alexandtheweb / blog

Embrace the strange: on meeting weird interfaces

I’m in Lisbon this week. When you’re in a strange, new place, you tend to meet new people. You also tend to meet new interfaces, often as a feature of some public device or in the guise of some kind of public information portal – which at times makes these new friendships a necessity.

If you’re a designer forced into encounters with these UIs, it’s only natural to lash out at their eccentricities and usability shortcomings. Yet I can’t help seeing these alien interactions as part of the adventure of being in an unfamiliar environment. Besides, it’s nice to find yourself denied total, intuitive control over a system once in a while. It’s nice to be baffled and made to pay attention.

And lately I’ve also found great joy in antagonising and testing these systems – the sort you get from baiting a racist uncle at a family gathering.

So here are my Portugese friends.

Interactive Floorplan, Vasco da Gama shopping mall, Oriente

Possibly buggy but nevertheless mystifyingly hybrid touchscreen UI – only the video could do it justice. The “touchscreen” insists on possessing your fingertip with a cursor (one that shapeshifts into a pointing hand, no less) for reaching your onscreen destination. I played with a few of these displays, and some appeared to suffer from a kind of cursor lethargy. This meant that you sometimes found your finger not quite aligned with the ghostly cursor and were forced to daintily guide it towards its goal. You then click somewhere in the periphery of where you’d like the cursor – not your finger – to hit. A heady blend of direct and indirect input.

Floor selection keypad and display, Olissippo Hotel
Upon checking into my hotel I was given instruction: the buttons for selecting the floor were on the outside of the lift. Interesting! Let’s watch:

The keypad’s physical buttons have no way of retaining their pressed state and the little screen above them goes blank after informing you which of the two lifts would arrive. This means that if multiple people are selecting their respective floors, all quickly lose track of where the lift would be going or if they had selected the right floor at all. I’d like to point out that this had the oblique benefit of encouraging bonding between the waiting parties. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for designing for frustration as a way of facilitating shared experiences of bafflement or suffering.

City guide kiosk, Lisboa Airport
The city guide kiosk is the first interaction honeytrap you encounter on arriving in Lisbon – it hovers just outside baggage claim, luring those who mistake it for an ATM or local transport ticket machine – its first shortcoming. At first glance the kiosk appears to be a touchscreen map offering directions and information about the city. But look down and you’ll find a brushed chrome, industrial-strength keyboard familiar in these types of installations. Behold:

Lisboa city guide kiosk keyboard

I love the harsh, sturdy feel of these kinds of keyboards – they were clearly designed to withstand frustrated bashing. The “mouse” is a giant, shiny ballgag of a trackball that shunts reluctantly in its metal slot, jutting the cursor jerkily to its onscreen target. Once you’ve used it to guide the cursor to its destination, you must seek out a secondary confirmation button – and affirm your selection with another click. After that, steel yourself: every action you undertake is greeted by the screen with a “Loading…” progress bar.

And there you have it. All interesting encounters, but I don’t think we’ll be swapping postcards this summer.

A designer meets open data

A few of us spent the Friday before last at the Open Data Cities conference, organised by local hero Greg Hadfield. The conference was ostensibly aimed at developers and public servants trying to liberate and transmute data into innovative services for the modern city – for me, however, the day proved filled with ideas for designers who like a challenge. I wish there’d been more of us in the audience.

People don’t think about the concept of “data” – especially not about owning it, generating it or gaining access to it through public services. People think about solving problems, getting things done and meeting their basic and higher needs. Socially engaged UX types who understand this are doing an amazing job of bridging the gap between “your data” and “your stuff” – see, for example, and We need more of them.

Below are a few highlights from my favourite talks of the day:

Tom Steinberg –
If you’re a good citizen, you’ve probably used one of’s online tools (such as and know how beautifully clear and intuitive they are. The herculean, near-criminal efforts of people like Tom to source and administer the data stores which underlie them is, as far as the end user is concerned, nowhere to be seen.

The first speaker of the day to wave the flag for user experience, Tom argued the value of open data can only become apparent to sceptics and detractors through tools that meet genuine needs. Case in point, Tom cited, the shining jewel in Barack Obama’s open government policy. Although far bigger than UK’s own government data portal, doesn’t begin to match its traffic figures – primarily because the vast data stores it offers have little to do with information people actually want. Tom’s key point: no city can be considered open if it doesn’t readily respond for real people’s requests for information.

