Friday, September 5, 2008

Arranging for Serenity

This post isn't directly related to assigned reading.

This week, I read an article in the Scientific American Mind section of the website titled "Arranging for Serenity: How Physical Space and Emotion Intersect" (subtitle: "The concept of "psychological distance" may help explain the art of feng shui") by Wray Herbert.

Article is here:

It intersected with some of our recent discussion, with some of the other ideas I encountered in other classes or at the recent colloquium, and with some ideas we'll be discussing in the future to do with GUI and related concepts in HCI.

Essentially, it deals with the question of whether "an ordered, open space affects people’s emotions differently than a tighter, more closed-in environment does. Put another way, do we automatically embody and “feel” things such as crowding or spaciousness, clutter or order?"

To find out, Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh, Yale psychologists, ran a series of very interesting experiments -- details in the article. Their results suggest that our brains may have a "deep-wired connec­tion between distance and safety, a habit of mind that probably evolved to help our hominid forebears survive in precarious conditions." Feeling crowded promotes "a more pinched perception of the world", prompting averse reactions to stimuli and discomfort. Feeling free -- uncrowded, "primed for spaciousness" -- has the opposite result. These two plan to continue to study "this link between psychological distance and real peril."

It isn't as simple as crowded = bad. In one experiment, participants primed for closeness were more likely to correctly estimate the calories in junk food they were offered (they guessed higher) than those primed for spaciousness. Sometimes we may want to be more guarded, more careful, more aware of potential danger, of the implications of our actions.

Herbert 's treatment of the implications refers to real space (I've heard it called meatspace elsewhere), suggesting (in the photo caption and subtitle) "the layout of your living space could cause you psychological stress, or put you at ease", but I couldn't help by think about the implications for GUI design and also Jay's colloquy, in which he referred to presence, mood, and technology.

A "crowded" interface might be one with a lot of features at top level -- something that might seem like a great idea when compared to burying things in layers and layers of menus (Word 2007, anyone?). If, though, such an interface creates a sense of crowding, of limited psychological distance, in the user, it will influence his or her comfort and reactions, potentially in ways that undermine the designer's goals (presumably including ease). If we put the world at her fingertips but it makes her more likely to feel uneasy and to respond aversely to whatever comes next, is that okay?

On the other hand, if we create an interface that promotes a sense of openness and freedom (if that's possible -- maybe a device with just a couple of functions, or an interface that is really, really simple to use), there are also some possible negatives. Comfortable people might share private information more carelessly, underestimate risk, or simply relax and get nothing done (great for a vacation machine, not so good for a work-related device).

The notion of psychological distance might relate to the concept of 'break down' as well ... if many tools 'break down' at once and become visible, the user may experience a sense of crowding precisely at the time we want them to relax. When I'm offering technical support, there's usually a period of time spent calming the person down, trying to take some of the anxiety out of the situation, so that they can become better observers of what's actually before them, capable of relaying it to me in sufficient detail, thus making it (ever so slightly) more likely I'll actually be able to suggest solutions.

An interface so uncrowded that what you need to do next is not obvious may bring on tears of frustration as well. There must, I guess, be a happy medium.

Thanks for reading! All right, back to the assigned stuff.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Short Response Essay

In this response essay, I wanted to touch base and reflect on the topic of Hermeneutics. After reading Chapter 3 from Winograd & Flores ‘Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design’. They relate Hermeneutics to mean interpretation. How do we find meaning in text? When we look to design coaching systems, are we deciding on this as being the final word for the user to ‘get help’ or create systems to be so easy to use, we are miracle workers? What will give us the end all say in how to design a system? I know and believe user testing will be the end all and give the designers the meaning that needs to be displayed. We can only get Hermeneutics if we ask people their perspectives and not be closed to their usability needs.

I found it interesting as they discuss the term ‘mental representation’ and talk about the hammer. Is it suggested that since we may be able to hammer then what we know about the actual hammer may not come into play. Does this mean that if I can drive a car, then I may not need to know about the general up keep of it? How far and how in depth does the term mental representation go? I don’t really understand why terms like ‘Dasein’ is used, to say, being in the world. I would need about a month to understand what Heidegger is trying to relate to me. Thrown-ness? I’d say the someday I will be able to read terms like this and know what the author is trying to help me understand off the top of my head, today however, it’s a stretch.

When they put the term thrown-ness into terms of leading a group meeting, I would not necessarily say the term to use is thrown-ness. I would call it leadership. Chapter three gave three illustrations of where we are ‘thrown into action’. One by having no say but to act to have the meeting goes in the direction you want it to. The second by having regret at not acting, to say, ‘I should have done this or done that. This point is being thrown into dealing on what others give us to deal with. Thirdly, we can ‘go with the flow’ and keep the meeting moving along, dealing with whatever happens to come our way. When we are in such situations, we often learn how to react to being thrown into situations. I would not have deemed my position as being ‘thrown-ness however.

