So designers must consider each and every aspect in which the user will function and, since much of our aspectual functioning is tacit (Polanyi, 1967), care must be taken not to overlook the less obvious aspects.

The first proposal in this paper is that guidelines for web site design can be based on the norms of the aspects of the user's use of the web site, which also provide useful categories for grouping them. Being irreducible, each aspect provides a distinct level of analysis.

3. Identifying the Aspects of Web Site Use

But how do we identify which these aspects are? Normally, we use a web site for some purpose in life, such as finding legal advice so that we might challenge genetically modified crops. We must separate the aspects that are contingent on the purpose (which in this case include the juridical, biotic and economic) from those of web browsing itself, those of searching, scanning, reading, understanding, etc., which pertain across all purposes. (The set of contingent aspects, as we will call them, might overlap with the set of aspects of web browsing.) To identify the aspects of web browsing itself, we make use of three further elements of Dooyeweerd's thought.

First, in many human activities, especially specialised activities carried out for wider purposes as web browsing is, one aspect is of primary importance; Dooyeweerd called this the qualifying aspect. It is the lingual aspect that qualifies web browsing (and indeed most texts, communications, etc.) because, whatever its purpose, its role is to convey meaning via symbols.

Second, Dooyeweerd claimed that proper functioning in any aspect depends on and involves proper functioning in earlier aspects. The lingual aspect, therefore, depends on the formative, analytical, sensory/psychic aspects. (We start at the sensory because it is where medium differentiates into visual, aural and haptic, but a more detailed treatment would continue back at least to the physical aspect.) These aspects correspond approximately with the levels found in linguistics: semantics, syntax, lexics and sensory.

Third, each aspect contains 'echoes' of all the others that anticipate later aspects and retrocipate earlier ones. Often, an aspect anticipates most strongly the one that follows it, paving the way for it. Thus the lingual aspect strongly anticipates the social; so cultural context is important in interpreting text etc.

Our second proposal is that in the case of web sites the relevant aspects for which we must provide guidelines, the 'levels' of guidance, are the sensory/psychic, analytical, formative, lingual and social, and the contingent aspects taken as a single category.

4. Aspects of a Web Site: Levels of Guidance

The sensory/psychic aspect is about sensing (seeing, hearing) and feeling (emotion). This offers us guidelines about matching UI devices used with the sensory capabilities of people. Thus both NCI and W3C sets contain guidelines about colour, colour blindness, sound, flicker, etc. Hardware considerations can be of this aspect, since it is phenomena that emerge from hardware that we sense. Long download times, while sometimes having economic repercussions, is mainly an annoyance to users, so guidelines about this are usually expressions of the norm of feeling. Page layout has a sensory aspect, but is an example of a multi-aspectual guideline that speaks of how one aspect of the web site facilitates another; see below.

The main norm of the analytical aspect is that we should be able to make clear distinctions that are meaningful. Thus the W3C guideline, "Ensure that foreground content is easily differentiable from background for both auditory and visual presentations" expresses this norm, as do the NCI guidelines, "... Headings provide strong cues ..." and "Always use underlines or some other visual indicator ... to indicate that words are links." Guidelines about font size, graphics, screen resolution, etc. where the thrust is about helping the user distinguish things express this norm. Guidelines about helping the user to identify structures in meaning anticipate the next aspect.

The formative aspect is about formative power. Part of this focuses on structure. To understand the site, users of a web site form their own structured mental model of its content, and this is facilitated if the syntactic structure of the site supports its content. The NCI guideline "Put as much important content as close to the top of the hierarchy as possible" is an expression of this. So are those about splitting into paragraphs, sections and subsections (for which the headings are analytical-aspect cues), about how pages are linked, etc. Part of this aspect is to do with achievement. A major area of achievement in web site use is finding relevant knowledge. Therefore guidelines about helping the user find the knowledge they want are expressions of the norms of this aspect.

Dooyeweerd maintained that though the aspects are distinct, they 'resist' being separated from one another, because they were meant (by their Creator) to form a coherent spectrum of Meaning. So it is often difficult to clearly identify under which aspect a guideline belongs because it seems to have several aspects. Such guidelines concern how earlier aspects provide the means by which later aspects may be implemented, and how later aspects provide the purpose for implementing it in the earlier aspects. As mentioned above, page layout has several aspects. Sometimes it is aesthetically important, but most guidelines about it focus on how layout (itself of the sensory aspect) can help the user distinguish what is important to them (analytical aspect) and thus reflect the structure of the content (formative aspect). Recognising the various aspects in even a single phenomenon like this helps us in design of that phenomenon.

