Familiarity is possibly the best tool we have in creating good human interfaces for AV systems. Despite the wide use of the word “intuitive,” people have always had to learn some basics before they can make their technology do what they want. As technology interface designers (as most of us are in some way), one of the most important things we can do is understand what people already know in order to leverage what Donald Norman calls in his book, The Design of Everyday Things, “knowledge in the world.” In other words, we should design interfaces to work like other familiar interfaces.
A challenge for designers is that what people know and are familiar with is constantly changing and being amended. Gaming interfaces and iPads create new types of “technoliteracies,” some of which make obsolete what we had learned in the past. For example, the function key based commands of WordPerfect evolved into the pull-down menus of Word in the ’90s and more recently to the ribbon bar. As a designer, you must keep up on these types of shifting patterns.
I bought my 13-year-old daughter a Wii game console, not because I wanted her to stay indoors in a dark room playing video games, and not because I am a gamer myself. I bought it because I felt that if she did not have a certain familiarity with the navigational and interface practices being used in gaming, in the future she might be at a disadvantage navigating her way through educational media that borrows from the interface patterns of video games. This point was reinforced recently when we found that her middle school homework website (created by Oracle) used familiar social website conventions, leveraging the ubiquitous knowledge in the world that is Facebook.
Although new product adoption may contribute new knowledge that can be leveraged, sometimes observing people using a new product reveals problems that need to be solved with original solutions. Recently I’ve noticed a significant change in my household regarding how we spend our time together. We have become a very “screencentric” family, and I don’t mean that we watch TV together. What we have is personal “screencentricity.” We all have internet-connected laptops, my daughter and I have iTouch “screens,” and she also does a fair bit of texting on her cell phone. At night when we are all home we each sit in front of our respective laptops (doing work or whatever) while we reference our other small screens for dedicated functions. Often it puts my family members in different parts of the house, in isolation, staring at screens. This disruptive behavior is a socio-techno-architectural problem. It seems silly when I learn something new about those sitting in the next room from their Facebook posting. How can we encourage interaction while we are so self-sufficient and isolated—so screencentric?
What would a home look like that supports our screencentricity and promotes interaction? Imagine a single space that has the right technology and furniture to support this type of screen use. Group seating areas need horizontal surfaces and floors need power outlets without looking like an office cube farm. Imagine these rooms have one or more large screens and audio systems to encourage interaction and sharing. Whatever an individual is viewing or listening to should be able to be “thrown” from one place to another as easily as a magazine can be passed around. Personal screens need to easily be “thrown” to the public screen (like a 52-inch LCD TV hanging in the great room) with ease. This is not what can be done now with sharing music or video files or by using NetMeeting or WebEx. This would require a new, fluid, socially based operating system. This media environment would be an interconnected data space where you can effortlessly share or work alone. This environment is more similar to Second Life and less like WebEx.
This type of shared interface would also greatly benefit those in offices and conference rooms. One of the biggest behavioral problems of the modern workplace is the same kind of screen-based isolation that happens in my home. If all screens in a conference room were part of a common environment, we could share data easily by throwing our laptop screens up on the large screen, or we could all view the screen of one of our colleagues on our individual laptops.
Disruptive technology is everywhere, and it is up to technology designers to first observe the problem and then seize the opportunity to create something positive. Honing this ability means understanding all of the knowledge that is in the world. We need to personally experience the latest technology and understand if a new set of knowledge can be leveraged to make other usable interfaces, or if it is causing new problems, to solve those with creative solutions.