“Throw this book across the room. Measure the distance it traveled and the angle of impact. Draw appropriate conclusions in crayon.”

In the first chapter of his book The art of Interactive Design Chris Crawford challenges people’s definition of interactivity and what can be actually called ‘interactive’. While the examples and evidence he provides are somewhat laughable, for example the refrigerator doors not being interactive, although some people might think they are, the part that I enjoyed reading the most from Chapter 1 is about the conversation, what makes it good, and what makes it interactive. According to Crawford, a good conversation consists of “listening, thinking, and speaking”, which one might find obvious. However, when I think about it, I realize that very few people actually know how to really listen to the other person during the conversation, which I think is the most important part, and thus the conversation becomes pointless.

I find it very interesting that despite focusing on the definition of interactivity, Crawford manages to point out these crucial things in our everyday life (such as conversations), using them as examples of what can be called a good interaction or a useless one.

The other reading, The Jump to Universality, is focusing on universality, as one might have guessed from the title. It was interesting to read mainly because it provided hundreds of interesting facts, most of which I did not know before reading. For example, that Archimedes imposed the restriction on how big a number can be. The author claims that “if Archimedes had been willing to allow his rules to be applied without arbitrary limits, he could have invented a much better universal system just by removing the arbitrary limits from the existing Greek system”. The main argument is that in ancient times people have been adding to the universal system without even intending to, while after the Enlightenment people have been doing so on purpose.  The best part of this reading, in my opinion, is the very last sentence that simply explains it all: “Because error correction is essential in processes of potentially unlimited length, the jump to universality only ever happens in digital systems.”

Observation Assignment – Vending Machine Is A Scam

I was observing my friend use a vending machine. At first I thought this won’t be the interaction worth mentioning for this assignment, however, everything went wrong with the vending machine and it was quite funny to observe my friend trying to get his snack. First, he inserted a coin, and the machine did not react to that. He then inserted another one, hoping something will change- still nothing. After inserting 3 coins in total and realizing that the machine does not take coins (although it should), he started putting bills into it. He inserted a 5dhs bill, the machine finally showed he had 5 credits to purchase a snacks with, however, once he made his choice on Doritos, the machine took his credit away and did not give him any Doritos. Back to where he started- with 8dhs lost and yet no snack, my friend, a little pissed, inserts another 5dhs into the vending machine. It recognizes the bill, gives him credit to purchase with, and finally gives him what he wanted! What was expected to be a casual interaction became a somewhat upsetting experience for my friend, thus I thought about what I could do to make it better.

First of all, I would make this vending machine spit out the coins it does not recognize (some vending machines do that), instead of just consuming them. Second of all, I believe it should have a better cash input to vending mechanism connection, so that in case the machine does not give a person the goods he wanted, it will not take the credit (money) from him. Last but not the least, I think the interface on the machine is not that user-friendly, i.e. if one presses a wrong button by accident, he cannot change his choice, and the machine will end up giving the person the goods he did not necessarily wanted (if it ends up giving the person anything at all, of course).

One Must Suffer to Get Water

With NYUAD’s continuous efforts to achieve sustainability, there are increasingly more water dispensers around campus – AT EVERY CORNER to be exact. I often sit in the dining hall near 4 water dispensers placed in pairs back to back against each other for people to refill their reusable bottles. During my lunch time yesterday, I decided to do some people watching.

Within 1 minute of observing, 5 people used the dispensers to fill their water bottles. Here’s how all of them used the machine:

Each of the 5 people slightly bent their upper body and knees and reached out to the tap with their right hand holding their bottle with their left hand. From my experience, this position becomes quickly uncomfortable especially when you have to maintain it for 15-20 seconds to fill up a large bottle. Needless to say that one’s experience/interaction with the dispenser depends on whether the water bottle is short enough to fit in the space between the tap and the shelf under it. Those with short bottles can lift their upper body while actioning the tap until the bottle fills up, which results in a more comfortable position, while those with tall bottles have to hold and balance the object that becomes increasingly heavy as the water pours in.

The scene I was watching did not differ much from my expectations given that I adopt the same position when filling my 750ml tall bottle every day. However, it made me wonder why the tap in the water dispenser hung so low in an overwhelming number of water dispensers and what the reasoning behind the design was. I had seen people squat when using a water dispenser before (as portrayed in the picture below), but did the designers intend to make people squat (another uncomfortable position) when using the machine?

A little bit of research led me to this…

Was it designed so people could rest their arms while having a water break and a quick chat in the office pantry?

