Wednesday, March 11, 2009

M364 Block 1, Unit 2, Activity 2

Complete the assignment on page 28 of the Set Book. [...]

Find a handheld device and examine how it has been designed, paying careful attention to how the user is meant to interact with it.

(a) from your first impressions, write down what first comes to mind as to what is good and bad about how it has been designed, paying particular attention to how the user is meant to interact with it.. Then list (i) its functionality and (ii) the range of tasks a typical user would want to do using it. Is the functionality greater than, equal to or less than what the user wants to do?

(b) Based on your reading of this chapter and any other materual you have cine across, compile your own set of usability and user experience goals that your think will be most useful in evaluating the device. Decide which are the most important ones and explain why.

(c) Translate the core usability and user experience goals you have selected in two or three questions. Then use them to assess how well your device fares (e.g, Usability goals: What specific mechanisms have been used to ensure safety? How easy is it to learn? User experience goals: Is it fun to use? Does the user get frustrated easily? If so, why?)

(d) Repeat (b) and (c) for design principles and usability principles (again, choose a relevant set)

(e) Finally, discuss possible improvements to the interface based on your usability evaluation.
I recently bought a Livescribe Pulse smart pen. With no previous experience of smart pens, my ability to use this device is highly dependent on the quality of its design, so I have chosen this as my subject.

[Since smart pens may be less familiar to others than remote controls and mobile phones, it might be helpful to explain the basic functionality here: 
  • You can set it to record sounds, then start taking notes - words, diagrams, doodles, whatever - at a lecture or meeting, and later play back what was recorded at the time you wrote or drew anything.
  • You can then upload both sound and image to a computer where you can browse the page images and continue to use anything written there as an index into the sound recording.
There's more, but this is the core functionality]

[a] The first good thing about the way the device works is the power and simplicity of its core functions. Indexing sound (or video) recordings so that relevant content is immediately and intuitively available is a hard task, and this device solves it brilliantly.

The second good thing thing is the simplicity of the device's mechanical user interface. The pen exposes the following features:
  • The ballpoint or stylus; then, running along the top,
  • A small speaker grille
  • A small microphone
  • A small rectangular OLED display strip
  • A flush on/off button
  • At the blunt end, a 2.5mm socket for stereo headphones which double as a stereo microphone; then, running along the bottom,
  • Some flush electrical contact strips for docking with the device's USB cradle / recharger
  • And, returning to the writing end, a small infra-red camera which can see where the pen is writing.
Of these, only two (the on/off button and the ballpoint) are a direct part of the user interface. This simplicity has been achieved by moving much of the interface that might normally be found on a device on to specially printed paper.

Each page in the pre-printed pads has a set of record / playback / volume "control" icons printed along the bottom edge. The pen uses its camera to recognise these controls, so that if you tap the "Record" icon, it starts recording. 

Each page is printed with a fine set of microdots, using the proprietory Anoto dot pattern, which uniquely identifies every location on every page. This pattern is also picked up by the camera, allowing it to record and locate every usage on every page. So if you wrote a note while recording, you can come back and tap on that note and the pen will start to playback the recording, starting from 5 seconds before you started the note.

Similarly, the inside front page of the notebook has a more extensive set of controls allowing you to use the pen as a calculator, change its settings, or view its status.

The single most frustrating thing about the way it works is that it requires the specially printed paper for its core functions.  There is a menu function viewable through the built-in OLED display which can be operated using a navigation cross (referred to as "NavPlus") with four arrowheads and a central location, but the most useful thing you can do with this and no pre-printed paper is to start and stop sound recording, totally unconnected to what you write or draw.

(i) Functionality provided
  1. Write (by which I include drawing)
  2. Record (sound)
  3. Link recording to writing, so that you can
  4. Tap on anything you wrote earlier and playback what was being said at the time
  5. Copy witing and sound up to a computer
  6. View saved pages, and click with a mouse on any part of the writing to hear what was being said at the time
  7. Play back micro-movies on the tiny display
  8. Use the pen to play the piano given a hand-drawn keyboard
  9. Translate a short list of words between various languages
(ii) What a user might expect
  1. Write
  2. Record
  3. Link recording to writing
  4. "Tap" playback
  5. Upload
  6. "Click" playback
  7. Handwriting recognition
I think the first six provided functions are those that a user would hope for, the remainder are basically gimmicks which are good for entertainment or showing the device off. 

