Friday, 31 August 2007

Honesty Room

Who said digital media is easy?

I started this post over a week ago and it has been delayed due to the keyboard on my brand new laptop and trackpad breaking on me just when I have a lot of work to prepare. On top of that my webspace server has deemed itself "full" and wont let me upload any assets despite the fact I know it isn't "full". So I am completing this post typing on a usb keyboard plugged into my laptop which is now acting as a desktop machine instead of being wireless and mobile, whilst preparing two presentations on digital media. Mmmm… I'm really biting my tongue tonight.

Those of you who are astute will realise I have been reading Bill Moggridge's excellent book Designing Interactions, nearly 800 pages of great information on designing interactions. As Helen Walter of Business Week describes the book it's "part history lesson, part computer science thesis, part design education, part personal design philosophy". More than that I found it really inspirational and the best £25 I've professionally spent. I have thoroughly enjoyed each contributors' stories tracing a variety of differing interactions from inspiration to final outcome, and each chapter is full of my highlighted paragraphs and annotations.

An annotated page from Designing Interactions will appear as soon as the server realises it isn't full!

This book is one of many I have recently read as part of my continual professional development and in a way this blog is partly to help me to formulate my own understanding of my own specialism that I teach. So some of my posts will be just that, online summations of existing theory and practice, observations, synthesis and a forum to test one's own hypotheses. I'll write more after next week as I have two presentations to make and a lesson on graphical interface design to give to a group of students from Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, alongside getting my laptop repaired. It's only 3 months old… I couldn't have overworked it THAT quickly, honest!

Friday, 17 August 2007

Self-evident interfaces and perceivable possibilities

In attempting to understand Durrell Bishop's research into self-evident design with more clarity I thank Fusewire and Alec for their comments to my previous post. Cultural mediation and perception appear to be two aspects that need considering with Bishop's thesis. With further reading around the subject I have read highlights of an interview with Bill Gaber, professor of design at Goldsmiths College in London. In this interview he cited the work of perception theorist J.J. Gibson, in particular Gibson's 1979 book on The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.

As I have an interest in human evolution and the development of human creativity (in the words of Douglas Adams "the secret is to keep banging the rocks together guys!") Gaber's thesis was understandably of interest. If, as Gaber hypothesizes, our evolution has allowed our species to benefit from perceiving what actions would be useful to our survival over those that wont, we are able to perceive, validate and combine complicated actions together such as our ancestors' stone tool-making. This outcome of perceiving the possibilities when flint is struck with another stone, mammoth meat can then be butchered for the tribe back home is disseminated through perceptual experimentation and then cultural-mediation. Each stone age tribe makes stone tools with their own twist on the technology, evolving it through an ongoing iterative process of constant development. This perceptual process is the same as we use to evolve interactive design.

Gaber in his research and work when at Xerox EuroPARC has tried to demonstrate that people can deal with graphical elements within interface designs as if they are self-evident physical objects by "thinking about the interface being a physical environment rather than being a kind of command-line-driven conversational metaphor". This is more than just creating an icon of something from the physical world and placing it into the visual design of an interface. A rewind button on a tape deck does not function in the same way as a backwards button on a physical or digital CD player. A scrub wheel does not function in exactly the same way on an iPod as it does on an analogue device. The physical function may be similar but the perceived outcome may not match the outcome. Gibson's theory refers to these perceivable possibilities for action as "affordances" and Gaber has applied Gibson's affordance theory to interactive design by attempting to peel back "the notion of affordances to its real essentials".

Has anyone read Gibson's work? I would be interested to hear if his theory has been advanced further or has been dismissed in favour of a more robust thesis. Any further reading on this matter would be greatly appreciated by myself.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Monopoly and designing interactive digital artefacts

What would happen if the design principles of Monopoly where applied to an interactive digital artefact?

In the words of Durrell Bishop the real-world is full of self-evident objects where their shape displays their mechanical properties. What if digital tools could actually be clearer in their display as to what they performed? I am not talking about icons here. I have lost too many man hours trying to decipher the icons on Microsoft Outlook Web Access when I need to send an email due to some egoist insisting on using icons they thought were >cool< that no-one else does… but I digress.

Bishop uses Monopoly to explain his premise on self-evident design. The game itself has a complex system that is as complex as using a video recorder (slightly old school but hang in there) and he argues that it's functions are self-evident. The board graphics demonstrate clearly the possibilities and route around the board; the pieces show the players' proximity and the dice demonstrates the position of both the current and previous spatial position of the latest player. Houses show both ownership and risk. At each stage there is a physical signal as to where the game currently is.

If a player has to go the toilet or make a cuppa during play, when they return it doesn't take a full debrief to resume the game. Bishop's main point is that at one glance you know where you are. Using the comparison to a video recorder he suggests that videos would have been more user-friendly if at a glance the user would know what is on the tape, where the programme they want lies on the tape, how much is left on the tape and who else needs to watch the programmes remaining on the tape before it can be recorded over.

So my point of interest in Bishop's research is whether digital interface design can transcend the icon-centric bull and harness more self-evident design principles to make the usability of interactive digital artefacts more intuitive for the user. Does anyone have anything to add to this idea?