With this in mind, it looks like water dispensers were in fact designed to allow office workers to rest their arms while having a break (height of the machine matches the height of a comfortable armrest position) . The people in the picture above look comfortable, as would anyone in this position. However, this came at the expense of feeling slightly uncomfortable while pouring water into a cup/bottle. Which one to prioritize? Does everyone use water dispensers as an armrest? The answer to the last question is “No” – certainly not the people I was observing when sitting down (or most people in general).

Water dispensers should be designed to be within reach of our hands without having to bend down to action the tap. Such designs actually do exist but are not as common (or cheap). This could potentially be explained by the fact that they occupy a lot of space in terms of height and a most extensive plumbing system (as opposed to a compressed one). Another solution would be to modify the tap into one similar to the picture below to allow people with tall bottles to use their bottle to action the tap. This would make us move from using two hands to fill our bottles to one hand.

In general, I do think that the design is very much counter-intuitive and does not prioritize the posture and comfort of the user. I had never really thought about it until this assignment, perhaps because I was conditioned to view it as an acceptable way to use a water dispenser.

Observation Assignment: IKEA Lamp

This evening, as I was sitting down to finish my readings, my roommates burst into the room, back from IKEA with some cushions, bedsheets and a lamp. People putting together IKEA products has always been fun to watch, and today I observed my roommate as she fixed up her straightforward-looking lamp.

I thought it would take her five minutes to get the lamp up and running. It had about four or five different parts that needed to be put together, and the product came with an illustrated manual. Surprisingly, she refused to look at the manual, because the illustrations only stressed her out instead of helping her make the process easier.

She put together a couple of parts, and then had a friend help her put the rest of it together. The friend used the manual, but still had a couple of problems – he realized that one of the parts had been screwed on backwards, so they had to redo the procedure after fixing that mistake. The lamp is now done, and is emanating a gentle light as I type this post.

What really struck me about the interaction was how difficult it looked. Even though the entire procedure took only about 20 minutes, it still turned out a lot harder than I had expected it to be. It made me think about how we design products and whom we design them for. What is the point of a manual and how can it be more efficient? Is a design really successful if the average layperson cannot put a product together right away? Is there a way in which we approach our education that makes us neglect common sense and common physical skills?

The interaction within itself was interesting, but I am also interested in the questions that it made me ask. They are worth considering in the context of an IM class, and I hope to explore them further as I create more things in this class.

A Real-Life “Trolley Problem” :P

Today, by mere luck and circumstance, I noticed an interaction that was not going as smoothly as a design-minded person would hope: I saw a worker here on campus pushing a trolley cart, but not in the traditional way. While I expected him to be pushing the cart with two hands from behind (as is illustrated on the left in the picture below), he was actually walking next to the cart, pushing it along with him with only one hand (illustrated below on the right). It only took a few seconds to realize why: if he walked quickly while pushing it from behind, his feet would would have hit the cart.

The problem lies in the design of the cart: the handles simply go straight up, forming a perfect 90 degree angle with the base. This means that there is little space between the base and the feet of whoever is pushing it. If users continued to push it in the traditional way (from behind), this method would “fail” them by causing either a) inconvenience and inefficiency, since workers have to walk more slowly, or b) injury, since workers might jam their foot on the base of the cart by accident. Clearly, the worker I observed had found an innovative (successful) alternative to both of these possible consequences, by pushing the cart from the side and avoiding injury while maintaining a fast walking speed.

There are definitely better designs for carts. These include carts that have long, curved (or angled) handles so that the base of the cart ends up being quite far in front of the user’s feet (illustrated below on the left), and carts that are balanced on one wheel, and are thus at an angle that again leaves a lot of space between the cart and the user (as illustrated on the right below).

Response 1: Electronics explained for Noobs

No way was I expecting such a fun and interesting read about a somehow intimidating subject – electronics. The thing I loved about this reading from the first paragraphs is the tone. The very first joke about how hard it sometimes is to remember things, the fourth president of the United States in particular, made me expect something really funny on the way, although I did not see how it can be possible when it comes to talking about physics and electricity.

Kenn Amdahl does this seemingly impossible job of explaining how electricity works in his own, at points bizarre way. After explaining the electron theory using watermelons and mosquitos, he claims electrons don’t exist and the reading becomes a story about Amdahl’s encounter while fishing in Utah, which I find incredible. He makes the reader embrace the truth that instead of electrons, which don’t exist, there tiny partying green people, called Little Greenies, and they are the ones behind all the electricity laws.

I really wish I have come across this book while studying electronics at school.

Kenn Amdahl, We Think Alike!

