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Gresham College Lecture: User error – why it’s not your fault

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On 20 January 2014 I found the time to attend a public lecture in London that was all about usability and user error. The lecture was presented by Tony Mann, from the University of Greenwich.  The event was in a group of buildings just down the street from Chancery Lane underground station.  Since I was keen on this topic, I arrived twenty minutes early only to find that the Gresham College lecture theatre was already full to capacity.  User error (and interaction design), it seems, was apparently a very popular subject!

One phrase that I’ve made a note of is that ‘we blame ourselves if we cannot work something’, that we can quickly acquire feelings of embarrassment and incompetence if we do things wrong or make mistakes.  Tony gave us the example that we can become very confused by the simplest of devices, such as doors. 

Doors that are well designed should tell us how they should be used: we rely on visual cues to tell us whether they should be pushed or pulled (which is called affordance), and if we see a handle, then we regularly assume that the door should be pulled (with is our application of the design rule of ‘consistency’).  During this part of Tony’s talk, I could see him drawing heavily on Donald Norman’s book ‘The psychology of everyday things’ (Norman’s work is also featured within the Open University module, M364 Fundamentals of Interaction design).

I’ve made a note of Tony saying that when we interact with systems we take information from many different sources, not just the most obvious.  An interesting example that was given was the Kegworth air disaster (Wikipedia), which occurred since the pilot had turned off the wrong engine, after drawing from experience gained from different but similar aircraft.

Another really interesting example was the case where a pharmacy system was designed to in such a way that drug names could only be 24 characters in length and no more.  This created a situation where different drugs (which had very similar names, but had different effects) could be prescribed by a doctor in combinations which could potentially cause fatal harm to patients.  Both of these examples connect perfectly to the safety argument for good interaction design.  Another argument (that is used in M364) is an economic one, i.e. poor interaction design costs users and businesses both time and money.

Tony touched upon further issues that are also covered in M364.  He said, ‘we interact best [with a system] when we have a helpful mental model of a system’, and our mental models determine our behaviour, and humans (generally) have good intuition when interacting with physical objects (and it is hard to discard the mental models that we form).

Tony argued that it is the job of an interaction designer to help us to create a useful mental model of how a system works, and if there’s a conflict (between what a design tells us and how we think something may work), we can very easily get into trouble very quickly.  One way to help with is to make use of metaphor.  Tony Mann: ‘a strategy is to show something that we understand’, such as a desktop metaphor or a file metaphor on a computer.  I’ve also paraphrased the following interesting idea, that a ‘designer needs to both think like a computer and think like a user’.

One point was clearly emphasised: we can easily choose not to report mistakes.  This means that designers might not always receive important feedback from their users.  Users may to easily think, ‘that’s just a stupid error that I’ve made…’  Good designs, it was argued, prevents errors (which is another important point that is addressed in M364).  Tony also introduced the notion of resilience strategies; things that we do to help us to avoid making mistakes, such as hanging our scarf in a visible place so we remember to take it home after we’ve been somewhere.

The three concluding points were: we’re always too ready to blame ourselves when we make a blunder, that we don’t help designers as often as we ought to, and that good interaction design is difficult (because we need to consider different perspectives).

Tony’s talk touched upon wider (and related) subjects, such as the characteristics of human error and the ways that systems could be designed to minimise the risk of mistakes arising.  If I were to be very mean and offer a criticism, it would be that there was perhaps more of an opportunity to talk about the ‘human’ side of error – but here we begin to step into the domain of cognitive psychology (as well as engineering and mathematics).  This said, his talk was a useful and concise introduction to the importance of good interaction design.

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Animal Computer Interaction : Seminar

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 4 Nov 2018, 11:09

As a part of my job I regularly visit the Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  On the 5 June, I managed to find some time to attend a seminar by my colleague Clara Mancini.  Over the last couple of years, I had heard that Clara had been doing some research into the subject of Animal-Computer Interaction but we had never really had the opportunity to chat about her work.  Her seminar was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the various ideas and projects she was working on.

