..on treating machines like people

I just saw a blurb on huffington post that had Clifford Nass talking about what he usually talks about; treating machines like people. If you’re not familiar, go check out The Media Equation and his other books. Why an article about him in the mainstream media? I’m guessing it’s because he worked on the google glasses. Sidenote: it kind of sucks that you have to commercialize science to make people care.

Anyway, the article is mostly nothing new. What was new from him, at least for me is his concern with multitasking.

What concerns you most about the direction of current technologies?

Unquestionably my biggest concern is the dramatic growth of multitasking. We know the effects of multitasking are severe and chronic. I have kids and adults saying, “Sure, I multitask all the time, but when I really have to concentrate I don’t multitask.”

The research to shows that’s not quite true: when your brain multitasks all the time there are clear changes in the brain that make it virtually impossible for you to focus. If we’re breeding a world in which people chronically multitask that has very, very worrisome and serious effects on people’s brains. For adults it has effects on their cognitive or thinking abilities. For younger kids we’re seeing effects on their emotional development. That does scare the heck out of me.

I have the same concern, and actually wrote a paper about it last semester. By the time the paper was done I had kind of stopped caring about the issue because I’d blown it up into a deep mindmap and kept getting stuck on the issue of efficiency as a sole guiding force to interaction design development. My thought is that we need devices that use less of our attention, but I think the problem is really more human than machine. Given more unused attention, we’d probably still be trying to cram other tasks in there.

I guess I need to revisit this idea. How can we reduce the cognitive overhead of multitasking while still multitasking? A Nass-like solution seems ideal, since we have the ability to deal with multiple other humans. (ex: mother with a minivan full of kids) Surely though there is even a finite number of humans we can deal with at once.

I really don’t have a good answer. I’d love to hear other opinions.

hueristic evaluations.. beyond the screen and ergonomics

Since beginning my foray into Industrial Design and Interaction design, there are a few common threads that keep popping up in my projects and annoying me. Today I want to write about one that came up in a recent project where I was designing a ubiquitous computing/ambient weather forecasting device. As is usually the case, we were required to plan a heuristic evaluation.. for a physical device.

Bonsai weather forecaster

Bonsai weather forecaster

This shouldn’t be a big deal, but the problem is, everyone immediately jumps to Neilsen for the heuristics they’ll be using. This is all well and good; they’re a pretty good set, but they are intended for 2D screen based interfaces, especially web, where it’s automatically assumed that the interface will have the user’s full attention; ie: staring at a computer. I’ve googled “heuristic evaluation” +”physical device” about a hundred times over the past two years and always get the same sad results. Usually, the only things remotely worthwhile are various archives of this IxDA forum thread from 2008. The gist is that a guy is looking for heuristics for physical device  testing, and the IxD folk tell him to look up ergonomics.

In my own practice, I take Neilsen’s 10, ditch the ones that really don’t apply, alter some, or grab some from other limited sources. One of these other sources that I’ve used before is a list from a consulting company called Tristream. I used these in the evaluation of a piece home/industrial automation back-channel management software. It wasn’t totally ideal, but it got the job done.

Neilsen's Heuristics vs AmbientHeuristics (Markoff et al, 2003, p.172)

Neilsen's Heuristics vs AmbientHeuristics (Markoff et al, 2003, p.172)

Back to my ambient weather forecasting project.. I was lucky enough to find a great paper titled “Heuristic Evaluation of Ambient Displays” from the ’03 CHI conference. In it, some folks from UC, Berkeley and Intel Research went through the heuristic selection/creation process I described above, in this case, especially for ambient displays. The paper discussed their test of these heuristics and found them to be significantly more useful in identifying major issues than the original set from Neilsen. In the test, “a single evaluator will only find about 13% of major issues” but “a single evaluator using the ambient heuristics finds 22% of known major problems on average”. (Markoff et al, 2003, p. 175)

Where am I going with this? I really think there should be a published set of heuristics for physical devices. I understand that the type of device greatly impacts the heuristics that should be used, but it would be nice to have a basic starting point that made more sense for 4D interaction than just the stock set from Neilsen. I’m hopping to draft such a paper over the summer. It’d be of tremendous use for myself, but I think the Industrial design community as a whole could benefit. If any of the designers out there have suggestions to this end, please let me know! I’d appreciate the input.