The author made me think, laugh, dream and question. His view on how theories are taught as absolute truth, although they might be falsified and replaced at any point in time reminds me of my thought process during my Economics classes. I always questioned  the theories that I learned in my Economics class, hoping to understand the logic and reasoning behind it. In most cases, my professors would mumble a vague explanation that was far from being satisfying yet, I would settle for their answer because – who am I to question them when the whole world believes in this one truth? This “settlement” was particularly painful especially for theories that work 90% of the time but have a few exceptions. I mean, can a truth be a truth 90% of the time and a lie for the other 10%? These were the questions that I would always ask myself but I have learned to ignore them with time and simply accept what was being explained as truth in fear of “being a Galileo”. However, Kenn Amdahl has made me rethink my perspective and I found myself smiling at his thought process as I was reading through the paragraphs. Not only does he question a fundamental theory in electricity but he takes care to explain the components  of the theory to us. I can still visualize the greenies motivated by a need-to-party rushing to the bad roads and creating traffic, all to go to the party. This metaphor is definitely a good way for beginners like me to understand what is otherwise put in complicated jargon. All in all, this was a great read and I look forward to the other readings.

Assignment 1: Wind Switch

“How can we toggle a switch without using our hands?” One answer, of course, was the Mustache Switch – and I have to admit, all of my early ideas were knockoffs of that concept… Maybe the user could furrow their eyebrows to turn the switch on; maybe the user could smile; or touch their chin to their chest; or press their foot on the floor; or, or, or.

Then I realized that I was thinking in the wrong direction. Making the user touch something with a part of their body that happens to not be a hand is just us being entrapped in an old way of thinking. Maybe we should make a switch that detects something on its own, without the user being involved.

Bingo! Why not a switch that turns on a light only when the wind is strong enough? A Wind Switch!

Assembly was quite straightforward, and required only a few easily accessible components, as you can see from the pictures:

Two strips of aluminum foil are attached to vertical sticks, and made to touch by gentle breeze. This makes the green LED to light up. The sensitivity of the switch to wind can be adjusted by adjusting how much the front strip bends away from the back strip.

And that is it! Here is a demo of how the switch works, with the face of yours truly providing the wind force:

Response 1: Little Greenies

The author’s use of Little Greenies as a metaphor to explain attributes of electricity is amazing. He is upfront about this being a fabrication, but it makes voltage, current, and resistance much more easy to understand than the conventional wisdom of free electrons. He points out that had the standard theory explained why free electrons require a complete circuit to move, people would be much less confused about the whole concept. – If one end of the battery has too few electrons and the other has too many, why cannot the two just equalize each other? Why do we need to connect the other two terminals too? That being said, of course, his explanation of Little Greenie guys going to a party with Little Greenie chicks does not really provide any insight on the need for circuits either – the guys are not concerned about whether there is a return road, so I guess every metaphor can only go so far.

Response: “There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings”

Through the use of simple language, effective comparisons with everyday objects, and various anecdotes about “little Greenies”, Kenn Amdahl strips down the multiple complexities of electronics into actually understandable concepts. As a person who had absolutely no previous exposure on the subject, Amdahl’s explanations of voltage, current, and resistance proved to be extremely comprehensible and effective. As was predicted in the preface of the book, I enjoyed the reading even if I had no previous interest in electronics, and learning was indeed a bonus to the task.

Amdahl begins by reestablishing readers’ previous conceptions of electronics by undermining the complex jargon this subject is commonly associated with. Establishing jargon as not only a way of simplifying scientific explanations but also as a method of “fooling others into believing that you understand something”, Amdahl presents readers the possibility of using different, non-conventional terms to understand electronics. Through this manner, he paves way for readers to ease into the idea of accepting explanations of concepts in terms of falling men, the Greenies’ need-to-party, and hoards of buffalos trying to get past a canyon.

Another aspect Amdahl emphasizes is the fact that scientific models are simply ways of explaining the workings of different topics, and should not be perceived as the actual reality. By questioning the validity of the universally accepted electron theory, Amdahl stimulates readers to look at widely acknowledged models through a critical lens, trying to really understand what they mean and imply, and to not only absorb any pieces of information endorsed by the scientific community.
Through such means, Amdahl successfully teaches readers about concepts such as the properties of static electricity, the workings of radioactivity, and terms like voltage, current, and resistance. By using simple analogies that compare the most unexpected of examples such as a person’s desire to dance to Johnny B. Goode with voltage and electricity, Amdahl ensures readers an entertaining yet informative way of understanding the workings of electronics, without forgetting that although these models offer simplified ways of comprehending such concepts, they should not be mistaken with reality.