Monday, May 30, 2011

Learning user-centric behaviors from appliances

Our new dryer is quite new-fangled. Full of buttons and lights and displays and, so it says, sensors. It seems to be true. It dries the clothes to the proper moisture level, then stops. And, of course, beeps at us. A bit unpleasantly, I must say. But what's really interesting is that this is not the end of what it does. If you don't pay attention to it, it'll start spinning periodically again. So the clothes stay all fluffy and any residual dampness is not sitting there festering. And yes, it reminds you occasionally (by beeping) that it's still done, and please why won't you come get the clothes out? Sensors? Reminders? Even without the excessively-ubiquitous touchscreen, this reminds me a lot about interaction in the way I am always thinking about it. While there's no exact equivalent, let's compare to generalized reminders. Alarm clocks are the dumbest of dumb. I have a really nice Sony one with quite sensible controls to set it, and have had hotel rooms with the giant LCD versions of the same. Still dumb as a box of rocks. They will beep all day if you let them, which seems clearly stupid. Anyone who doesn't wake up in a minute or two isn't going to. If you come up with cases where you're in another room briefly, and have to be reminded that the alarm has gone off, sure that's true. But constant beeping? Mobiles try a little harder. They (generally) use network time servers to know what time it is, for starters, including daylight saving and time zone adjustments. Alarms of most any sort (and this is all for dumbphones, and not even very new) beep, but not constantly. They do keep beeping, and all too often they beep the same way as new emails, new SMS, etc. Alarm fatigue is common, so you run the risk of missing that it's time to go to the airport and fly home. Dismissing alarms is too easy, so often becomes the default "silence" behavior, and by the time any other activity is completed, you have forgotten about that reminder. Desktops are generally worse than this. They are mostly not even aware if the sound is muted, and certainly have no control, so do a terrible job alerting. Most reminders I see require you to set a snooze time, so just sit there as a little window, minding themselves, and not doing a good job reminding you. It's easy to walk away from them.
Mobile, especially, can improve a lot. Their sensors, and control over the hardware, can be used in a much more user-centric manner. For all applications, and services, but notifications serves as a nice exemplar. Alarm Fatigue - Don't use the same beep or buzz for every alarm. And don't just leave that up to the end user; most will leave the device in factory configuration, so it needs to come all set up with this sort of useful customization. Often, you can get away with simply "different" instead of worrying about specifically emotive tones. High priority items can use a rarely-made sound, as long as it can be localized to the user's device well, to attract attention when it might otherwise be dismissed. In some cases, a voice notification is better than a simple tone, though be conscious of privacy concerns. Dismiss or Silence - And alerts will be dismissed. Between messages, emails and alarms, handsets demand attention dozens of times an hour. Often, you just want it to be quiet for a bit. Alarm silencing, and traditional (one click) sooze functions should be at least as easy as dismissing the alarm entirely. Key-only functions (or locked-screen gestures) should silence, not dismiss. Then when you can look at the device again, you will be reminded of the notification. Reminding of Reminders - Other sorts of solutions can -- and should -- be developed to solve these sorts of problems, not just by applying patterns and heuristics, but by thinking entirely outside the box. Myself, I think about solutions like using accelerometers and checking your calendar. If you dismissed an alarm while in a scheduled meeting, then the phone was set down for a while, the device could easily surmise that you may have forgotten about that alarm you dismissed. It could then remind you a few minutes after you get up and start moving again.
While many of my appliances and consumer electronics are stupid, I am regularly surprised at how good the results of a well-focused effort can be. While systems of design, holistic views, principles and patterns are needed, remember that each app, service or bit of functionality is it's own little entity also. Satisfaction, and even delight can come from anywhere, even boring little things like an alarm. For more on getting to new design, and not just falling into the heuristic solution, see me next week at the Float Mobile Learning Symposium.

No comments: