Friday, December 10, 2004

Designing Interfaces With The Media Equation - The Conclusion

Here we are, at the end of our journey. The TechBology crew have researched the topic of "Designing interfaces with the media equation" and given insight into how it relates to HCI. To conclude our little web presentation we have put together a brief summary of our findings.

Humans see personality in computers whether it was intentionally programmed there or not. In fact, humans assess the personality of another being (human or otherwise) very quickly and with minimal clues. Further, the perceived personality of the computer strongly affects how we evaluate the computer and the information it gives us.

The media equation's implications range widely, from media design, management principles, games and of course interfaces. Clearly, the media equation has implications for libraries. We can specify online catalog software interfaces that can be used in several different ways. This can allow people with various personalities to find the way that suits them best. Even better, how about an interface that adapts to the user’s personality? Perhaps librarians will become the human
“constant” in the media equation. We cannot change evolution, but we can anticipate subconscious, irrational responses to media. We can supply the expertise, the politeness, the praise, and the diplomacy to make up for the rough edges of technology’s still unfolding personality.

We hope you have enjoyed reading our blog. We will leave you to draw upon your own imagination of what the future holds for HCI...

The Ultimate User Interface

As you have read below our specific topic is about how computers can be designed to enable humans to interact with them and traet them as if they were human and getting them to carry out a specific task as a result of this.

For many years now, scientist have been trying to make a device which enables humans to think about a specific task they wish the computer to carry out and the computer responding by carrying out that action. If we just pause and think for a moment we see that if this break through could be achieved it would really make computers accessible for everyone. Just imagine instead having to type a document you could just think about what you wanted to write in your head and it would appear automatically on screen or when your workspace is cluttered with documents you want to use but have to move to make a mouse click and then put the documnets all back again and the find the sentence you were working on again. It will saves us the dispair of going through hours of training ourselves to speak in a particular way into a microphone to allow current sfotwares to type the document. Many people would assume this is impossible and would never be achieved....well think again.

A THOUGHT_POWERED device that could one day help the paralysed popel move again was revealed yesterday. The 'Thinking cap' lets wearers move a cursor across a computer screen simply by using will-power. It could evetually allow them to control robot limbs.

An experiment asked four volunteers, including two who had suffered spinal cord injuries and were severley disabled, to move the cursor towards a target on the screen within ten seconds.
The disabled pair performed substantially better, scientists said- possibly because they were motivated.

Unlike previous examples of planting electrodes within the brain, the thinking cap uses 64 contcuctors attached to the scalp to record brain waves and trigger movement. It modifies itself to individual brain wave patterns, allowing user and machine to learn and work together.

However this approach is very much in the development stage and will take probably a few more years before it is available to use and probably a much longer period of time before it is available for use more generally e.g. in typing word documents.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Computer Games and the Media Equation

The purpose of computer games has always been to get the player to think as if he is actually within the game. From the way that the player on screen responds to the commands thrust at it from the user, each and every game is geared towards this very aim. Not surprising then when looking at the media equation and the way we view computers as social actors in interactions.

The media equation says that humans will see objects either on computer, or part of a game, or even on TV as something human when in fact it is merely a representation of real life. With computer games this is much more apparent as the whole interface is made in a very different way to traditional applications. In a traditional application the user would not expect to see personality on screen and often most users, especially if they are NOT complete novices, see personality like the paper clip in MS Word as being annoying. Nevertheless, the absence of personality and of those personal interactions are seen as strange in a computer game.

Therefore, from a HCI design point of view, I believe different circumstances demand different levels of personality. Whereas a game may demand a complete absorbance of the user into the interface, a word processor would need to be more of a “do what I say” interface where it just performs tasks efficiently. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that the interface of an application is geared towards the required output rather than a blanket good/bad interface requirement. This means that what is good for one application may not be good for another.

Media Equation for Children

The media equation as my colleague has explained below is the way people respond to media in a fundamentally social manner and how they treat computers as social actors in interactions.

However, I will now consider how this affects children in particular. The background to the media equation is that due to our minds not having evolved fast enough to deal with these new concepts, is this true also of children that they react in the same way as adults in dealing with computer interfaces as social actors?

From my research, I have found many interesting findings. The first interesting finding was that children seemed to respond in the same manner regardless of the personality of the computer. Whether the computer praised them for their performance or not they reacted in the same manner. This has some important implications for the design of an interface as it means that it is not as important for it to be as positive as was previously thought. However, this does not mean that it is worthless being positive as the findings did show a very slight level of increase in the level of answers given. On the whole, children’s software currently is presented in a very positive manner regardless of whether the child gets the answer right or wrong. However, from the findings it can be seen that adults seem to be more affected by these things than children do.

However, one significant area that children are more affected by the media equation than adults is where the computer comes across as a team mate. Where the computer made suggestions the children were far more likely to follow the advice and make changes to their answers. Although the finding were not statistically significant they were found to be much more than the way adults responded.

Furthermore, boys were found to be far more influenced than girls in the suggestions the computer made when investigating the effects of team formation.

The implications of these findings are that when designing interfaces for children, they must be set apart from those of adults. Aside from the usual brighter colours and rounded graphics, it is perhaps far more important to design the interface in a friend like manner where the computer takes the child through the software/site/application just as a parent or teacher would in real life.

Moreover, with children, due to the fact that they are usually in the stage of learning and experimentation, then they adapt much quicker to a personality than adults do. Therefore, more care must be taken with design of the way information is sequenced rather than they personality of the computer. Furthermore, presentation is far more important in terms of colour and style as children react more positively to a brighter and more interactive display.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Real Interface Design In Cars

This blog discusses the use of the Cruise Control feature in cars and how the user interfaces with the design of the feature. The cruise control feature provides much functionality for the driver. It lets you set a constant speed on motorways, the rain sensor turns on the headlights and wipers when needed, and a parking sensor alerts you of how much room you have, even in the tightest spaces, to make life easier.

The cruise control system actually has a lot of other built in functions other than those mentioned above. For instance, the cruise control pictured below can accelerate or decelerate the car by 1 mph with the tap of a button. If you apply this method 10 times the car will increase its speed by 10 mph. There is constant interaction between the car and the driver respectively.

The cruise control function is the interface between human and machine. The design of this interface must be incorporated well into the mechanics of the car. As we have discussed before, humans sub-consciously treat computers as if they were humans. Hence in the design of this interface we would want the interaction to be as smooth and enjoyable as it can be. The purpose of the cruise control feature is to make the driving journey as easy and relaxing as possible for the driver,We would not want the driver to come under difficulty with the interface of the cruise control feature whilst driving at 70mph on the motorway. Humans can get angry with machines that do not do what the user wants. This could lead to damaging the cruise control feature on the car and incurring repair costs.

There are a few countries namely USA and France developing a more advanced cruise control system that can automatically adjust a car's speed to maintain a safe following distance. This uses a radar to detect the speed of the car in front in order to make the necessary speed changes.

A user should be able to interact with the interface in flawless fashion and be in a position to use its functionality to the fullest. The user needs to be satisfied with the use of the interface and interpret it as a profitable experience otherwise the user will not come back to use the interface.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Narrative User Interfaces

In the late seventies and early eighties, when the first graphical user interfaces appeared on the market, many people heralded these interfaces as intuitive, that is, easy to learn and use. According to them, graphical user interfaces would remove the barrier between computer systems and users and thus make computers accessible for everyone.

In fact, even though graphical user interface have opened computers to the masses, many people still have problems with using them. And the problems are increasing and may even have a huge economic impact.

However to give you a taste of what a Narrataive user Interface i have come up with the follwoing example. Imagine that you enter a booth at a trade show and are welcomed by a synthetic character on a computer screen and offered assistance. The character does not simply talk to you in a one-way fashion but has a real conversation with you. It directs you to indicate your interests in a book in front of the screen and shows videos on the requested topics. Finally it asks you to hand over your business card so that you may receive further information. When you leave the booth accompanied by a farewell greeting, you may wonder what on earth you just have encountered at this booth. Well, you encountered a glimpse into the future of user interfaces, a future that is called "Narrative User Interfaces."