After a short introduction, Clara mentioned a number of topics from human-computer interaction (or 'interaction design').  These included topics such as the use of ambient technology.  This could include the use of smart sensors that can be embedded into the fabric of buildings, for example, so their environmental conditions and properties can dynamically change. Other topics include the use of augmented reality.  This is where additional information is presented on top of a 'real' scene.  You might say that Google Glass is one product that can make good use of augmented reality.

Clara also spoke of the interaction design process (or cycle), where there is a loop of requirements gathering, designing and prototyping, followed by evaluation.  A key part of the process is that users are always involved.  ACI is very similar to HCI.  The biggest difference is the users.

History and context

It goes without saying that technology is being used and continues to be used to understand our natural world.  One area which is particularly interesting is that of conservation research, i.e. understanding how animals behave in their natural environment.  One approach to develop an understanding is to 'tag' animals with tracking devices.  This, of course, raises some fundamental challenges.  If a device is too obtrusive, it might disrupt how an animal interacts within its natural environment.

Another example of the application of technology is the use of computer driven lexigraphic applications (or tools) with great apes.  The aim of such research is to understand the ways that primates may understand language.  In conducting such research, we might then be able to gain an insight into how our own language has evolved or developed.

Products and systems could be designed that could potentially increase the quality of life for an animal.  Clara mentioned the development of automated milking machines.  Rather than herding cows to a single milking facility at a particular time, cows might instead go to robotic milking machines at times when it suits them.  An interesting effect of this is that such developments have the potential to upset the complex social hierarchies of herds.  Technology has consequences.

One important aspect of HCI or interaction design is the notion of user experience.  Usability is whether a product allows users to achieve their fundamental goals.  User experience, on the other hand, is about how people feel about a product or a design.  A number of different usability experience goals have emerged from HCI, such as whether a design is considered to be emotionally fulfilling or satisfying.  Interaction designers are able to directly ask users their opinions about a particular design.  When it comes to designing systems and devices for animals, asking opinions isn't an option.  Clara also made the point that in some cases, it's difficult for us humans to give an opinion.  In some senses by considering ACI, we force ourselves to take a careful look at our own view of interaction design.

Aims of ACI

Clara presented three objectives of ACI.   Firstly, ACI is about understanding the interaction and the relationship between animals and technology.  The second is that ACI is about designing computer technology to give animals a better life, to support them in their tasks and to facilitate or foster intra and inter species relationships.  The third is to inform development of a user-centred approach that can be used to best design technology intended for animals. 

Clara made the very clear point that ACI is not about conducting experiments with animals.  One important aspect of HCI is that researchers need to clearly consider the issues of ethics.  Participants in HCI research are required to give informed consent.  When it comes to ACI, gaining consent is not possible.  Instead, there is an understanding that the interests of participants should take precedence over the interests of science and society.

Projects

Clara described a system called Retriva (company website), where dogs can be tagged with collars which have a GPS tracking device.  Essentially, such a product allows a solution to the simple question of: 'if only I could find where my dog was using my iPhone'.  Interestingly, such a device has the potential to change the relational dynamics between dog owner and dog.  Clara gave an example where an owner might continually call the name of the dog whilst out walking.  The dog would then use the voice to locate where the owner was.  If a tracker device is used on a dog, an owner might be tempted less to call out (since he or she can see where the dog is on their tracking app).  Instead of the owner looking for the dog, the dog looks for the owner (since the dog is less reliant on hearing the owner's voice).

Dogs are, of course, used in extreme situations, such as searching for survivors following a natural disaster.  Technology might be used to monitor vital signs of a dog that enters into potentially dangerous areas.  Different parameters might be able to give handlers an indication of how stressed it might be.

