Response 3: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things & Emotion and Design

The Psychopathology of Everyday Things:

In addition to the everyday examples we all seem to know so well – doors, light switches, watches, sinks, refrigerators, etc. – what really made me realize the importance of HCD/UI/UX/interaction design was the section about the Three Mile Island accident. There, it was poor design of the user interface that was directly to blame for a near-nuclear disaster! That puts poor UI design on par with poor engineering (Chernobyl) and natural disasters (Fukushima) when it comes to security, at least when it comes to nuclear power plants! Before that remark was made, I was keen to dismiss the author’s comments on poor design as inconsequential gripes (yes, I would think, being confused by a door is annoying, but do we really need to care so much? – turns out we should care!).

Furthermore, I appreciated the section about signifiers for app design, as it provided illuminating points about the need for explanatory labels in software, which software engineers are too likely to ignore – a sin that I am guilty of, as well. It was great that the author did not stop at saying what is wrong in a design, but also providing a clear illustration of how to resolve the problem. Good design, turns out, is all about good communication! “Profound ideas are always obvious once they are understood.”

Emotion and Design:

I was surprised to see affect mentioned in relation to design; I have only heard it in connection our response to art/film. It does make sense to consider how things we use make us feel, too – although I am not sure the author actually believes what he is saying when he says that usability, beauty, and function of a things are all equally important.

After all, he says that “although poor design is never excusable,” still “attractive things work better.” Attractive things put us into a relaxed state (positive affect), which allows us to consider usability problems with an open mind. How exactly is this not saying that beauty is more important than function?

Additionally, although the implications of positive-affect things seem clear enough (making us relaxed, open-minded, creative), I am not so sure about the implications of negative-affect things. They are supposed to put us into a deep-thinking mode and aid our concentration – is the author saying that concentration-aiding objects have to put the user in a negative affect? Make them anxious/uncomfortable to pique their attention? That seems wrong…

Instead, the author shifts the causality for negative-affect things – for things that people use when anxious, the designers must focus on function before all. But if that is the case, it ceases to be true that “attractive things work better,” proving that the catchphrase of the paper was merely that – a catchphrase! The author exposes the falsity of his own assertion by admitting that it is not an universal rule!

Assignment 2: Aeolus

Aeolus is a game in which two players face off for control of the wind! Both players blow on a flap in the box’s side and try to swing it open against their opponent. The one that prevails gets crowned as the Aeolus of the game, or the Wind-God!

The game operates in two stages; the player needs to close two switches at the same time to win. When the flap opens enough, a wire comes into contact with a metallic strip on the player’s side and closes the first switch.

The LED light of the player’s color starts flashing – this is their chance! If the player now presses their button on the side of the box (while the flap is still opened), the player’s LED stays illuminated and the game is over.

However, if the player is not fast enough, their opponent can blow the flap back and break the connection – the LED stops flashing and the button stops winning the game until the flap is opened again.

Also, no cheating. If a player holds the button first and then blows the flap open, it does not count; the LED will not start flashing until the button is released. This is a strictly open-flap-then-push-button type of game!

When a player wins, the game can be reset for a new game by pressing the black reset button.

The game is completely self-contained, too – it comes with a battery and a power switch, and does not need to be connected to the computer!

The code is attached below:

int const GREEN_LED = 2;
int const RED_LED = 3;

int const GREEN_FLAP = 8;
int const RED_FLAP = 9;

int const GREEN_BUTTON = 10;
int const RED_BUTTON = 12;

int const RESET_BUTTON = 11;

void setup() {
  // put your setup code here, to run once:
  pinMode(GREEN_LED, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(RED_LED, OUTPUT);
  
  pinMode(GREEN_FLAP, INPUT);
  pinMode(RED_FLAP, INPUT);
  
  pinMode(GREEN_BUTTON, INPUT);
  pinMode(RED_BUTTON, INPUT);
  
  pinMode(RESET_BUTTON, INPUT);
}

bool flap_green = false;
bool flap_red = false;

bool button_green = false;
bool button_red = false;

bool button_reset = false;

bool require_reset = true;
bool new_game = true;

bool green_button_allowed = false;
bool red_button_allowed = false;

bool keep_green = false;
bool keep_red = false;

void loop() {
  // put your main code here, to run repeatedly:
  
  if (digitalRead(GREEN_FLAP) == HIGH) flap_green = true;
  else flap_green = false;
  if (digitalRead(RED_FLAP) == HIGH) flap_red = true;
  else flap_red = false;
  
  if (digitalRead(GREEN_BUTTON) == HIGH) button_green = true;
  else button_green = false;
  if (digitalRead(RED_BUTTON) == HIGH) button_red = true;
  else button_red = false;
  
  if (digitalRead(RESET_BUTTON) == HIGH) button_reset = true;
  else button_reset = false;
  
  if (require_reset == true) {
    green_button_allowed = false;
    red_button_allowed = false;
    
    if (new_game == true) {
      digitalWrite(GREEN_LED, HIGH);
      digitalWrite(RED_LED, HIGH);
    }
    
    if (keep_green == true) digitalWrite(GREEN_LED, HIGH);
    if (keep_red == true) digitalWrite(RED_LED, HIGH);
    
    if (button_reset == true) {
      digitalWrite(GREEN_LED, LOW);
      digitalWrite(RED_LED, LOW);
      
      keep_green = false;
      keep_red = false;
      
