Thoughts on Interaction Design

This week, I took a look around a few places on my regular routes, keeping an eye out for interactivity, and ran into Willie and Thomas, two of my favorite arm-chair philosophers, on the nature of interactivity and ease (or difficulty) of use. Here’s my rough transcription of their conversation:

Willie: So when thinking how easy an object is to use, I think of how high the bar for understanding its basic function is and how easy it is to make the object to function as intended.

The interactive installation in the ITP lobby.

The interactive installation in the ITP lobby.

Thomas: Yea! So the installation in the ITP lobby as one example (I took a video of it here). For this piece, there really is no interactive role except that you just walk up to it. It functions like a mirror which is a familiar object and sight is a primal and basic sense. So the user understands the piece right away. However, the effect is exaggerated when reproduced from a camera, which provides a lower resolution framework for viewing the effect (see the video).

Willie: Yea, so cool in the way that the piece itself is a lower resolution reproduction of reality and you get a better view of it by lowering the resolution! Haha!

[lots of laughter, people on the subway looking over]

Thomas: So some things we just know how to work.

Willie: Like a door knob...

Thomas: Yea! Just reach out and turn. Although perhaps this isn’t the best example, since I’ve not walked into businesses, thinking the door was locked, when I just needed to push instead of pull..

Willie: Ok, so maybe something more primal, like a hammer or a knife…

Thomas: I see what you’re thinking here.. Hammers definitely make a lot of sense when you pick it up, basic function, lots of payoff and utility - although watch out! Cause if you screw it up, there could be some sore thumbs to pay!

Willie: True true! [winces] .. Ok what about a cup!

Thomas: A cup?

Willie: Like a cup or glass of water…

Thomas: Ah, yes, well you pick it up, turn it over, and the contents pour out. Pretty easy. Pretty simple. You do it everyday with no problem. You know what a cup is, and it can really serve no other basic function. But! This is not without much training - remember when you were a kid?! Everything’s hard when you’ve never done it before.

Willie: Ok, but are these things hard for a child because physically their motor skills and muscles are weaker in comparison or is it really a matter of the fact that the skill is brand new and they have no other frame of reference to go off of?

Thomas: Ok think about giving an adult of say, age 35, drink for a glass of water for the first time. Even though they would have a fully developed muscular system, they would most certainly end up with a wet t-shirt and maybe even drop the glass completely, given the novelty of this event and at being confronted with an event so shocking as that, given that they had no grasp of the consequences of their actions.

Wille: Still, they would pick it up faster because they have had a lifetime of handling objects with fine motor skills, like writing, handling the car keys, typing on keyboards, etc.

Thomas: Point taken. And that is where I was going with this. What kinds of designs can we have that use skills that we already posses or are close enough so we can adapt them for other purposes.

Willie: Bingo!

Thomas: I like the example of a child on an iPad. One of the first things we learn early on in life is how to point and of course to touch something we see and push it over. So an iPad or iPhone touch screen (point and drag) is an extremely intuitive design, as illustrated by child’s ability to operate simple games with relative ease.

Willie: So why can’t grandma work it?!

Thomas: Well that’s another story ha!

[more loud laughter, and an old lady scowls, clutches her things and slides away from them on the subway seat]

Willie: Hey what’s that?!

[Willie points across the subway to a moving image that seems like it’s coming out of no where from the darkness of the subway tunnel]

Thomas: Oh wow, another great design! Kind of like the previous example, except this takes almost no effort whatsoever. It’s purely visual.

[they are seeing a set of moving images in the subway tunnel, displayed vertically in short segments. As the subway car advances, the segments blur and a fun scene of colored characters dance and sway]

Thomas: In this case, we don’t even have to move - the subway takes care of that for us!

Willie: Ok, so what about something more complex. What is something you have thought to design that would take some learning or was maybe too complex to design?

Thomas: Well, there are certainly complex things that one can master in life where the payoff. Take driving for instance…

Willie: Sure.

Thomas: One design of my own that I had in mind after one of our first PCOMP readings about hands was a hand-held keyboard design where in each hand was a form-fitted grip, almost like egg-like in shape. The user would click with each of the five fingers on a small, round, mouse-like button in certain combinations to produce the letters and symbols on the basic keyboard. You could liken the mechanism to that of learning the recorder in band class as a youth.

Willie: Oh Lord, I was terrible at that!

[again with the laughter]

Thomas: Yea, here let me get my notebook… Here is a drawing:

[pulls out drawing with copious notes and illegible writing]

Willie: Ok, I see what you’re going for here, but don’t we already have a keyboard that seems to work just fine?

Thomas: Yea, that’s the thing. The trade off between increased typing speed and the time it takes to learn a whole new system may not be worth it. I was thinking those with carpal tunnel syndrome or perhaps some disability that excluded them from approaching a regular keyboard…

Willie: But now your just reaching…

Thomas: Yea, no pun intended!

[more laughter abounds as the train finally comes to a stop]