As well as humanitarian uses, dogs can be used in medicine as 'medical detection dogs'.  I understand that some dogs can be trained to detect the presence of certain types of cancers.  From Clara's presentation I understand that the fundamental challenges include training dogs and attempting to understand the responses of dogs after samples have been given to them (since there is a risk of humans not understanding what the dog is communicating when their behavioural response to a sample is not as expected).

One project that was interesting is the possible ways in which technology might be used to potentially improve welfare.  One project, funded by the Dogs Trust, will investigate the use of ambient computing and interactive design to improve the welfare of kennelled dogs.  Some ideas might include the ways in which the animals might be able to control aspects of their own environment.  A more contented dog may give way to a more positive rehoming outcome.

Final points

Clara presents a question, which is, 'why should we care about all this stuff?'  Studying ACI has the potential to act as a mirror to our own HCI challenges.  It allows us to think outside of the human box and potentially consider different ways of thinking about (and solving) problems. 

A second reason connects back to an earlier example and relates to questions of sustainability.  Food production has significant costs in terms of energy, pollution and welfare.  By considering and applying technology, there is an opportunity to potentially reconceptualise and rethink aspects of agricultural systems.  A further reason relates to understanding about to go about making environments more accessible for people who share their lives with companion animals, i.e. dogs who may offer help with some everyday activities.

What I liked about Clara's seminar was its breadth and pace.  She delved into some recent history, connected with contemporary interaction design practice and then broadened the subject outwards to areas such as increasing prominence (welfare) and importance (sustainability).  There was a good mix of the practical (the challenges of creating devices that will not substantially affect how an animal interacts within their environment) and the philosophical.  The most important 'take away' point for me was that there is a potential to learn more by looking at things in a slightly different way. 

It was also interesting to learn about collaborations with people working in different universities and disciplines.  This, to me, underlined that the boundaries of what is considered to be 'computing' is continually changing as we understand the different ways in which technology can be used.

Acknowledgements:  Many thanks to Clara for commenting on an earlier part of this blog.  More information about Clara's work on Animal -Computer Interaction can be seen by viewing an Open University video clip (YouTube).

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ESRC seminar: inclusion, usability and difference

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On 22 April 2013 I managed to find a bit of time to attend a seminar that touched upon some of the themes that I recently blogged about, namely, the way in which technology can be made available (and can be used to help) different groups of users. 

During the day there were a total of five presentations, each of which touched upon many of the different themes that continue to be a strong interest: accessibility, usability, and the way in which technology can potentially help people.  Like so many of these blogs, I'm going to do a bit of a write-up of each presentation, and then conclude with a set of thoughts and points which emerged from the closing discussion.

Older people and on-line social interactions

The first talk of the day was by Shailey Minocha who talked about a project called OCQL (project website) that has been exploring how technology may be able to be used to help and support older people.  If you're interested, I've written a brief blog summary of an earlier workshop that Shailey and her colleagues ran.

Some of the issues that the project aims to explore are the different motivations for being on-line, understanding various advantages and disadvantages and corresponding potential risks and obstacles. Another aspect of the project was to explore whether we might be able to offer advice to designers to allow them to create more usable systems.

Shailey touched upon challenges and dilemmas that users may face.  One challenge is how we might help to create formal and informal support networks to enable users to not only get online in the first place, but also help users to develop their technology skills.  One comment that I noted was that 'buying a [internet] connected computer is easy, it's continuing to use it that is difficult'.

Shailey gave us a flavour of some preliminary findings.  A simple motivation for getting connected is a desire to keep in touch with people, which is connected with the advantage that certain aspects of technology has a potential to reduce social isolation.  Some of the obstacles included the need to gain technical support and the challenges that lie with understanding certain concepts and metaphors that are a necessary part of being on-line.  The perceived risks include fears about a loss of privacy, concerns about knowing who or which organisations or products to trust.  The perceived disadvantages include the fear that technology might take over the lives of the user and this might take the user away from other events and activities that were important.