As the Pulse smart pen is likely to be the first smart pen that most users come across, they may not have very clear expectations. My experience when explaining it to others is that the core funcitonality is more than they expect, but given that functionality they then ask eagerly whether it can also read the user's handwriting (to make it clear - it can't, it stores text and graphics alike as lines on pages), so in that respect it may do less than users want.

[b] I think the most important usability goals for this product would be
  • Utility
  • Effectiveness
  • Ease of Learning
The Livescribe Pulse offers functionality that will be new to most users. In order to maximise take-up, its designers need to ensure that users can easily see (in prospect) and feel (in practice) the benefits of this functionality. This means the functions must be valuable to the user (utility), they must be well-executed (effectiveness) and they must be easily available to the new user (ease of learning).

Take-up will also be influenced by the achievement of user experience goals. I would suggest that the most relevant UX goals are:
  • Satisfying
  • Aesthetically pleasing
  • Motivating
Potential users are unlikely to buy this device unless reviewers and/or word of mouth suggests that they will find it satisfying. The iPod generation of consumers will also expect an iPod-priced smart pen to look good, especially since it will primarily be used in a public context (lectures and meetings) and possibly in a high-profile way if the user has to ask permission to start recording. Finally, the experience has to be motivating - taking notes is not an inherently exciting activity, and if users rapidly lose their initial enthusiasm this will limit the viral word-of-mouth so necessary for such a new product from a start-up company.

[c] How can we express the usability goals as questions that would apply to a real Pulse user?
  • Utility - Do its note-taking and recording functions add up? Is there anything missing that I need in order to achieve my personal goals?
  • Effectiveness - Is the Pulse good at what it's supposed to do?
  • Ease of learning - Are there functions or features which are important to me which I have difficulty executing because it's not obvious how, or even that they're supported?
Utility "do its note-taking and recording functions add up? Is there anything missing that I need in order to achieve my personal goals?"

My experience with the Pulse is that the core note-taking and recording functions are well chosen and well-integrated for the purposes of someone attending lectures or business meetings. 

This seems to be shared almost unanimously by the reviewers that I found on the web - I ascribed some of the enthusiasm to the fact that it would also make a good tool for journalists and broadcasters, which was, naturally, the profession of most of the non-"geek" reviewers.

So I give it a high rating on basic utility, apart from the lack of handwriting recognition (which is in any case available as a third-party extra).

Effectiveness "Is the Pulse good at what it's supposed to do?"

The Pulse is designed to record its own writing, record sound, and index the sound recording using the writing recording, both on the orginal paper page and, once saved to a PC, on screen. It does all these functions simply and effectively. 

Some of this effectiveness comes from hidden functionality - I have heard attempts at recording presentations (university debates) using an ordinary cassette recorder, and voices were normally too loud or too quiet, but the Pulse, presumably using digital processing, quietly sorts out the voice volume and clarity. So I rate it high on effectiveness.

Ease of learning "Are there functions or features which are important to me which I have difficulty executing because it's not obvious how, or even that they're supported?"

A new purchaser can demonstrate the on-paper functionality to a curious family members within minutes and, given a short break for installing the software, the basic on-screen functionality too. This is despite the fact that several features of the user interface are novel, namely tapping on controls to control the pen, and tapping on writing (on the page or on the screen) to replay the associated sound recording. So I would say that it rates very high on ease of learning.

Let's translate the user experience goals into specific questions that would apply to a Pulse user.
  • Satisfying - Does the user feel that the pen allows her to take better notes as simply and unobtrusively as possible?
  • Aesthetically pleasing - Does it give pleasure to look at, and pride of ownership?
  • Motivating - Does using my Pulse make me want to keep on using it?
Satisfying "Does the user feel that the pen has allows her to take better notes as simply and unobtrusively as possible?"

