Sunday, April 26, 2009

Interaction Design Ethics

This post at the IxDA Discussion forum got me thinking about a thought I had a while ago about the ethics involved with applying the results of user research/usability testing to product design. I was thinking about users' misperceptions regarding what a product does or how it works and then how to deal with those misperceptions in successive product iterations. Specifically, when is it alright to allow, or even exploit, users' misperceptions and when is it inappropriate? Where is the line separating ethical decisions from unethical ones, and what defines that line?

The way I thought through this problem was by considering two extreme examples. One example where it seems acceptable, maybe even preferable, to just let users continue to misperceive how something works is whether a hypertext link needs to be single-clicked or double-clicked. One needs only to click a link once to follow the link, but a lot of [less-experienced] users often double-click links, probably confusing this action with the action required to open a file or a shortcut on a Windows desktop. Designers of web browsing software allow single-clicks or double-clicks for links, but technically allowing double-clicks allows users to continue to not correctly understand how the browser actually works. Of course, it's really no more work for the user to double-click instead of single-click, and their lack of understanding of how links really work is likely never to matter. In other words, the cost of misperceiving the functionality is essentially zero.

However, what about a product with an interaction that has a higher cost of misperception, say a medical device? Imagine a product with an interface that has, among other things, a green circular button and a switch labeled "Auto-protect." The way the system actually works is that once the various parameters have been programmed elsewhere on the interface, the operator presses the green button to deliver a drug intravenously. The "Auto-protect" switch is not related to the drug delivering functionality. However, since the "Auto-protect" switch is positioned a little too close to the green button, some users misperceive the "Auto-protect" switch to have the functionality of protecting against an inadvertent overdose and, as a result, are observed to always flip the "Auto-protect" switch on before pressing the green button.

In this example, it would be obviously unethical to conclude that since users want the device to include a mechanism that protects against overdoses, we can just fool them into believing that the device offers that functionality by moving the "Auto-protect" switch even closer to the green button, to better afford a relationship betwen the two. Of course, allowing device operators to mistakenly believe that they are protected from delivering an overdose, when in reality they are not, has a very high cost (i.e. patient death), so there seems to be no room here for allowing users to think whatever they want as long as they're able to use the device.

So is the cost of the misperception the thing that determines where the line separating ethical from unethical decisions lies? Or is there something more to it?

Image from here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Protectionist Law Impeding Competition, Consumer Choice

This issue
should be a non-issue.
The developer aiming to bring the popular Trader Joe’s grocery chain to Minneapolis got a wary reaction from residents and others at a Whittier neighborhood meeting Monday night. Some residents spoke in favor of the plan, but others—including the Wedge Natural Foods Co-op less than a half block away—say the corporate retailer shouldn’t get any special favors that might give it an unfair marketing advantage.

Mark Dziuk is hoping Trader Joe’s will be the anchor tenant in a large commercial and residential project on a busy block of Lyndale Avenue South. The problem is Trader Joe’s won’t sign on unless the store is allowed an adjacent wine and beer store, but state law prohibits liquor stores within 2,000 feet of one another in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Hum’s Liquors, a neighborhood icon for the past four decades, is practically right across the street. If Dziuk wins the exemption to the state law, it would be the first in Minneapolis.

I agree with the Wedge in this case in that Trader Joe's shouldn't be given special treatment. But the special treatment Trader Joe's seeks shouldn't even be an issue in the first place. This is all the fault of some arbitrary protectionist law from 70 years ago (that would be 1939) that isolates liquor stores from competition by prohibiting competing stores from being within 2,000 feet of each other. A defensible (but not necessarily correct) argument for this law is that it might prevent any single area from becoming "liquor store alley." Even if that line of thinking is valid and even if that's a value which the community consents to, then surely the law could be written better. For example, instead of always using one distance (2,000 feet) to regulate liquor store density, why not allow more liquor stores for denser-populated areas or areas with greater pedestrian/vehicle/transit access? There's no reason a small rural town of 500 people should be bound by the same law as a densely-populated corridor in a large cosmopolitan city.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sarcasm Is Good

With talk of a CPSIA for food getting me all worried, I appreciated this bit of sarcasm from Reason's Jesse Walker regarding an odious Pennsylvania food safety law:

Unfortunately, the inspectors' fight doesn't go far enough: What about the home meal loophole? Every night across America, parents cook unlicensed dinners for their naively trusting kids, and perhaps even a guest or two. Are the kitchens dirty, the ingredients expired, the pots unwashed? We don't know! How many lives will be lost before the government steps in and says, ¡No más!?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Have Novel Touchscreen Interfaces Fulfilled Jef Raskin's Vision?

