Grice Maxims: Sustaining Polite Interactions in a Conversation

Mentioning before my readers today is work on Conversations by H. Paul Grice, a philosopher and a psychologist. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists Grice’s work as of special relevance to linguistics and artificial intelligence. The other source to get closer to H. Paul Grice is  Media Equation, a book on how people treat new media by Bryan Reeves and Clifford Nass. We shall be referring to Media Equation while noting Grice’s work on conversations. Not because his work could not be read on its own but more because Media Equation seems to contextualize it better in connection with the design of interfaces.

The basic premise is the realization that people assign mindless attributes to interactive technology products like Computers. People follow social rules while interacting with these products. One of these social rules is Politeness which states that human beings are, in general, polite with each other in their day-to-day interactions. On these threads continues the mention of Grice’s Maxims. Grice believed that conversation is an activity where people try to help each other. And, the activity sustains polite interaction by following four basic principles: Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Clarity. We shall be expanding on relevance in a separate paragraph as it seems to carry more weight and insights for interface designers. Lets take a look at Quality, Quantity and Clarity first. In Gricean terms, Quality would mean that speakers, participating in a conversation, should say things which they identify as true. Anything untrue could risk violating the idea of conversation. Quantity would mean that speakers should contribute appropriate amount of content to the conversation- not too much or too little.  Clarity would mean that a contribution by a speaker is expected to be as less obscure as possible. One must thrive to keep ambiguity out of the content and to ensure that there is singularity in the meaning of the content.

Relevance, it is here that we consider the purpose of the conversation. Also, if we treat interfaces as medium of Communication with the users, it makes sense to be aware of the purpose of this communication. Speakers in a conversation should try contributing content which could be mapped to the purpose of the conversation. We have often come across interfaces where there are action items with no task flow to follow. Users find themselves clicking on these hot spots and noticing that nothing actually is happening. Thus interface designers should try designing interfaces which does not offer anything that could not be met. It is then nice to either disable the buttons (or take them out from the interface) which could not offer functionality at the moment. Clifford and Reeves further expands the meaning of purpose of the conversation by including designer’s sensibility to the user goals.  Designers need to consider all different goals of the users which they want to accomplish using the interfaces. They could take the liberty of prioritizing these goals but an explicit mention of these goals would help them developing an overall picture of the interface.

This is all for now. I will report more readings from the related topics soon.

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