We go further into the article to learn that when our system and daily regime has a glitch in it, it is called ‘breaking down’. Our ‘present-at-hand’ day, which to me means –our stuff, our bodies, and anything we touch or that is an extension from that. I suppose this can mean our cell phone, ipods, maybe even our clothing. I am thinking that maybe we can extend this to our relationships and work?

When we read over Chapter 12 we will discover the authors take a new twist in thinking. To me, they are almost opposite from the earlier writing. We are now talking about using a Ontologically type of design. I relate this thinking as – what I have learned in the past will take me toward the future; we already use this in everyday life right? You know if you press this particular button, your laptop will boot up, or if you go down the one-way street the wrong way, you may indeed get a ticket from the police. We have a term for this now. I can’t help but wonder, if I am going to design a great user interface or coaching system, I will need some sort of experience to be able to do this. If I don’t have the experience to design a new tool to instruct teachers to use a new educational tool, then it would be common sense for me to get the influence from some teachers, add a few people to the team, and try to see what the classroom may be like. An impressive amount of books, journals and discussions have been and are continuously being generated on topics like this. I will say that this may not be a bad thing, as we do learn on continuous basis. Let us say that new products need new instructions and for the market’s sake, we always make new products. Is this to say though, that different civilizations don’t think like we do? Does the remote tribe in some distant country learn the same way? If they put their hand in fire once, do they keep doing it? I think as humans, we have that innate sense not to keep harming ourselves.

I appreciate the example the authors created about the dress shop owners and their need for some quality control system. This puts the business owner in touch with his business, and also with his customers. Again, this case may use a pre-designed system, or have one tailored to their shop, if you will. I don’t think that any generic site can be used for this, as it is more of a specialty. We know or understand that accountants will use a spread- sheet, but will we put in measurements and get the same response, will it give us a dress size? There are so many different websites offered today. Consider the electric/gas companies. They have customers and users of all ages. Does Grandma Jean know how to use the website to pay her bill online if she is suddenly unable to go get stamps for mail? Would she know how to or even have a computer? This may be an area of design breakdown. Would she know to call the electric company and make arrangements? The authors used the term, Systematic domain, and it is my understanding that this means a common sense method of design used. The electric company would, hopefully even have this systematic method on their phone system. Some companies really need to do an overhaul on their phone tree systems. Usability and user-interface design then may not be restricted then to the computer use and coaching systems. I think it is great though that we do have so many instructional websites. We can learn to make balloon animals, repair cars, even talk around the world from our computers, with relative ease and use.

This brings us to the term ‘structured dynamic communication medium’, which is different than our past with print and telephone use. We had in the past used print advertising to get our products out there for sale. Now we can blast out a computer ad across the Internet with in minutes. The past method of calling on customers door to door or on the phone is ‘old school’ in many aspects. In today’s society, many people are fearful of having people come to their door, even with an appointment made ahead of time. When I think of the old soda adds, I think of the old Norman Rockwell paintings. We have come so far in advertising that we have television ads crossing over into the Internet contests and magazine ads to gather codes and get ‘stuff’ from the companies. This reminds me of the old Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrappers, that if you save over a thousand wrappers, you get some t-shirt from the company if you sent them all in. In essence we have been soliciting society to always purchase products and prove their loyalty by offering free gadgets.

To me, some of the required reading for the first assignment was rather difficult to read, while some was just a pleasure. Difficult for me as I was always thinking, why didn’t they just say this or why is it so wordy? If we have something to write or say, can we do it in simpler, less complicated way? I look forward to our discussion on Tuesday night.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Common Ground: Defining HCI

Jason Grigely

Information as Thing
The reading of “Information as Thing” is an examination into what is information, and how we think of it, and interact with it. As we can see, information is capable of existing in three states, information-as-process, information-as-knowledge, and information-as-thing. When contemplating each of their meaning, and where they belong, it seems to me, that there, in fact, an order of the three that generally follows: information-as-process, information-as-knowledge, information-as-process, and then finally information-as-thing.

In order for one to possess knowledge, in most cases there must be an inciting event, during which knowledge is gained, and the individual becomes informed (assuming the knowledge is not “a priori” and is gained empirically). Following the time by which the knowledge is acquired, and exists as information-as-knowledge, the persons whom experienced the inciting event and were capable of extracting respective meaning from the event possess it. Once the information is possessed in such a manner it becomes an idea, a thought, which may in turn lead to more knowledge, or the desire to share that knowledge with others. This is, once again, where the information becomes an information-as-process. In order to share their knowledge, the one possessing it must initiate another event intended to share said knowledge. One possibility for this is to transfer their information-as-knowledge to information-as-thing.

