Posts Tagged ‘perception’


Creating simple, intuitive products

March 2, 2009


My kids’ grandparents all live out-of-town, so they wanted to set up webcams instead of just using the phone. So, I setup GTalk video on my PC right in Gmail.  Then I sent my mother-in-law instructions to setup iChat on her Mac to work with GTalk. Of course, it doesn’t work. She’s not computer savvy enough to troubleshoot the problem and I don’t know enough about Macs to know what to tell her. After an hour of searching forums and trying to talk her through it, we gave up for another day. But once my mother-in-law shut down iChat, we were immediately able to use video through Gmail. What? Is this a missing step in the instructions? I don’t think we were alone in our frustration since the forum was full of posts about having trouble getting them to talk to each other. 

Was the process intuitive? To some engineers at Google and Apple, it must have been. I’m sure they configured the software and were mooning each other over video in no time. Ideally, they would have also consulted my mother-in-law, or at least other users with her level of experience and understanding, to see if she had any trouble understanding the instructions.

What does it mean to create a simple, intuitive product? Certainly, there are technical challenges to making something simple. But, shouldn’t it be easy to create something that’s intuitive? I think it can be, but it involves a bit of work by the designers.

One challenge is that “intuitive” is a subjective term. Product users don’t all use the same vocabularly or may not understand the subtle intricacies between two options, and they may not have the need, desire, or patience to learn. It doesn’t help them complete their task, which is all they’re trying to do. Therefore, what I may think is clear and obvious in a user interface is anything but. The good news is that understanding your user is not a mystic art. You could just ask them.

If it’s possible to consult with your end-users, get their feedback early and often. Talk to tech wizards, grandmas, and anyone else that might use your product. Can you use the misunderstandings of a few early users to overcome the confusion, apprehension, and fear that will keep your most un-savvy users from loving your product?

Photo credit: John De Boer


Winter backpacking and product design

February 9, 2009
Sunset at Lost Lake

Photo Credit: Josh Keller

I went on a winter backpacking trip last weekend with an old friend. I’d been looking forward to some snow camping most of the year. It’s a great way to get away from the electronic ties I can’t seem to shed on my own. It’s also a great way to get away from the crowds, as not many other people are out camping when the weather is well below freezing, even in Colorado.

Backpacking in the winter involves a lot of extra gear, much of it heavy. So, I’d been training by running and lifting weights. I thought I’d be ready for the mountains, but I live at sea level, and I’d never camped above 4,000′ or so. I wasn’t prepared for the effect 10,400′ of elevation would have on my body even though I’d expected some weakness. I was moving at a very slow pace and fighting the symptoms of minor altitude sickness – headaches and slight nausea. There was just more factors to this adventure than I could consider without actually getting out there. With each trip, I learn something (many things) about staying comfortable in adverse conditions that no matter how long I plan, I just won’t anticipate them from home.

How many times have you (as a consumer) had trouble with a product and thought it seemed like the designers never used it themselves? They thought they had all the angles covered, but maybe they never took it “up to altitude” to really examine how it might behave under real-world conditions with real users. Sometimes it’s not easy to predict all conditions, especially when you don’t have the right perspective. As the design engineer, you understand what this button does and what that double-beep means, and you might even think it’s intuitive. However, you can’t be completely objective, but it’s not your fault. It IS your fault if you just stop there and don’t consider your options.

Give your prototype to user focus groups. Give it your coworkers. Give it to your family. Watch people interact with it and try to figure out how it works. If it’s an avalanche beacon, users will interact with it while wearing winter gloves and shaking from the fear that they have 15 minutes to find their friend or HE WILL DIE! Can they remember your 10 minute training session to follow the prescribed scanning procedure along the lines of magnetic flux? Can they hear the indicator beeps over the howling wind or their own heartbeat? Can they even get the device into Search Mode? A good designer must consider every possible use case. Don’t give up, yet. Even a highly specialized device can be intuitive when designed well.

I can understand if you don’t want to test drive your product on a winter camping trip, but you can find real users to provide perspective for almost any situation. (astronauts rarely design the spacecraft that they travel in, but they’re likely consulted on the design) No matter how much you ponder your users from behind a desk, there will always be something you forgot to consider. Get out there. Experience the world of your customers. You might just make a better product.



Can you feel me now?

February 2, 2009

Touch the red pillIn graduate school, I studied haptics. But what is “haptics”, and why does it matter?

Haptics is the study of the sense of touch. Unlike our other senses – sight, smell, hearing, and taste – we can feel the world throughout our entire body. It’s a very complex system. We use our sense of touch to perceive temperature, texture, vibration, density, and more. But what if you couldn’t touch anything? How would you be affected?

Haptics and technology
Not everyone is taking to the digital revolution. People like the feel of a newspaper or of gliding pen across paper and do not like to work on a computer. Now that digital technology has progressed and grown into more corners of our lives, people are less accepting of the fact that it lacks the sense of touch.

The rumble pack in game controllers was one of the early attempts at integrating a sense of touch into the gaming experience. When you blow something up or drive off the track, an eccentric mass rotates (similar to a cell phone) and causes vibration. The sense isn’t overwhelming, submersive, or even accurate, but you can perceive meaning from that vibration, and it’s better than nothing.

For a class project, I developed a magnetically actuated force-feedback mouse. I added an electro-magnet to a common computer mouse and placed it on a steel mouse pad. When energized, the frictional force increased from almost nothing to 2N (.44lbf). Quite substantial. I devised several experiments to showcase how the feedback could be utilized and to explore how haptic feedback might improve a user’s ability to click on-screen items faster and more accurately. I created virtual textures and a target that slowed the mouse for you when you entered it. You can download a PDF of my paper detailing my project and the experimental results.

Companies and universities are studying the integration of haptic feedback into products of far greater importance than my class project. Intuitive Surgical leads the commercial medical robotics field with the da Vinci minimally invasive surgical system. Force feedback allows surgeons to have the tactile sensation similar to a standard minimally invasive procedure, except with the additional benefits of an intuitive control system, virtual boundaries, and motion scaling. Sensable Technologies has developed a haptic Dental Lab to digitally scan and interact with the details of a patient’s mouth to fabricate better crowns or bridgework. Immersion Medical manufactures a suite of surgical simulation products to provide doctors with lifelike training and planning tools. And, of course, Dr. Allison Okamura’s Haptics Lab (my alma mater) and other university programs are also on the cutting edge of haptics research, exploring new ways to interact with the tools of the next century.

The future of digital
As our interaction with the world around us becomes more digitized, we can expect great innovation in the use of haptic feedback. Logitech has improved on the vibrating game controller with some exciting racing wheels, and even the Blackberry Storm offers feedback in its touchscreen. We enjoy and need the sense of touch. It’s a large part of how we interact with the world and it improves our experience.

Dont’ worry, you will feel a thing.

Photo credit: Rodolfo Clix