The lingual aspect concerns meaning conveyed by symbols, and is the primary aspect of web sites. As one guideline (NCI) says, "Content is the most critical element of a Web site." Some general guidelines exist, such as NCI's "Use only graphics that enhance content or that lead to a better understanding of the information being presented" and W3C's "Write as clearly and simply as is appropriate / possible for the purpose of the content." But the norm of conveying meaning goes further. Content should be accurate, consistent, interesting, relevant, polite, coherent, etc.; some of these are Grice's (1967) maxims. Such quality issues are seldom expressed as guidelines, but perhaps they should be.

The social aspect concerns social interaction and institutions. While web sites might help towards these, the aspect's importance in web site design lies in it being strongly anticipated by the lingual aspect. Cultural assumptions, expectations, etc. of the reader determine how the reader interprets content, and are often of a tacit nature, so misunderstandings or offence can occur. The norm for site designers is "Consider the person who will read this; do not be satisfied with just conveying information." This aspect urges us to be careful and creative in use of humour (thus anticipating the aesthetic aspect).

NCI offers guidelines about site goal, such as "Provide useful and usable content that supports the Web site goal on each page." But does this refer to a communicative goal of what information is conveyed or the goal of the user in accessing the site? Though usually not made clear, it is a crucial difference. A communicative goal is covered by the aspects above, but the user's goal is covered by the contingent aspects. Guidelines need to be made for each contingent aspect. When the designer knows the purpose(s) for which the site will be used, then the contingent aspects can be identified, and guidelines devised that will express their norms. For example, for a site that will be used to give legal advice to campaigners, juridically-oriented guidelines might be useful, such as "Because it will be used in courts of law, be particularly careful about the accuracy and completeness of the content." But for many sites the uses may be diverse and not clearly known in advance. So contingent-aspect guidelines will be more general, such as, for the ethical aspect, "As far as possible, steer the user towards ethical rather than anti-ethical use of the information."

5. Discussion

We have shown how Dooyeweerd's (1955) theory of aspects can help identify categories of guidelines for web site design, and also how, by considering each aspect in turn, we can be stimulated into devising specific guidelines for aspects we might have overlooked. Our two-part proposal is that guidelines are expressions of the norms of relevant aspects, and that we can identify these as: the qualifying aspect, some of its preceding ones, its immediate successor, and the set of contingent aspects considered as one.

By doing this, we avoid the problems identified earlier. The clear principle behind the categories is to include relevant aspects that form the framework of Meaning for human activity, and the order among the categories is that of the aspects. Minimizing overlap between categories is ensured by the irreducible distinctness of the aspects. Some guidelines are multi-aspectual, so may be included in several aspects, but there is now a rationale for such duplication. Categories based on aspects are all of wide scope, none being applicable only in very specialised situations, but the aspects offer us a framework for considering specialised situations. And, because Dooyeweerd claimed that the kernel meanings of the aspects may be grasped intuitively, the categories take on their intuitive meaning. Finally, by reference to the aspects, we have a scheme that can 'tap us on the shoulder' when we have overlooked something important.

A similar approach might be used to provide guidelines for other types of software: devise guidelines that express norms of its qualifying aspect, and those nearby. For example, computer games are qualified by the aesthetic aspect, of surprise, play and fun, which is preceded by the economic aspect of limited resources (as seen in the importance to many games of limiting players' resources of ammunition, stamina, time, etc.). The approach outlined here shows considerable promise and is worthy of further research.


Dooyeweerd, H. (1955). A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. Ontario: Paideia Press.
Grice, H.P. (1967). Logic and conversation. In Cole, P., Morgan, J. (Eds) Syntax and Semantics Vol 3. New York: Academic Press.
Hart H, (1984), Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology, University Press of America.
NCI, (2003). Evidence-Based Guidelines on Web Design and Usability Issues. National Cancer Institute, Retrieved January 31, 2003 from http://usability.gov/guidelines/.
Polanyi, M. (1967). The Tacit Dimension. London U.K.: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
W3C. (2003). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. Retrieved January 31, 2003 from http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/.

Created: 2003 by Andrew Basden.

Last updated: 12 December 2007