I remember a really interesting anecdote of a user who started to use an iPad.  The device was used so much (to keep in contact with distant friends and family), that this took away from time socialising with other people who lived nearby.

Shailey also left us some recommendations.  Training, it was suggested, should be personalised to the needs of individuals.  One-off training sessions are not sufficient.  Instead, training should take place over a longer period of time. 

For those who are interested, here are two links to some related resources.  The first is a link to a paper entitled, Conducting empirical research with older people (ORO repository), to be presented at a human-computer interaction (HCI) conference.  The second is a set of web resources (Delicious) that have been acquired during the project.

Towards the end of the presentation I noted two really interesting questions.  The first was, 'to what extent is the familiarity of technology a temporary problem?', and the second question (which is related to the first) is: 'putting age as an issue to one side, how can we all prepare ourselves to become familiar with and work with the next big technological innovation that may be on the horizon?'

The haptic bracelets

Simon Holland, from the department of Computing and Communication introduced us to devices known as the Haptic Bracelet (Music Computer Laboratory).  In essence, a haptic bracelet is a wearable device that you can put on your wrist or ankle.  The word haptic, of course, relates to your sense of touch.  The devices can be controlled so that they can vibrate at different frequencies or produce rhythms.  They also contain accelerometers which can be used to detect movement and gestures. 

My first question was, 'okay, so all this stuff is pretty cool but what on earth can it be used for?'  Simon clearly had anticipated this thought and provided some very compelling answers.  Fundamentally, it can be used with the teaching of music, specifically with the teaching of rhythm, or drumming.  Drum kits have pedals; drummers use both their hands and their feet.  Simon told us that he imagined a device that was akin to an iPod: a form of music player that could help musicians to more directly (and immediately) learn and feel rhythms.  When I started to think about this, I really wanted one - I could imagine that a haptic iPod could add a whole new dimension to the music which I listen to as a travel across London on the tube.

Its one thing listening to a piece of music through headphones, it's something totally different if you're feeling beats and vibrations through the same limbs that could be creating exactly the same rhythm if you were sitting at a drum kit.  I've noted the following quote that pretty much sums it up:  'at best, it goes through your two ears... [but] how do you know what limb is doing what?!'  All this can be linked to a music education approach called Dalcroze Eurhythmics (wikipedia), which was something totally new to me.  Something else that I hadn't heard of before is sensorimotor contingency theory (which I don't know anything about, but whatever it is, it sounds very cool!)

Early on in his talk, Simon suggested that these devices have the potential to be an assistive technology.  One area in which these devices might be useful is with gait rehabilitation, i.e. by providing additional feedback to people who are trying to re-learn how to walk following a brain injury or stroke.  Apparently a metronome is used to help people to move in time with a rhythm, which is a useful technique to regain (and guide) rhythmic motor control.  One of the advantages of using haptic bracelets is that the responses or feedback they could provide could be more dynamic.  Plus, due to the presence of an accelerometer, different feedback might be presented in real-time - but this is mostly conjecture on my part; this is something that is a part of on-going research.

During the final part of Simon's slot, we were given an opportunity to play with some of the bracelets.  Pairs were configured in such a way that we were able to 'send' real-time rhythms wirelessly to another user.  When we 'tapped' on a table, the same 'tap' was picked up by someone else who was wearing another bracelet.

We were introduced to other (potential) uses.  These included sport, gaming, and helping with group synchronisation (or learning) in dance.  Fascinating stuff!

Digital inclusion in the era of the smartphone

Becky Faith is a doctoral student at the Open University who spoke about some of her research interests, and it was all pretty interesting stuff.  One of her areas of interest is how technology (particularly the smartphone) can be used as a means of support for vulnerable people (and how it might be used to gain support from others). 