For a class called "The Psychology of Human-Machine Interaction," I was assigned to read Jef Raskin's book The Humane Interface (cover pictured to the right). At the time (2004, probably), I was really intrigued by Raskin's idea of zoomable interfaces and the notion that discrete applications are an inefficient way to facilitate users' desired actions, but it all seemed sort of far out and futuristic.

However, with innovative touchscreen interfaces such as the Palm Pre's "deck of cards" metaphor or Bumptop's 3D desktop (demo shown below), it seems that Raskin's visionary ideas are finally being realized. I love the idea of enabling users to use their spatial faculties, a cognitive ability that is severely under-utilized in traditional hierarchical 2D desktop interfaces.

How People Spend Their Time During Work

This map showing Zappos purchases in real-time across the US is very interesting. What I found particularly intriguing is that as lunchtime occurs in a given timezone, purchases seem to slow to a trickle. Meanwhile, there seems to be a post-lunchtime flurry of activity. All anecdotal observations, of course.

Via Marginal Revolution.

CPSIA For Food

You know that new law that was passed that requires excessive testing of products to prove they don't contain lead (CPSIA)? Well, now there's a proposal to do the same thing for food! Thanks, government, for trying to make farmers markets illegal!

Image (with some editing) from here.

Design Thinking and Government

I'm very intrigued by the potential that design thinking has to offer government. Of course, nothing has more inertia than government and it is inherently ultra political, so altering the way government works is extremely challenging. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful, and stuff like this from IDEO's Tim Brown is encouraging:

What if design was used to test some of the rules our government leaders are proposing? Could we go through some experimental cycles using design and prototyping as a tool before final decisions are made about what rules to adopt? Might this help us avoid our tendency to create new rules and then walk away, under the assumption that our finance, health and global energy systems will now behave in the way we want them to?

This is of course an excellent idea. In the private sector, when systems are created they are rigorously tested. Good system designers/engineers understand that a critical part of any system are the humans it affects and relies on, so good system design incorporates a lot of use testing and design iteration to ensure that the system will behave in real life and its designers intend. Almost every government action is a case study in the law of unintended consequences, so it stands to reason that government-designed systems more often than not do not behave in real life the way their designers intended. Ergo, government needs to start using design thinking!

Image from here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The growing importance of experience design

This is a very interesting post by David Armano which does a good job of putting into words what has been in the back of my mind for the last couple of months. Basically, he's seconding the proposition of this Economist article, which is that the economic crisis has hastened the phenomenon of people second-guessing whether the constant struggle to keep up with the Joneses by acquiring as many gadgets/knick-knacks/kitchen applicances (i.e. "junk") is really the best way to spend their disposable income. As Armano puts it, we're entering the "post-consumer era." I think this passage is rather salient:

...Credit lines have ensured that we can purchase beyond our means and advertising has had years to perfect it's craft making us believe that we don't want the latest and greatest product—but that we actually NEED it. In fact, if we can't have it our lives will be empty—we will be missing out we won't be living life as it was meant to be lived.

This of course is a lie.

But it's worked for years. Bigger, better, faster, newer. Get it and get it now before your neighbor does. It's a myth that's stood the test of time and fueled a global economy because it could. When it's old, throw it out or give it away. Then one day, the housing market collapsed, the stock market collapsed and we woke up scratching our heads as to why. And some of us are re-thinking the economics of mass consumption.

I think a lot of people are finally realizing that they reached the point of junk saturation a few years ago and there is just no longer a need to rabidly acquire stuff like there's no tomorrow. As such, I think the term "post-junk" may be more appropriate than "post-consumer," for as long as we live in a capitalist society there will always be "consumers" and "producers," per se.

One consequence of such junk fatigue will be an increased desire for fewer high-quality products rather than more low-quality products. Jason Kottke highlighted this a while back in this post, in which he talked about "upgrading oneself" by, for example, replacing off-the-rack dress shirts with tailored shirts.

As Armano goes on to point out, the ever increasing interconnectedness of humanity that has been enabled by the internet is going to push people into becoming smarter, more demanding consumers. This may not necessarily be the result of conscious decisions by each consumer, but rather as a simple consequence of our digital surroundings (e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter, whatever's next, etc.). Without even realizing it, the inputs into our decision making processes will in effect be pre-screened by the recommendations, purchases, and comments of our trusted peers.

From my perspective, these two phenomena (junk reduction and increasing consumer awareness) pretty clearly point to a greater role for good experience design amongst both products and services. People are going to want better stuff that simplifies/de-clutters their life, and whether they know it or not they're going to be nudged away from objects/services that they perceive as junk and toward objects/services of trusted value.