Wednesday, February 25, 2009

To love is to fear

Such sad news about the death of David and Samantha Cameron's little son, Ivan. It's hard to imagine the horror of hearing such a diagnosis for your son, the hard slog of caring for and loving him, the sorrow of finally losing him.

And time, of course, to consider all the other hidden heroes, quietly getting on with it like Claire Bates, whose very personal response to Ivan's death is almost unbearably moving.

Monday, February 23, 2009

M364 Block 1, Unit 1, Activity 5

It is common for members of a multidisciplinary team to have different priorities which can lead to conflicts. For [an interactive website educational website to accompany a TV series], list the likely priorities of each of the following team members:

Interaction designer

Educational advisor

Graphic designer

Software engineer

Describe three different conflicts that may arise in the team as a consequence of these differing priorities.

How might different team members differ in their use of the word learning, possibly leading to miscommunication?

How might these conflicts and misunderstandings be overcome?
[1] The interaction designer would prioritise ease of use, ease of learning the site, and an appropriate balance of fun, challenge and satisfaction in the user experience

The educational advisor would be interested in promoting the education aims of the TV series, possibly even in supporting specific learning outcomes. He would also be concerned with ensuring that the educational approach suited the target age-groups.

The graphic designer would want to ensure that the site as a whole expressed good visual design quality in terms of fonts, layout, colour, and general clarity.

The software engineer would prioritise ease of implementation, performance, robustness, security and maintainability. For the user interface, these considerations might well lead him to prefer the use of a library of standard UI components.

Three possible conflicts include:
  • The educationalist might prefer the site's visual character to conform to the active and dynamic TV series, whereas the graphic designer might prefer a less cluttered and busy look, while the software engineer would be inclined to just keep it simple.
  • The team members might have different ideas about user interactions. The educationalist might, for example, want to give the user a choice of inputs using a thought-bubble containing floating images, whereas the software engineer would prefer to use a drop-down list or radio buttons.
  • The educationalist might want to animate parts of the site, for instance to give graduated feedback to users in response to inputs, whereas the software engineer and graphic designer might prefer to express feedback using standard error boxes and form transitions 
[2] The Educational advisor would probably use the word learning to refer to the site's educational topics and aims, whereas the other team members would be more likely to use it to refer to learning how to use the site

[3] Conflicts and misunderstanding could be reduced by recognising the problem and agreeing to adopt a common project vocabulary. This could even be made a deliverable, as a glossary section in the documentation or help system.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

M364 Block 1, Unit 1, Activity 4

Now go and look at your car dashboard (or that of a friend or colleague). List three aspects of the different controls which might distract you or make driving the car more difficult. Alternatively, if you do not drive, ask someone who does drive about their experiences of driving and the ways in which the controls on their car can cause difficulties.
The Toyota Prius has a somewhat idiosyncratic interface design. Both the gear selector (there is no manual option) and the parking brake have been moved from between the seats, making room for a handy storage bin. The gear selector is on the dashboard, and the parking brake has mutated from the traditional hand-lever to a (left) foot-pedal. But these are totally obvious changes that, as a new Prius driver, you have to deal with as soon as you sit at the wheel, and I really don't see them as distracting or troublesome.

For me, the three most questionable aspects of the Prius interface design are:
  1. The gear selector has three obvious settings, "R", "N" and "D" (Reverse, Neutral and Drive, for those unfamiliar with automatics). It also has a fourth option, "B". I truly don't know what this is for, or what would happen if I accidentally engaged "B" instead of "D".
  2. In common with many cars, a single (right-hand) steering column stalk is used to control both front and rear wipers. I sometimes find myself having to think about how to use this control, and can imagine circumstances involving unexpected surface water, or overtaking long vehicles in rain, where this could be a problem.
  3. The Prius also has a central graphical display panel with four large buttons, two on either side. The two that get used regularly (Climate and Audio) are on the passenger's side, across the central divide, and I think would be less distractingly placed on the driver's side. [This may be an artifact of us Brits driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting on the wrong side of the car, but since the Japanese share this particular eccentricity I'm still puzzled]
Granting myself the self-indulgence of diverging from the question - permissible, I hope, since these activities are set but unmarked - I would say that the ID of the Prius is well-aligned with both the engineering and the marketing of the product, as a vehicle that is different, but for good reasons.

