Gestalt Processes in User-Web Interaction: A Two-Side View

Post signed by: Maya DimitrovaInstitute of Control and System Research, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

* In this post, all references, figures and tables have been removed by the blog’s moderator.

[Part I]

1. Introduction

The Web is developing adaptively and displays certain natural processes that we find also in other areas, for example in the evolution and synthesis of knowledge through scientific research. This process fits very well with the implicit nature of human learning and with our natural human ability to synthesize and systematize new information, even in the face of the exponential growth on the Web. Therefore it is not the amount of new information on the Web that is troubling, but rather the lack of hints about the nature of the contents behind the lists returned by search engines and from the receiver view – the relevance of this content to the user’s interests, knowledge and style.

How the topic, the semantics and the explanation contained inside the links (the URLs) highlighted by search engines are presented to the user has been a widely addressed issue in information retrieval studies to date. In information retrieval the metaphor of the bookshop is widely popular. The idea is to describe how the Web can provide knowledge resources to the user like a bookshop presents its wares in organized displays. Content-based retrieval and topic-based search imitate the use of sections in a bookshop labeled according to domain specialization. This deals with topic search primarily; still missing in communication with the Web is the “insight” or the “Aha factor” of Karl Bühler (1907/08) [1,2], which I experience when I happen to find the book that is just right for me, no matter if it is about Java programming, philosophy, or statistics. Visitors to both the Web and to bookshops would like to apprehend not only the table of contents, but also the style a book is written in: is the language understandable or more technical?; does it have the necessary detail or supplies just a summary of the main points I need? The constellation of the (largely) implicit preferences of the reader is maybe best captured by the Gestalt idea of the ‘functional whole’ of Kurt Grelling and Paul Oppenheim (1937/38) [3, p 210], hidden within the covers of our book or behind the link to our favorite Web site. People miss expired sites very much the way they miss lost books.

A group of studies of Web genres have attempted to identify the lexical and linguistic features, other than topic relevance, which would be appropriate for automatic classification of Web documents along various dimensions of style inside the Web page [4-15]. In a way, similarity is sought to features of style involved in classifications of literary, musical or artistic genres. These studies aim to better understand some of the internal features of Web pages from the point of view of what result they generate on the part of the user, in addition to matching precisely the content and the initial search cue. Inevitably, multidimensional structures emerge – literary genres have always been marked by complexity [16-21]. The mentioned studies aim at giving perceptual, graphical, or pictorial cues of a counterpart of genre in the Web environment, so that users have the choice to view sites that match their individual expectations.

One way to look at the problem of better, clearer, more salient presentation of what is hidden behind the link is to employ cognitive science in Web design. The process of user-Web interaction in the enriched perceptual environment of the browser is becoming of equivalent cognitive complexity on either part – the user and the Web as flexible and dynamic information storage. Its phenomenological aspects are discussed in term of some emergent properties of the interaction process and the aim is to show that, on the appropriate cognitive level of description, the initiative from the user on the one hand and from the Web on the other is of equivalent cognitive potential.

I have attempted to describe an initiative to interact either on the part of the user or on the part of the Web in cognitive terms and in terms of the abstract reality of the Web visuality it is based on. What I would like to point out at here is the following: the phenomenon of the cognitive initiative to respond is ubiquitous, and involuntary, and is Web initiated. By entering the cognitive system of the user the process becomes an implicit or inner part of the subsequent user intentions: it becomes internalized in user verbal, textual or “mouse” behavior towards the Web in the endless learning loop. The initiative for interaction has nowadays become equipotential and the result is a “pattern of cognition” [22] or a Gestalt. What is needed is to apply “fiat delimitation” over this objectively given pattern of user-Web interaction and the main question is “if unity can be found” [23].

