Applying Roland Barthes' Concepts of Studium and Punctum to
Usability Testing of Web Sites:
East and Southeast Asian Selections

An English 351 Graduate Project by Kyle Mattson, Illinois State University, Spring 2006






usability testing 1

Web sites tested

usability testing 2

Punctum "Breaks" into the Web Site

Roland Barthes terms "punctum" his next concern of the photograph and the photographic (Camera Lucida, 26-27). He writes, "The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me" (26). Understanding punctum assists greatly in conceptualizing studium; the two "elements," as Barthes refers to them, are in conversation with each other.

This disturbance--this punctium--of the compositional conventions of the photograph, or of the online page, transcends the work of studium, moving from that base of technical and conventional knowledge to the rhetorical application as the effect on design of one significant choice.

Barthes differentiates punctum from what he terms "shock":

for the photographic 'shock' (quite different from the punctum) consists less in traumatizing than in revealing what was so well hidden that the actor himself was unaware or unconscious of it. Hence a whole gamut of 'surprises' (as they are for me, the Specator; but for the Photographer, these are so many 'performances'). (Camera Lucida, 32)

I would argue that the "shock" factor Barthes describes is relevant specifically to the images of a Web site, particularly ones that, like the photograph Barthes describes, portray a subject who was unaware of their role in the image at moment of record. The implication is that the Web designer deals primarily with issues of studium and punctum--setting up the architecture of a Web site and "breaking" into it, recalling Barthes' definition of punctum, in order to communicate with a purpose. Of course, not all Web designs are comprehensively purposeful. Barthes would acknowledge that not all photographs, based solely in studium, capture his interest:

Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze. But even among those which have some existence in my eyes, most provoke only a general and, so to speak, polite interest: they have no punctum in them: they please or displease me without pricking me: they are invested with no more than studium. (Camera Lucida, 27)

Barthes' commentary on such photographs is eerily similar to the kinds of comments offered by volunteers during usability testing of Web sites. Even strong designs can draw yawns when punctum, as a rhetorically effective disruption, is not present in the Web site.

Web sites and photographs, for all their similarities of production, are quite different. In his essay "The Photographic Message," Barthes notes,

Signification, in short, is the dialectical movement which resolves the contradiction between cultural and natural man. Thanks to its code of connotation the reading of the photograph is always historical; it depends on the reader's 'knowledge' just as though it were a matter of a real language [langue], intelligible only if one has learned the signs. (28)

What are the signs of the Web site? Are they as "historical" as the photograph? There is an immediacy to Web sites--a here-and-now presence that can always be altered and removed. Of course, there is "language [langue]" in Web sites also. In the essay "Living on the Surface: Learning in the Age of Global Communication Networks," Johndan Johnson-Eilola writes of the ahistorical nature of online space and postmodern culture:

History offers a sense of depth (we think, without irony), of genealogy and belongingness, of seriousness. Understandably, we attempt to teach our children to value history over the easy seductions of space. Our panic intensifies when we are confronted by communication technologies such as computers interconnected on a global scale. In these articulations, postmodernism abducts modernist technologies: the computer, a device originally constructed to calculate weapons trajectories, is reconstructed and redistributed to provide a fluid, flowing space where users experiment with multiple subjectivities; where stories lose concrete beginnings, middles, and ends; where the rules of games shift, are overwritten, and sometimes even disappear. (186)

Johnson-Eilola, then, provides us our context--online space really--where Barthes' concepts of studium and punctum move away from the, once, purely historical construction of the photograph and toward the ahistorical construction of the Web site.