M364 Block 1, Unit 1, Activity 3

Think about the system outline in Box 3 [The 1999 UK Passport Agency Fiasco]. Suggest what the consequences of the Passport Agency's computer problems may have been for the following groups of people:

the general public

the workers at the Passport Agency
The increase from 2-3 weeks to 7-10 weeks more than tripled the waiting time for passports. This would have been real problem for people needing to travel abroad on short notice for business or, sadly, for funerals. It would have made the already stressful business of arranging family holidays more so, especially given the changing legal context whereby children would now require their own passports. It is quite conceivable that the threat of having to cancel a holiday (or leave a child behind) due to non-arrival of passports could lead to blame games and even leave relationships under stress.

Passport Agency workers would have had to deal with a surge in enquiries and disputes, where they had to decide what was or wasn't an emergency case. This, along with their identification with an employer that was being ridiculed in the media and by the general public, would have been sapping to their self-esteem. The possibility of radical solutions which might have impacted their working conditions or even employment would have added to their general stress levels.

M364 Block 1, Unit 1, Activity 2

(One personal frustration provoker is signing on to a course and discovering that you're not using the current edition of the book!)
Study Chapter 5, Section 5.4 on page 147 of the Set Book, including the activities. This section is entitled 'User frustration' and provides a list of reason why users often become frustrated when using interactive products and gives examples of what the author refer to as 'classic user-frustration provokers'.

Can you think of any other frustration provokers?
[1] When a system is hard to learn because of unnecessary internal or external inconsistencies - for example, in CP/M (the command-line only predecessor of MS-DOS) file copying and transfer was done using a command called PIP (for Peripheral Interchange Program) which had the (sometimes lethally) unexpected parameter syntax of "PIP target=source".

[2] When there is inadequate or misleading guidance to the relative importance of interface options. I used to consult on a programming product which by default saved programs in a fast but fragile binary format. If you asked its authors to assist a user whose program was no longer loadable, they would inevitably reply "Sorry, users simply have to 'Save as text' regularly". But the safe "Save as text" option was buried in a sub-menu, while the dangerous option was hooked right into the obvious menu location, "File > Save".

[3] When you can't tell in what order you should to use interface options. The same programming product had various sets of functions available for communicating to external systems such as databases, terminal emulators and mainframes. Being a GUI-based, interactive development environment you could paste each function in from a function dictionary, complete with meaningfully named parameter variables, and the online help would expand on what each function did and what the parameters were. But there was nothing to tell you the order in which these function calls should be made, which left our users stuck with a massively frustrating trial-and-error task. (Eventually I wrote up the necessary sequence options, using Syntax diagrams to describe function order rather than parameter order, and this was included in our documentation)

New year, new goals - OU M364 Block 1, Unit 1, Activity 1

So it's a new year, and I spent several months of last year mumbling to myself about finding a new direction at work. So I identified the direction I want to go as Interaction Design and signed up for an Open University course in Fundamentals of interaction design, and now I need to get my head down and get on with the studying.

So, without further ado, here's Block 1 (of 4), Unit 1 (of 4), Activity 1: 

Identify two contrasting interactive products on your person, in your home, or in your workplace. In your opinion, do either of these prodcuts have good ID? If you anser positively, try to identify what, for you, characterises good ID.

Do you have difficulty using either of these products? If so, think about what the problems are and try to identify what, for you, characterises bad ID.

Our coffee machine has excellent interaction design. Every message is succinct, self-explanatory and relevant to purpose - for example (from memory) "Dregs drawer full", "Out of beans", "Out of water" or even "Please descale". User input is pleasingly obvious - you push a button to ask for a coffee, and if you have to empty the dregs drawer, add beans, fill the water tank or descale the machine, the machine automatically senses that the task has been done and responds accordingly.

My (rather basic) Nokia mobile phone has, on the whole, good ID. It is generally compatible with all the previous Nokias that I have owned, and when I've used new features for the first time - for example, the alarm clock function - it has taken patience rather than genius to navigate the limited set of menus and set the alarm to go off every weekday morning. On the other hand, the choice of the green "call" button to switch off the alarm is counter-intuitive (both of us pushed the red "hang-up" button at first) and the unnecessary object / subject ambiguity of "Send business card" as an option on a contact (am I being invited to send this contact as a card to someone, or to send this contact someone else's card?) make me feel this could have done with some more usability testing.

I would characterise good ID as being that part of a product's design which minimises the gap (that space filled with effort, friction and frustration) between what I want to do and what the product can do, or can be made to do. Bad ID makes me make mistakes - sending the alarm into snooze rather than switching it off, send my friend's phone number to a builder rather than vice-versa; or it makes me look elsewhere for functionality that should be part of the product's value, as when I briefly considered buying an otherwise redundant alarm clock.