The investigation of present day user-Web interaction process is based on the following theoretical definition of the Gestalt of Barry Smith [23, p.25], which will be later in the paper modified and operationalized:

“A Gestalt is a whole of relations, but in certain circumstances only part of this whole may be perceived – and this part may be a Gestalt in its own right. Indeed, it is only in certain simple cases, for example simple visual patterns that the entire Gestalt can be perceived in one intuitive glance. In more complicated cases this is not possible, and the greater the manifold of relations between the parts of a given field the less it is possible to grasp all relations simultaneously. We can grasp the Gestalt only if we are somehow able, by a cumulative process involving the operations of memory, to unify everything in one intellectual glance, and a discursive process of this sort is indeed indispensable if we are to grasp a melody or other Gestalt involving any sort of temporal succession”.

In the next section the proposal for the Gestalt level of analysis of user-Web interaction is outlined. Importance is given on the representation of scientific knowledge on the Web for various communities of users – students, life-long learners, experts with differing domain background. And like the Gestalt thinkers, directionality is introduced into the analysis, reflecting the concern that the Web should be more about educating and less about entertainment. This is why mainly the educational and learning effects produced by the user-Web interaction process are discussed.

2 Gestalt Principles and Processes in Web Context

In describing the user-Web interaction as a process of communication very much relying on Gestalt structures we will try to employ the following principles – the dynamics of Kurt Levin (1925) [24–25] and Bluma Zeigarnik (1927) [26], the transformation of Max Wertheimer (1945) [27], the transparency of James Gibson (1979) [28] – however focusing on new principles as well as newly discovered elements of Gestalt phenomena. The new principles that we will try to account for in the investigation of the cognitive user-Web interaction process are the principles of incompleteness and inadequacy as explained by Barry Smith (1988) [23] and the duality description of phenomenology, requiring both base level and supervenient level logic rules of Ingvar Johansson [29]. The cognitive processes assumed Gestalt in nature emerge in the context of the psychological reality of the immediate cognition, implicit memory, and the autobiographicity of the interaction with the Web and we have called them (internal) bounding and unfolding. The ‘unfolding’ term is first used by C. von Ehrenfels [30] to explain the unfolding of a Gestalt in time, however here we use the word unfolding to designate a cognitive process, which can be operationally defined and described.

2.1 A point of (theoretical) departure

A useful model of analysis of the manifestation of probabilistic processes is proposed by G.V. Jones (1987) and initially applied to experimental memory research [31]. The model is illustrated by Venn diagrams of the considered processes of cognition. According to the model three kinds of relations among probabilistic processes can be outlined: independence, exclusivity and redundancy.

The model is proposed for cases when separate measures of the involved processes are included in the experimental design, as well as separate experimental measures of the joint manifestation of the processes. By comparing the different theoretical values for the overlapping areas with the experimental data of the joint manifestation of the processes, the most probable relation among them can be identified – one of independence, exclusivity or redundancy. The model has been useful to describe, for example, the redundant nature of the implicit and explicit memory processing [32], the exclusivity of semantic and autobiographical memory retrieval [33] and the non-redundancy of episodic and semantic retrieval [34]. We have taken the model distantly, as a useful visualization of the idea to be careful about the degree of overlap of entities, when trying to outline their manifestations.

We consulted again search engines for the representation of the Gestalt notion on the Web. We are in particular concerned with the “Gestalt Principles”, “Gestalt Processes” and “Gestalt Phenomena”.

The first observation is that present-day Web provides quite scarce information about the essence of the Gestalt in terms of its phenomenology and the inspired by it investigation of the underlying processes, which seems to be important from a cognition point of view (only 738 double-quote hits for “Gestalt phenomena” and only 278 double-quote hits for “Gestalt processes”).

