Sunday, February 24, 2008

Response 2: Legibility and Abstraction

Interaction Space Design

1. Describe one example of legibility in the physical world

My alarm clock time setting controls are perhaps not the most legible example of their species. There is no way to manual or quick/easy switch between AM and PM. Only a mysterious, tiny dot on the display distinguishes one from the other, and I have found that the dot, though it means PM on my alarm clock, usually means AM on models with a similar design. Another mysterious dot designates that the alarm has been activated. Because I usually set the alarm at night, I have to remember that two dots means that the alarm has been set. However, if I set the alarm after midnight, which is quite frequently, I should expect only one dot.

The function of the "snooze bar" is more intuitive. Its size and shape make it read as "slappable." After a certain number of slaps, however, it permanently turns off the alarm. After at least five years with the same clock, I am not yet sure how many slaps that is.

When it misfires, as Norman might have predicted, I blame myself. My schema of "alarm clock" associates it it with productivity, responsibility, and simplicity, which makes it hard to blame poor design for the malfunction. If asked, though, I am unlikely to admit that I secretly think that poor interaction with my alarm clock is my fault. Like Norman's "Tom," I am likely to describe the ways in which the design of the clock made my unfortunate inputs inevitable.

I certainly blame others when they complain of alarm clock malfunction, as Norman might also have predicted. I been surprised enough times by a mis-set alarm, I have formed a faulty mental model that naively ascribes some kind of mysticism--divination of mysterious dots-- to correct execution. This causes anxiety. Even when I think I have set it correctly, I sometimes wake up throughout the night with the urge to rechecking it again and again. My boyfriend, perhaps also feeling that use of my alarm clock requires some sort of talent, often refuses to set it.

The sound of the alarm on my alarm clock is highly legible. A few years ago, I had a friend whose car door, when left ajar, played the same melody as my alarm clock (interesting how I perceive the door as "playing the melody"), and every time I heard it, I shuddered. The sound of the alarm melody is so closely aligned with successful implementation of the "wake up" goal that it is as unbearable in any other context as it is in the original. Indeed, unbearability, at least in that it motivates me to move from a sleeping state to a waking ones, is essential to my mental model of how an alarm clock works.

2. Design a new conversational interface

I designed Study Date, a conversational interface for two people in an intimate relationship who are separated by distance. All of last semester, my boyfriend and I were in a long-distance relationship. To compensate for our physical distance, we felt the need to communicated constantly. Sometimes, though, it was fatiguing and overly time-consuming to talk, text, or IM so much. I wished for a way to feel togetherness without the need for constant talk. When when we lived together, we'd often hang out in the same room, separately reading or using a computer or watching TV, only sometimes looking up to share a thought. I approached this assignment with this idea-- is it possible to create a conversational interface that metaphorically feels like just being there while taking advantage of the technological capacities that move us, as Hollan and Stornetta put it, beyond being there?

Study Date is a private, intimate space. It connects the desktop and activity of two people and uses the graphical presence inspired Chat Circles to remind each user of the presence of the other even when they are not overtly conversing. It also provides a way to discretely "get up" from the shared space to look at something a user would not want to share.

The computer desktop, and particularly, the internet browser, is a zone of private activity. In most cases, we would feel awkward if our personal recreational internet activity were shared on a public screen. Even if an audience sees our desktop for a moment when plug in to make a presentation, we feel exposed. Being able to see what another person is doing, watch their cursor move around, is an intense expression of trust and intimacy. It also allows users to share and point out aspects of what they're individually engaged in, whether a YouTube video or a passage from required reading.

StudyDate takes advantage of some of the features of the Chat Circles series including circles to graphically represent users. Although this was initially designed, at least in part, to transform "lurkers" in "audience," it functions perfectly in StudyDate, which depends on the metaphorically physical presence of others. As in Chat Circles, the circles enlarge when a user types a message, and then shrink in size over time, mostly as an alert the other user who may be engrossed in the primary task. It also uses the history time-line function to review conversations.

Most of the time, the user sees predominately their own desktop, large enough to read and work in with ease. The partner's desktop is visible, but is small and ghosted. The user can see their partner's cursor moving around, and their screen changing, but it is not legible enough to be distracting. When user moves their circle over to their partner's zone, the partner's screen becomes large and clear, and they can see what they are looking at but can't control or interact. This may be used to share something, or just when someone feels like taking a break. The user can see the circle enter into their zone.

If a user needs to hide their desktop from their partner so that they can work on confidential work documents, for example, they can "get up" from the intimate space by moving their circle into the top quadrant of the screen. The experience remains somewhat intimate, however, as the users can still communicate and remain "present." It would be interesting to test this StudyDate to see how users react when the other "gets up."

In StudyDate, the circles react when they bump into each other. Whether the act is a bump, a nudge, or a nuzzle is up for contextual interpretation. My guess is that in this case, it is unlikely to be considered an aggressive act.

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