Narrative user interfaces are based on the storytelling paradigm and set out to revolutionize the way people interact with computers. Narrative user interfaces attempt to mimic the communication behavior of humans. Computers talk to people, listen to them, and even take the situational context into account. They promise to ultimately make computers accessible for everyone. Today's graphical user interfaces, even though they have opened the computer to the masses, have reached their limits. Many people have problems with using them and with exploiting their full capabilities. As software becomes more and more complex and powerful, the situation is getting even worse.

Narrative interfaces, the research field of Prof. Encarnação from Fraunhofer IDG, combined with Prof. Thome's demand for integrating explanation and guidance capabilities into computers, may help to utilize the immense computing power of future computers and to unleash their real power and benefits — computers that are usable and understandable for everyone, without recourse to manuals, computers that also explain what they do and why, and what they can do for us.

To me however, it seems history is repeating itself: Narrative interfaces start a second revolution in computer interfaces in order to make computers "really" accessible for everyone just as graphical user interfaces did. It remians to be seen whether it makes computers "really" accessible or not.........

An Introduction To Designing Interfaces With The Media Equation

Welcome to the TechBology Blog. Our next series of postings will be a collaboration of the research done by the TechBology crew on "Designing interfaces with the media equation". As part of our HCI (Human Computer Interaction) module we were given the task to research this topic and present it to the world (that's you out there). So here's a brief introduction, an ice breaker, to the world of interfaces and the media equation. We hope you are intrigued by our findings. Enjoy your reading.

What is an 'Interface'?

An interface is the boundary across which two independent systems meet and act on or communicate with each other. From a HCI point of view, an interface - more commonly referred to as the User Interface - is what you see when you look at your computer monitor. It is the "connection" between the display-keyboard combination and the user.

What is the 'Media Equation'?

The media equation is the study into how people tend to interact with computers as if they were human beings. Numerous psychological studies have shown that people treat computers, televisions, and new media as real people and places. The Media Equation by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass is a classic book in which Reeves and Nass introduce that "media equals real life" and that our interactions with media are "fundamentally social and natural". They demonstrate that people are "polite" to computers; that on-screen and real-life motion can provoke the same physical responses, and other human-computer interactions that share the same qualities as human-human interaction.

This book conveys that people do interact with objects, especially interactive and media devices, as if they were people. The media equation is exploited in the use of designing interfaces. When user interfaces are designed to be polite and interact in a positive social manner, the person has a much more enjoyable and profitable interaction. Social Computing aims at supporting this human tendency for human-like communication, which is an aspect of narrative interfaces. Our next blog delves deeper into the design and use of narrative user interfaces.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

What colors?

Just a quick blog here...mostly off the back of thinking about the Hex game. I was thinking from a usability perspective what colors would be best for games where both players need the colours to stand out when looking at one of them. For example when player 1 is white then looking at the board he/she should see white as being dominant, and for black he/she should see black as dominant.

If anyone bothers reading these blogs please add some comments about what colours are used in the games that you play.

Yellow and Red - Connect 4
Orange and Blue - Make 5

What else is there?

Just to relate this to HCI sometimes you don't want just one section to stick out, but you want the user to not be distracted by other parts of your interface when focusing on one section. That is one of the reasons why scrolling text is very very bad HCI. Yet some sites insist on these java applets which scroll text and flash colors at you. Luckily most sites have moved away from the philosophy that because I can I should.

One idea would be to use the mouse as a pointer to what the user is focusing on and then change other parts of the interface depending on that. For example if I were to hover my pointer over an article on a page with 3 or 4 such posts then the program should recognise this and grey out other areas. This would enhance the focus of the user. However, it could also be very annoying as it would mean that to see something my mouse would constantly have to be in the right place.

Smooth Scrolling

Did u ever get confused on one of them sites where u click on a link and it takes u to the 30th paragraph on a page filled with enough text to be in a government report. Well a cool feature I came across which I believe encapsulates the idea of HCI is a JavaScript function which instead of jumping all the way down....or jumping all the way up, scrolls through until it reaches the section you wanted.

