Monday, July 24, 2006

Bad usability that is good

I am interested in some of the darker aspects of human nature when it comes to technology: I would like to understand frustration when things go wrong in order to design new tools with the right emotional impact.

Why not ‘build in’ a navigational workflow order that creates anger to help select those who need to defuse fraught situations.
Why not deliberately design ‘bad’ situations; obviously this is necessary to study issues like frustration, but also we could design bad things in order to understand what is good!

There are times when good is dark and the bright light of day needs to be shrouded just a little frustration.

Gamers know this. Game developers know it better.

Slowly you edge down the dark corridor, distant daylight dimly illuminates the walls on either side, your heart races you know there are others in these corridors and they are after you. You near the bend. What is beyond? Too late you wheel round only to be momentarily blinded by a bright light, and then you hear a pistol crack and see the ground race towards you, already red with blood, your blood.

Game Over.

Video games are escapist, virtual, just a game, but in the heat of the moment the emotions can be very real. Research on affective gaming seek in various ways to understand, measure or infer the emotions or more normally simply arousal of the gamer in order to adapt the game and create a more engaging, more immersive experience.

Early work used heart monitoring to measure arousal and create a game that modified the level of challenge accordingly, low levels of arousal led to more enemies attacking, although easier to kill ones in order to maintain the same level of difficulty.

More recently they've focused on frustration, both the 'proper' frustration when you get shot by a cleverer opponent for the 10th time, but also the frustration when a moment’s delay in the controller means you can't duck in time. Cruel, cruel design that everyone loves.

We grow up in the real world, physical things that respond to gravity, bump into each other, have weight, solidity and stay where they are put until moved. Then we move into the electronic world whether virtual reality or simply a desktop interface.

Things are no longer so simple and the laws of physicality breakdown: there are delays between action and effect, things change without apparent agency; it is a world of magic and not a little superstition. Where is my information? How come search isn’t working?

I think that we need to understand what usability is and the ways in which design can recruit our natural understandings of the natural world to create better tangible interfaces and ubiquitous environments.

Some of this we can find by examining existing artifacts, mining the implicit knowledge within the organization – understanding this and investing in proper technology to enhance what is working.

This has enabled us to produce putative design guidelines, but there is only so much you can learn from good design.

In neurology it has been the freak accidents and illnesses, skull fractures and cancerous growths which have revealed much of the structure of the brain. It is when systems fail that we begin to understand how they succeed.

So why not employ cruel design, experiment on systems designed to be strange, hard, annoying or simply impossible to use? By manipulating the level of physical coherence of physical-digital mappings we are delving into the properties that make things work well by making them work badly.

Why not create a bit of anger?

Abuse, violence and emotional turmoil are a day-to-day part of many peoples lives. How do you train people to deal with traumatized, angry, upset clients? Training videos, I guess , but how do you design a system that deal with aggression?

Here’s the point: When you can't help you need to be helpful. That is exactly what usability design should be about.

Hey Mr. Designer – Hey Ms. Usability - can you soothe the angry user before there is blood on the keyboard?

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