User interface – How we interface with the technology.

Well it happened just the other day; one of those out of character early morning phone calls you just know is going to be bad news! It was just before 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning when the telephone woke both my wife and I from a deep sleep following a rather late and disturbed night. As I answered in a half comatose and shocked state to hear my elderly father in a panic I immediately feared the worst! Establishing if I was ‘up yet’ he launched into how a message had appeared on his television screen and that he didn’t know what to do! Once my brain got over the initial shock of him being perfectly OK but just having problems with his television, I realised what had happened.

A few weeks earlier he had been complaining that some of the regular TV programmes he enjoyed had ‘disappeared’, and he could no longer find a number of the channels he liked to watch. I asked him if he had ‘re-tuned’ when the ‘new service message’ appeared on his screen. “What new service message” barked the reply! When I had the opportunity to check the TV settings I established that the ‘new service alert’ option had been disabled when the unit was installed, and that he had been unaware of any service upgrades for three years, slowly losing channels and services during that time. It was then that I enabled the alert feature, thereby allowing him to accept new or changed services as they became available, and this was the first time there had been a service change since then.

This little incident made me realise just how alien current day technology is to someone who has limited exposure to it, and the way we take for granted menu structures, binary selections modes, multi-purpose keys and buttons, and words such as ‘select’, ‘enter’, and ‘cursor’. It’s no coincidence that programming video recorders (VCR’s) has become the butt of so many jokes, and those new entrants to this market make a virtue of the simplicity of programming and use. Similarly, trying to remotely visualise the TV menu structure and layout of his handset in order to guide him through the accepting the new service option, over the telephone, was indeed a challenge, and gave me a whole new appreciation of help-desk operations.

Continuing this theme, from personal experience I like using maps and prefer to get a mental picture of a journey and how it relates to the physical landscape, and more specifically a mental ‘shape’ of the journey (i.e. down, across, down again, keep left of the city etc.). This certainly helps when you are faced with commands such as ‘Eastbound’ or other such directional instructions, especially when you are driving and unable to examine the map (it’s how I cope with spatial awareness). So the use of Satellite navigation (SATNAV) has been a challenge. Its adoption, in my case, has been episodic, cautious, and thought provoking. I had used it some years ago in a rental car in the US, and previous use improved confidence. However, I like to get a context for where I’m going but the small screen (even on the built-in versions) is too small to show the complete journey at a sensible scale, and the detailed version too limiting. You can no doubt select preferences but the instruction manual is longer than Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix! I tend to find SATNAV works best for me switching it on when I’m approaching my destination and the possible combinations or alternative routes it could offer are limited, and the margin for error therefore reduced. However, I did once enter the postcode of an organisation I was visiting only to end up at the local Postal Sorting Office, as this company publishes a postcode relating to the sorting office rather than their own site!

Which brings me full circle to where these missives originally began, a regular article I used to write for a user group publication so apologies to those of you who will have read some of this before (extracts first published in The Post, Volume 22, No: 2. April 2006).

As a frequent promoter of IT to help solve business problems and improve efficiency and effectiveness I understand the benefits of Radio Frequency (or wireless) devices. I applaud the flexibility and mobility they promote, be it instantly passing an order to the kitchen for service in restaurants, or checking stock room inventory when a customer asks for an item not available on the sales floor. But as a user and recipient of the service (or lack of it), I’m acutely aware of the incongruence of the application of technology in some of these situations.

On a visit to Lisbon (Portugal) I had time to visit a well-known ‘coffee house’ known as the ‘Majestic Café’. It boasts a long heritage, fantastic patisserie, traditional values, starched aprons and quality service; you could say “a tradition of excellence”! It was all going well until the waiter taking my order reached for an electronic device ‘slung’ from his waist and then avoid any further eye contact for the remainder of the transaction as he was transfixed by scrolling through menus, the rapid tapping of his pointing device on the glass screen, and repeatedly having to reaffirm what I had just ordered as he wasn’t really listening to me but concentrating hard on the screen and the device. Not only had the old world character of the Café been shattered, but also it felt like I had been in some way ancillary to the whole event. Not a great customer experience!

As ‘chip and pin’ is now embedded in the UK (i.e. the use of a personal identification number to validate the use of a credit card instead of signature verification), the technology is once again taking over. If you pay by card it can now be a completely ‘dialogue free’ transaction (although in some petrol stations I can see how this would be an attraction)! As customer familiarity grows with the devices (and these are many and varied), you can insert your card, and follow the instructions on screen, entering PIN, validating card type and transaction amount, and finally removing your card on command, all in complete silence, giving the attendant yet another excuse to avoid any interaction! Taking this one stage further, when paying for a meal in dimly lit restaurants you are now expected to accept the transaction amount, confirm that you want to give a gratuity (by using the function keys), insert the amount of the gratuity and press enter, accept the new total and press enter, accept the card type (toggle and enter), a total of twelve key stokes on my last count! How long before someone decides what a great opportunity this affords to collect customer information, feedback, socio economic grouping and much more.

It doesn’t matter how fast the processor or how clever the application, if the device is unusable then it is worthless. Clearly many of these devices are designed by engineers – for use by engineers, so what about the rest of us? Human-computer interaction (HCI) can’t be left to engineers alone and requires that we develop more user centric design principles when building such interfaces. Have you ever wondered why we only use fraction of the features available to us? Reduced complexity would be a good starting point.