So what is information-as-thing? Well as we can see, it is much more than just an idea, or knowledge. It can be an event, an object, but really, I feel that it is more a part of information-as-process more so than I believe it is its own entity. An event, document, data, object, these are merely the means through which knowledge is shared, through either a physical, visual, or audible representation. Information-as-thing is not so much a state of information, but a conduit for information-as-process and information-as-knowledge, and the interchange between the two.

More interesting however, is the idea of information itself. The only state of information, as described in the reading, which can exist without the others, is information-as-process. An individual can be surrounded by objects and interactions, which have the potential to give them limitless knowledge about them and their surroundings. However, if that the observation is not made, how can it become their information-as-knowledge? Knowledge, is in fact, all around us, constantly waiting to be explored and understood. Immanuel Kant, a famous philosopher of the late 1700’s once said, "That all our knowledge begins with experience, there can be no doubt... But... it by no means follows that all arises out of experience." This, I believe assists in illustrating my point on knowledge, gained through experience. Yes, knowledge is gained through experience, but that does not mean that simply experiencing an event, do you gain knowledge of its meaning.

A History of HCI
Although the field of HCI feels at times like it is still its infancy, it in fact, directly followed our expanding use of electronic and computing devices. As one might expect, for many years, form followed function, as many times ease of use was sacrificed in order to first improve functionality. However, we can see, in examples such as vacuum tubes, which were easier to replace, thereby adding to functionality and ease of use. What we tend to see as HCI today, compared to its early beginnings makes me think of one thing: time is relative.

The expansion of the computing world is a truly remarkable thing. Moore’s law provides us with an explanation of exponential growth in technology. As amazing as this is, the technology is only as good as those who can make full use of its potential. This, in my opinion, is what HCI is all about. Facilitating the interaction between humans and computers, to allow both to operate at maximum efficiency. Thanks to genius research centers such as Xerox PARC, which is likely responsible for our modern dependence on GUI systems, the field of HCI has developed from improving systems in a manner such as where certain knobs and dials are placed, to the graphical styling and arrangement of visual objects on the system with which the user is interacting.

As I mentioned earlier, the study of HCI has reminded me of how time is relative. Its rapid evolution in comparison to other industries is truly remarkable. We are constantly learning new things and inventing new ways to interact with technology on a daily basis. What we know today is less than what we’ll know tomorrow, and certainly less than what we’ll know this time next year.

Understanding and Being
Our ability to learn and process knowledge is a subjective process, as hard as we might try to obtain objectivity. Is true objectivity even possible? Every time we retell an event, or teach others, or even just talk to others, it is always done so from our own perspective, even when we claim it to be objective. Does history really exist? Perhaps it does as we see it, but what has occurred can never again be observed in most cases, which as a result, leads to subjective reports and retellings. So is being objective when describing or explaining objects and events possible?

I found pages 34-36 of particular interest. Reflecting on similarly stated events that have occurred within my own life, and how so many times, these statements hold truth. Reading about them was an enlightening experience, and a chance to think about how these things have impacted others and myself in the past, I believe gave me a new personal perspective on just how difficult thinking on your feet can be in such situations.

Using Computers: A Direction for Design
One initial thought. I found it humorous that we read one of the first chapters of this book, and then the last. Moving on...
“Easy to learn”, “user friendly”, and “self-explaining”; honestly these terms genuinely upset me. As the chapter indicates, these terms are heavily overused. Often times, the products they are describing, are not “easy to learn”, “user friendly”, or “self-explaining”. In my personal experience, one of the following tends to happen. An advanced user such as myself is frustrated with the dumbed-down simplicity of the process involved with said product. On the other hand, take your average computer user, who often times, is still confused by this “easy to learn”, “user friendly”, and “self-explaining” product. In both cases, the experience leaves the user frustrated, and wanting to throw their computer out of a window.

As designers that assist in the interaction of users and technology, it is our duty to attempt to make those interactions as painless as possible. As mentioned in the reading, this means doing our best, to allow the functionality of the technology, to become secondary to the task it performs. The task that it is assisting in accomplishing should be the primary focus of the user, and as such, the experience the user has with technology, should take as little away from that focus as possible.

However, technology “solutions”, are not always such. Long-term, technology in many cases will assist in the increase of efficiency. However, as the result of interacting with new technology, there will always be a time in which there is some adjustment to this new “solution”, before its user can operate it to its full potential. Our job is to devise a design in an attempt to minimize such time.