      require_reset = false;
      new_game = false;
    }
  }
  
  else {
    if (flap_green == true && button_green == false) {
      green_button_allowed = true;
    }
    if (flap_green == false) {
      green_button_allowed = false;
    }
    
    if (green_button_allowed == true) {
      if (button_green == true) {
        // green wins
        green_button_allowed = false;
        require_reset = true;
        keep_green = true;
      }
      
      digitalWrite(GREEN_LED, HIGH);
      delay(100);
      digitalWrite(GREEN_LED, LOW);
      delay(100);
    }
    
    if (flap_red == true && button_red == false) {
      red_button_allowed = true;
    }
    if (flap_red == false) {
      red_button_allowed = false;
    }
    
    if (red_button_allowed == true) {
      if (button_red == true) {
        // red wins
        red_button_allowed = false;
        require_reset = true;
        keep_red = true;
      }
      
      digitalWrite(RED_LED, HIGH);
      delay(100);
      digitalWrite(RED_LED, LOW);
      delay(100);
    }
  }
}

Response 2: The Art of Interactive Design & The Jump to Universality

The Art of Interactive Design:

The author’s definition of interactivity as “a cyclic process in which two actors alternatively listen, think, and speak” makes the definition much more accessible than the dry affair with inputs, processing, output. It also provides some intuitive explanation for why there have to be multiple degrees of interactivity – the more parts of the interactivity formula a device is missing, the lower its degree; if a device misses all of them, it is not interactive at all! The distinction the author makes between interactions and mere reactions (to books, dance, movies, performance arts) is important to weed out some definitions of interactivity that are too broad, which is great!

However, it is when the author tries to convince the reader that interactivity design is different from UI design that the author stops being as convincing. On one hand, he seems the UI designers to come on the one interactivity design boat with him by accepting the necessity of a paradigm shift in their thinking. On the other hand, he bashes the field of UI for being too narrow in focus since unlike the field of interactivity design it does not consider the thinking part of interactivity. Without an example to illuminate where the two designers would differ, however, I find it very difficult to accept that distinction, and discard UI design for interactivity design! It seems too vacuous for me.

The Jump to Universality:

The author’s thesis is that universality, when it happens, tends to be a wonderful accident whose potential is not realized until much later, leaving historians of science tearing at their hair and asking “why would you not make the obvious step towards abstraction.” Well, the author’s answer is that hindsight is always 20/20, and for much of history, universal solutions were not valued merely for their universality – the opposite, in fact. Thinkers were trying to solve a particular problem, for example, how to write foreign names, and just happened upon the universal solution – alphabet. Then they ignore the potential for universality and keep using the system in the narrow ways they designed it for. While frustrating, the author shows that this only makes sense – it was not until the age of Enlightment that universal solutions came to be valued for being universal and/or having potential for big unforeseen benefits; before that, parochial problems were solved with parochial solutions, because the world itself was parochial!

The concept of levels of universality is illustrated with number systems. The simplest number system are tally marks (one line for one object). An evolution is to group the tally marks into groups (e.g. groups of five). Further evolution is the old Roman number system that uses specific symbols for different numbers of objects (1,5,10,50,100,500,1000). This system is not universal because it necessarily involves a highest symbol, whatever its value – a universal number system can express any number. That is the positional number system of “Arabic” numerals that we use today. It is remarkable that a positional system was invented in Babylon some 2500 years before it resurfaced elsewhere, but the Babylonians were content to use it for astronomy calculations and nothing else. Clearly, they did not realize the universal potential.

The author then goes on to argue the same thing about the printing press, computers (based on gears and levers, hydraulic pipes, relays, and finally microprocessors), and – controversially – the DNA, whose potential for universality was finally realized with Adelman’s computer. What unites these is that all jumps to universality are digital (because of the need for error correction) and that their potential was underutilized for the longest time.

The same could be said about the Internet and WWW, that were used by a narrow group of people for a narrow set of applications for about 30 years, before the technology exploded to what it is today – including social media, search engines, the wiki, none of which was imagined by the creators of the Internet. They were just trying to connect some computers together, after all.

This makes one wonder – what other technologies have the potential for universality right now, potential that is being underutilized? What useless thing with narrow applications will turn out the Next Big Thing? One thing seems to be for sure, it is something we would never think about!

Observation Experiment: Cash Register

For this assignment, I observed a cashier interacting with a touchscreen cash register at the dining hall. This is an interaction that most of us witness multiple times per day, and it also is an interaction that is very time sensitive. How efficient is this interaction, and are there places for improvement?

the following video records the interaction:

Immediately, we can see that the cashier is very skilled! The whole interaction involved many individual touchscreen presses, all over the screen area, and yet the interaction only took about 10 seconds! It is all the more interesting, then, to see where the hiccups were, and try to suggest solutions for those.

Clearly, the cashier is not reading the button labels, relying instead on memory to press the button that corresponds to the customer’s food. The cashier does have to stop and read the labels at one point, though, and that is to find the Diet Coca Cola Can button. Finding this button is easily the single most time-consuming activity the cashier does – surely, there must be a better way to facilitate interactivity? Perhaps it is impossible to obtain muscle memory of all the different drinks, because there is just too much variety? In that case, we should make the buttons look more like the soda cans, to make it easier for the cashier to identify the correct button at a glance.

This is where I discovered another design for the cash register interface:

The reason why I think this interface would be better than the text-only one that our dining hall is currently using, is that this interface makes the buttons look similar in design to the design of the soda cans that customers might bring – and thus makes it easier for the cashier to spot the correct button, making the interaction even more efficient than it already is!

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.