During Becky's talk I was introduced to a range of new terms, phrases and frameworks that I hadn't heard of before, such as capability theory (which might relate to what rights people may have but are not aware of) and technofeminist theory.   I also noted questions that related to the roles of the private sector versus the state in facilitating access to technology.  This reminded me of one of the drivers for good interaction design and usability: that it can lead to higher levels of productivity, more effective sales and lower costs.  Since goods and services are now on-line, facilitating digital inclusion also, fundamentally, means good business sense.

Becky's session was also very interactive.  We were given a challenge: we had to find out a very specific piece of information using our smartphone (if we had one).  This was to find the name of our MEP.  We were also asked how we might feel if this was our only device.  I, for one, wouldn't be very happy.  I (personally) feel more comfortable with a keyboard that moves than one that is only visible on a screen.

The activity gave way to a debate.  Some users will be faced with fundamental access challenges.  These could be thought of in in terms of the availability of devices or availability of signal coverage.  Ultimately, there is the necessity of understanding the needs of the users, their situations and the kinds of devices and equipment they may have access to.  A thought provoking session.

Careware

Andrew Stuart from Careware (company website) started his presentation by describing a question that he had asked himself, or he had been asked by someone else (I didn't note down the exact wording!).  The question was, 'why can't I find my dog using my iPhone?'.  Dogs go missing all the time.  The company that Andrew established created a GPS dog collar, which allowed dogs to be found using iPhones.  A great idea!

Andrew's company later expanded to create devices, such as a tracking belt, which could be used with vulnerable people.  Tracking dogs is one thing, but tracking people is a whole other issue.  The idea of people wearing tracking devices obviously raises serious ethical issues, but the necessity for privacy needs to be balanced against the desire to ensure that vulnerable people (who are sometimes family members) are cared for and looked after.  It is argued that personal tracking devices can help some people to maintain their independence whilst allowing family members not only peace of mind but also open up new ways to offer personal support.  Users of a personal tracker can, for instance, press a button to alert other people of difficulties or problems.  A GPS belt (instead of a collar) is a device that is very different from a mobile phone (which, arguably, with its in built GPS facilities, can almost do a very similar task).

Andrew's presentation touched on a number of different issues, i.e. centralised telemedicine through call centres versus the use of individual devices for families, and the roles that local authorities may be able to play.  There were also hints of future developments, such as the use of accelerometers to potentially detect falls.

Open University modules such as Fundamentals of Interaction Design touch upon subjects such as wearable computing or wearable interfaces.  It was interesting to see that two presentations demonstrated two very different types of wearable devices - and both presentations were about how they can be used to help people, but in very different ways.

Exploring new technologies through playful peer-to-peer engagement in informal learning

The final presentation of the day was by Josie Tetley, from the Health and Social Care faculty.  Josie spoke of an EU funded project called Opt-In which 'aims to explore if and how new technologies can improve the quality of life of older people' and investigates 'whether existing pedagogic approaches are the best way of enabling older people to learn new technologies'.

Getting people to play with technology was one of the topics that were mentioned, both in a research lab, but also as a part of informal social settings.  Josie also spoke about the different research methods that were used, such as questionnaires, diaries and semi-structured interviews.  One point that I've noted include that some technologies can lead to obvious instances of deskilling, such as overreliance and use of satellite navigation systems.   

Some preliminary findings include that some users are interested in certain applications, notably video telephony applications such as Skype or FaceTime (wikipedia).  Technology, it was also said, can be readily accepted.  I also noted a really good phrase, which is that good technology transcends all age groups.

Summary

All in all, a very interesting event.  I have to say that I wasn't quite sure what I was letting myself in for.  I didn't really know too much about what was on the agenda before the morning of the seminar.  I was more guided by the words of the title that sparked an interest.

The most significant point that I took away from the day was that my conception of what an assistive technology was had been fundamentally broadened.  Another take away point related to the importance of considering the types of learning that are appropriate to different user groups. 