Taking better notes is not necessarily a matter with a simple technical fix. Looking at some of my saved pages I can see that I will get more out of this device by interspersing my occasional summary paragraphs and diagrams with short notes that will act as bookmarks into the sound recording. 

I also find it frustrating that I have to take special notebooks with me to make the most of it - after all, one key benefit of the pen as a recording device is its extreme portability and ability to work with any writable medium

But, even without making adjustments in my technique, I still get a great deal of added "note-taking value" out of it, so I say that it is quite satisfying.

Aesthetically Pleasing "Does it give me pleasure to look at, and pride of ownership?"

The design is fairly minimalist, the Pulse has a body shell in the by now standard high-tech anodised black with a discreet logo. The body is about 1.5cm wide, presumably to allow for the inner technology. This is at the limits of visual acceptability. So I would rate it as medium-high - not below expectations, but not in itself reason for showing off the device to all and sundry.

Motivating "does using my Pulse make me want to keep on using it?"

It's hard to get enthusiastic about taking notes as a general activity. Livescribe have tried to address this in many ways, some of them part of the Pulse's context and infrastructure rather than relating directly to the device as such - for example, having saved notes and recordings to your computer, you can then upload them to a central catalogued location on the web, and view other people's notes and pictures by category. 

When viewing a saved document you can have it play back the pen strokes along with the sound, giving it similar presentational functionality to a webcast - thus LiveScribe call it a pencast.

Along with pencasts, sketching is a more creative activity than note-taking, and if you combine the natural motivation for these two activities with the ease of using the Pulse as a self-scanning drawing device, I would say it does make me want to keep on using it.

[d] I would choose the following Design Principles as particularly relevant to the Pulse pen:
  • Visibility - are the controls and the state of the device easily visible to the user?
  • Feedback - does the Pulse pen give feedback on what the user is doing and has done?
  • Affordance - do the controls of the device give the user a clue about how they should be used?
This device is typically used in situations like lectures and meetings where the user can't ask everybody to stop talking while they look for a control or check the device status (or at least not without severe loss of face), so visibility is clearly key. 

These same usages scenarios (lectures and meetings) also dictate that a user cannot easily ask speakers to repeat their last however-many minutes of talk, so feedback on whether the user has succesfully set the Pulse recording or not recording is essential.

Finally, good affordance is important both for making the pen easy to learn and for making it harder to make operational mistakes while using it, which ties in with unforgiving requirement to record things which, if missed, my be unrepeatable. 

Visibility "are the controls and the state of the device easily visible to the user?"

The main controls for the Pulse pen are the set of icons across the bottom of every page of pre-printed Pulse notepaper. These are highly visible, as long as you have some pre-printed Pulse paper at hand. 

The state of the device is visible through the built-in OLED display. When switched on, the display shows the current time and a battery level graphic. When recording, this changes to a an incrementing timer display. After the recording, when the pen is docked with its USB cradle, this changes to an animated upload graphic while any unsaved sessions get copied over to the PC.

Other system status levels can be seen on the Pulse desktop application, or on the OLED display by tapping on specific icons printed on the inside front cover of each pre-printed Pulse notebook. 

I would say that design principle of visibility has been well implemented and prioritised, given the constraints of the device. The market that has grown used to the luxurious visibility options of the PDA or mobile phone is largely the same market that buys - or is at least familiar with -the iPod shuffle. So this level of visibility is probably acceptable.

Feedback "does the Pulse pen give feedback on what the user is doing and has done?"

The primary feedback mechanism for this device is sound. In particular it play different beeps to indicate the start and end of recording. However there's no feedback on whether penstrokes are being recorded, which would be useful both in the case of very light penstrokes, which it sometimes misses, and as a reminder whether the pen is or is not recording. 

The mouse pointer turns from an arrow to a finger when, using the desktop application, you move over part of the image that is clickable, ie you have something written there that will trigger sound playback.

I would rate feedback on this device as good.

Affordance "do the controls of the device give the user a clue about how they should be used?"

The main mechanical inputs are the on/off button and the pen itself. The on/off button could have been implemented with greater affordance, as it is "D"-shaped and visually integrated as one rounded end of the OLED display, but this was clearly a trade-off with the user experience goal of achieving an aesthetically, minimalist design. The fact that the device is at one level obviously a pen, and that is how it should be used, seems to me to count as successful affordance for something this novel. 