Although not exactly ground breaking, it is a feature that adds those small things to an interface which all add up to a good user experience. From a HCI design perspective, all interfaces need to show the user what is happening rather than just doing things from a functionality point of view. That means that interfaces should include loading bars to inform the user how long it will take to finish the process and other features such as scroll bars that change size depending on how much input there is in the text box.

Click here to view the scroll effect in action

or here to view the actual code for the script

Furthermore, another feature that I saw using JavaScript (can't remember the site now) was that when a user clicked on a text box to type something in, the web page immediately put a red border around the box. In effect its these small features that add to the usability of a site or application.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Mobile That Reads Your Mind

FOR some, their mobile is a constant companion. But, unlike other best friends, it cannot guess what you will do, judge your relationship or reveal a secret admirer. Until now, that is.

A new phone being tested in the US will know your daily habits and eventually be able to give intelligent advice, say its inventors. It learns about your life by logging every call and message, and when applications suxch as alarms and cameras are used. It could predict, for example, that when you phone atleast three friends at 5pm, you will leave work shortly to meet them at the bar. It could then warn you not to drink too much if you have a key appointment the next day.

Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are testing the system, which uses Context mesage logging software and Bluetooth chips said "By analysing how often you meet your associates, the phone will be able to work out the strength of your freindship,' co-inventor Nathan Eagle told New Scientist "It might even pick up on a flirattion before you notice".

What the inventors have failed to mention is the mobiles success rate. For example many of the students living away from home may receive a number of phone calls from home. In some students cases there maybe more phone calls from home than your freinds. The phone will throw-up your house phone number as being a secret admirer. At first this may seem funny but after a while it will become really annoying.

More importantly many of us are struggling to use the current features on mobile phones not to mention this new invention which will just add to the complexity of there use.
There will need to be a few iterations between the design and development stage before such a product will be ready for its release to the consumer market.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Plain and Simple

As most of the internet community has noticed, since the advent of brilliantly simple interfaces such as Google and others, more and more sites (mostly businesses) have gone down the road of keeping the initial interface very streamlined.

This is an excellent example of where HCI has impacted upon the designers of such interfaces. With previous interfaces the aim used to be to present as much information as possible in a structured manner, but most designers have now realised that using HTML tools they can hide and show different parts of the interface very easily. Furthermore they can, using cookies and other techniques, personalise the site for further visits. This means that as each user has his own preferences and interests that he wishes to persue, then he can focus in on these interests.

One side effect of the simplicity of the interface design, is the powerful use of menus. Most sites tend to employ a wide based structure for menus which cover a large part of the site with a few clicks. These menus often allow the site to narrow down to the interests of the user very easily. From the basic home page the user can then go to the page (s)he wants at the click of a few buttons.

From the basic HTML that used to be around a few years ago, the internet has come a long way. Even flash seems to be used very little in menus and pages as javascript has made it much simpler to hide and show various parts of the interface at the click of a few buttons.

The interface I will discuss now is that of, Google's recent venture into the internet based email market. It has a very simple design to it coded almost entirely in JavaScript. It has a menu on the left hand side which details the categories of emails such as Inbox, Sent Mail, Spam etc. Below this it has a menu which has the ability of being hidden. This contains the labels that a user may give to his emails. I will not go into the way labelling works but this can be Googled by searching for a review on GMail.

The neatness of GMail's interface is in the way they present all information as text, in a confined area and still get a very good level of communication between the user and his email. They do not over burden the user with ads or pictures that may be distracting (i mean isn't the whole point of banner ads to lure the user away from his email into buying something), but instead they present the user's email to them in a simple manner.

The side menu takes very little room as it is mere text and so creates a lot of space for the main parts of the interface. This enables features such as email snippets and other info to be all shown on just one line. This tends to make the interface consistent with conditions such as different resolutions and window sizes. Moreover, if you've tried to make the window smaller, the way they have designed it the snippet just gets smaller without forcing the any change in the interface. In other words unlike other interfaces it is very rigid in presenting information in exactly the same way time after time. This is very important as the user needs to have a mental picture of how the interface works so that it becomes something (s)he does not need to think about when using it.