It was also great fun to hear about different research projects and gain an awareness of new ideas and frameworks.  Learning about subjects that are slightly outside our own discipline has the potential to be both rewarding and refreshing.

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Inclusive Digital Economy Network event

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 9 Mar 2009, 09:29

I recently attended an event that was hosted by the Inclusive Digital Economy Network.  The network, led by the University of Dundee, comprises of a variety of groups who wish to collectively ensure that people are able to take advantage of digital technologies.

The event was led by Prof Alan Newell from Dundee.  Alan gracefully introduced a number of keynote speakers; the vice-chancellor from City University, the dean of Arts and Social Sciences and representatives from the government and the funding body: the EPSRC.

Drama

One really interesting part of the day was the use of 'theatre' to clearly illustrate the difficulties that some people can have when using information technology.  I had heard about the use of drama when I have spoken to people from Dundee before but this was the first time I was able to witness it.  In fact, I soon found out that I was going to witness a film premiere!

After the final credits had appeared, I was surprised to discover that two of the actors who played central roles in the film were in the audience.  The film was not the end of the ‘theatre’ event, it was the beginning.  The actors carried out an improvisation (using questions from the audience) that was based upon the roles we had been introduce to through the film.

The notion of drama and computing initially seemed to me to be a challenging combination, but any scepticism that had very quickly dissipated once the connections between the two areas became plainly apparently.  Drama and theatre relies on characters.  Computer systems and technologies are ultimately used by people.  The frustrations that people encounter when they are using computer systems manifest themselves in personal (and collective) dramas that might be as small as uttering the occasional expletive when your machine doesn't do what it supposed to do, to calling up a call centre to harass an equally confused call centre operative.

The lessons of the 'computing' or 'user' theatre were clear to see: the users should be placed centre stage when we think about the design of information systems.  They may understand things in ways that designers of systems may not have imagined.  A design metaphor that might make complete sense to an architect may seem to be completely nonsensical to an end user who has a totally different outlook and background.  Interaction design tools such as creating end user personas are powerful tools that can expose differences and help to create more usable systems.

Debates

I remember a couple of important (and interesting) themes from the day.  One theme (that was apparent to me) was occasional debate about the necessity to ensure that users are involved with the design of systems from the outset to ensure that any resulting products and systems are inclusive (user led design).  This connected to a call to 'keep the geeks from designing things'.  In my view, users must be involved with the creation of interactive systems, but the 'geeks' must be included too.  The reasons for this being that the geeks may imagine functionality that the users might not be aware exits.  This argument underlines the interdisciplinary nature of interaction design (wikipedia).

Much of the focus of the day was about how technology can support elderly people; how to create technologies and pedagogies that can promote digital inclusion.  Towards the end of the day there was a panel discussion from representatives from Help the Aged, a UK government organisation called the Technology Strategy Board, the BBC, OFCOM and the University of York.

Another them that I remember relates to the cost of both computing and assistive technologies.  There was some discussion about the possibility of integrating internet access within set top boxes (and a couple of comments relating to the Digital Britain report that was recently published by the UK government).  There was also some discussion about the importance of universal design (wikipedia) and tensions with personalised design (which connects to some of the themes underpinning the EU4ALL project).

Another recollection from the event was that some presenters stated that although there is much excellent work happening within the academic community (and within other organisations) some of the lessons learnt from research are often not taken forward into policy or practice.  This said, it may be necessary to take the recommendations from a number of different research projects to obtain a rich and complete understanding of a field before fully understanding how policy might be positively influenced.  The challenge is not only combining and understanding the results from different projects, but communicating the results.

Summary

Projects such as the Inclusive Digital Economy Network, from my outsiders perspective, attempt to bridge the gaps between different stakeholders and facilitate a free exchange of ideas and experiences that may point towards areas of investigation that can allow us learn more how digital technologies can make a difference to us all.

Acknowledgements: many thanks are extended to the organisers of the event – an interesting day!

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