This leaves the pre-printed control icons - do they invite one to click on them with the pen? The answer to this question varies so rapidly along the first few seconds of familiarisation that it's hard to provide a globally valid answer, but I would say that once users have any idea at all of how the Pulse pen works, these controls provide good perceived affordance.

I would choose the following Usability Principles as appropriate to this device:
  • Recognition rather than recall - does it force the user to remember things to use it instead of allowing users to remember them?
  • Match between system and real world - does the pen speak the user's language and concepts or does it force them to learn new terms and meanings? 
  • Error prevention - does it prevent errors occurring?
As an innovative device offering unfamiliar functionality, failing to follow either the "Recognition rather than Recall" or the "Match between system and real world" usability principles would pose a particular challenge to new and potential users that could have a serious impact on the device's take-up.

As mentioned above, in most cases that the pen is being used errors would cause a probably irretrievable loss of (spoken) data, so this is also an particularly important usability principle. 

Recognition rather than recall "does it force the user to remember things to use it instead of allowing users to remember them?"

The device is almost entirely compliant with this usability principle. The only thing the user has to remember is how to operate it, which is a skill ("savoir") rather than a datum ("connaitre").

In fact it embodies this design principle for its primary function. The ability to replay sound keyed by what you were writing or drawing at time allows the user to recognise either the physical page of the notebook, or a thumbnail in the desktop application in order to replay a recording, rather than having to recall the date or any other index by which recordings would otherwise be filed.

Match between system and real world "does the pen speak the user's language and concepts or does it force them to learn new terms and meanings?

When a device offers new and unfamiliar functionality there will have to be some new terms or meanings, but I feel that this has been kept to a minimum in this case.  The printed control icons acquire new meaning as being executable, but this is an extension of their their existing meaning (as images of controls) rather than a contradiction. 

There is some breakdown of the pen / notebook metaphor when it comes to buying new notebooks - these are sold with volume numbers, for example a "Black unlined journals Numbers 1 and 2" and all instances of "Black unlined journal Number 1" have the same micro-dot pattern, which would cause the pen to get confused if they were in use at the same time. This means that two physically distinct journals might be identical from a Pulse pen's perspective - definitely a mismatch between the system and the real world. 

Error prevention "does it prevent errors occurring?"

The Pulse pen offers very little scope for creating errors. Immediate operation is done by tapping printed icons with audible feedback. Transfer from the pen to the desktop is done by simply placing the pen in its USB cradle. There is no opportunity for syntax errors. 

There are opportunities for error in other aspects, however. A simple case is drawing or writing over the control icons, which can trigger them. But on the whole the Pulse pen implements this usability principle quite comprehensively.

(e) I feel that the core functionality scores well against most relevent usability and user-experience goals as far as its core functionality goes, so my three suggestions for improvement are extensions of the design rather than corrections.

First, I would suggest that the pen give a haptonic click when the user taps a printed control. This would give better feedback than the beep (more appropriate and less obtrusive) and would also add a more relevant element of "fun" than, for example, the tacked-on micro-movie.

Secondly, I would have the pen recognise that if the user draws a box and then double-taps the top-left and bottom right corner, it should treat this rectangle and its contents as an "Item", for example:

would be an item on Pulse Pen Usability. These Items would then act as a third dimension of organisation (after Pages and Sessions) once uploaded to the PC - I would be able to annotate Items with tags or other metadata, view them as thumbnails, and add content from any page or pages to a single Item, thus providing greater flexibility by employing one of the device's primary design values, namely recognition over recall.

Thirdly, I would offer a notebook-size pen holder, which would unfold to create a wipe-clean pre-printed Pulse pen writing surface, complete with controls.

In order to avoid the difficulties associated with writing on the same surface multiple times (mentioned above in discussion of the hazard of buying duplicate Pulse pen notebooks) I would add a "New Page" control to be tapped whenever the existing page content was wiped. 

The Pulse would then store interpret the microdot pattern of the single wipe-clean page as belonging to a new page.

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