The second observation is about the double-quote caution especially in cases like those under consideration. It turns out that many on the Web are mentioning or articulating the notion of Gestalt, however rarely in relation to its philosophical, theoretical or experimental investigation. Little seems to have changed since Kurt Grelling and Paul Oppenheim remarked (in 1934) that “the expression ‘Gestalt’ has become a favorite catchword, but up to now by no means a generally recognized instrument of scientific thought” [35, p. 194]. At the same time we feel that it is necessary to fervently defend Grelling and Oppenheim’s position that “when the concepts thus determined are appropriately inserted into sentences which appear characteristic of the Gestalt theorists, these sentences turn out neither trivial, nor empty of sense”.

In order to be as much operational as possible about the Gestalt in the context of the user-Web interactions, we have consulted one of the major Gestalt sites on the Web “Gestalt Theory Net” [36], too, and for reasons of limiting discussion to cognitive aspects of the interaction only, we take it as it is the site’s assumption that “Gestalt therapy is often confused with Gestalt psychology, but they share little beyond the name” [37] without going into the possibly interesting ideas these resources and sites may contain.

2.2 Operational (based on the theoretical) definition of Gestalt in user-Web interaction

It has been pointed out by G.V. Jones that his model is most useful when the relations among three entities are considered and explained by the variations of their interrelations [31,32]. This is falling out from experimental designs, where more than three manifestations of a phenomenon at one and the same time is inappropriate for empirical evaluation and have to be split up into smaller sets of tests of aspects of this phenomenon. This fits well with our assertion that central to cognition are the Gestalt principles, processes and phenomena.

From our observation of Web search engine present-day knowledge about the concept of Gestalt we conclude that, within the Web, more common are the independence and redundancy cases – either authors use various derivations of the word Gestalt independently from the theory itself – as an attractive metaphor for anything which seems “more than the sum of its parts”, or redundantly – as a circular definition of anything that cannot be spelled out in a better way [38].

In our analysis we will try to comply to the exclusivity assumption about the three Gestalt entities in focus and place them from left to right in the following way: Gestalt Principles – Gestalt Processes – Gestalt Phenomena, keeping as exclusive the Principles (theory) and Phenomena (empirical evidence), however allowing the overlap of the Principles with the Processes on the one hand, and the Processes with the Phenomena – on the other. Reasoning from left to right resembles top-down thinking from theory to experimentation and from right to left – the bottom-up approach from phenomenology to extension(s) of the theory. In either case the linking entity is the identified/outlined processes of investigation, where the mentioned overlaps are inevitable.

Our operational definition of Gestalt in the Web context is: An emergent cognitive entity which has resulted from the equipotential initiative in the user-Web interaction – holistic in nature, yet based on verbalizable principles of organization. We describe the Gestalt processes we have identified and support them with current information retrieval studies for the Web and new studies on visual cognition from the cognitive sciences.

3   Gestalt in Information Retrieval [see Part II, forthcoming]

3 comments for “Gestalt Processes in User-Web Interaction: A Two-Side View

  1. 9 November, 2011 at 08:33

    Are there any limitations to the search engines you use for the research?

    • 16 November, 2011 at 21:48

      No limitations to the search engines have been assumed. We used originally meta-engine – they were friendly and allowed crawling by university servers, whereas google sometimes swiched off some servers they did not like. Also, for some time a pretty graphical engine existed, but their project ended a few years ago. I suppose with the images can be used as well, since the Gestalt is a concept grounded cognitively a bit deeper/is more abstract/ than the particular modality – like vision or sound.

    17 November, 2011 at 11:18

    Discussion on LinkedIn

    Glenn (LinkedIn: Semantic Web group):
    Glenn Mungra • Very interesting article, thanks for the update.

    Jonathan (LinkedIn: Sentiment Analysis Symposium group):
    “Jonathan Hujsak • Perhaps applicable to grasping the immediate “totality” of Web based information, including sentiment? Analogous to pre-attentive visualization of large data sets?”

    Kaisa (LinkedIn: Linguistic Semantics group–not a public group):
    Kaisa Azriouli • It will be interesting to see the commons in web for interpersonal differencies through the language used.

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