Bill Thompson – BBC
Meet one of the great heroes of our age: Bill Thompson, who is leading the efforts to digitise the BBC archives and open them up to you to do with as we please. Bill’s recap of some of his team’s R&D projects sent my geek posse into giddy heights of excitement and we’ve now organised a trip to see the man himself at the BBC archives in June. There are still a few places left – get in touch if you’re interested in joining in.

Emer Coleman – Director of Digital Engagement, Government Digital Service
With open data often perceived as a “hyper-democratic” threat, Emer called for digital disruptors to grab at data stores as they become available and prove the value of shared information by building services that provide for the greater good. Emer’s talk reminded me of the best bit of advice anyone’s ever given me: “Don’t wait for someone’s permission to do something great”.

Anyway, fantastic day. There was also talk of transparency grenades, air quality eggs and Charles II’s Twitter feed.

A snippet of my craptastic sketchnotes below. A gentle reminder to myself that I desperately need to improve my scribbling skills.
Open data cities notes

Mobile user testing: the rigs and the challenges

As of two weeks ago I was still a complete noob when it came to testing mobile products with real users. Figuring out the best testing approach within the time, budget, setting and product constraints of the project was… well, kind of fun, actually.

The aim of this post is to catalogue some of the mobile testing rigs I discovered or played with along the way. It’s also to make note of various considerations to the user testing protocol which I think are unique to the mobile setting. As is usually the case with these things, I probably didn’t learn as much as I could have, nor did I arrive at some ideal scenario: everything will depend on the product, target audience, device tail being tested.

The setup I finally ended up with (or had to settle on) worked reasonably well. The caveats particular to my situation were as follows: we needed to test the product on-site and we had no real budget for procuring a fancy kit.

Mobile user testing rigs:

I got to play with one of these at the HCID interaction lab a couple of weeks ago. This all-in-one mobile rig is meant to be paired with one of Tobii’s eye tracking units and is really rather nice and really rather expensive – it’s probably what you want if you have deep pockets and want to look like a very serious researcher.

This little webcam was recommended to me by Tracy, who documented its application in a usability study here . It’s also what the folks at MailChimp have been using. At a measly £40, this guy is definitely a budget-friendly option and has the advantage of being easily adjusted and repositioned. I ended up buying one – in a sexy black edition – but sadly found the video footage was not of the quality we were after.

Not a video capture system, but a lovely, modular rig which you can fit onto the back of the testing device and equip with a camera. Mr. Tappy bas the wonderful advantage of allowing users to pick up and carry the test device. I really hoped to get my hands on a Mr. Tappy (ahem) but alas, Nick ran out of stock and I ran out of time. I would have been curious to see if the weight of the rig and its angling over the device interfered with the testing. Hat tip to Harry for the recommendation.

These familiar staples of lecture theatres are the surprising solution for mobile user testing an and were suggested to me by Patrick from Makemedia. They suit the budget-conscious, starting at a few hundred pounds.

  • Copy stand fitted with an HD video camera

In the end our own home-grown solution was a copy stand mounted with an HD camera. Copy stands (also known as rostrum cameras or animation stands) such as this one are usually equipped with a standard screw-in camera mount and are adjustable in height. The video footage was captured and edited with Morae.

Certainly that’s not all that’s out there. I’ve seen people do some crazy things with Skype.

Physical and ergonomic considerations:

OK, a whole flurry of things may impact how your tests will pan out. Here is the handful I made note of as future learnings:

  • Will the quality of the testing be affected if the user isn’t able to freely move the target device or assume a familiar, comfortable position? My little testing adventure wasn’t particularly affected by this, but a few users did have trouble with legibility of smaller UI elements because of the artificial placement of the device. Also, some talented people do think this is a big deal
  • If the product being tested requires the user to pick up the device and move it in order to trigger some form of interaction (think gyroscopic stuff like shaking), is your filming rig set up to capture the breadth of this type of interaction?
  • Will the quality of the testing be affected if your users are unable to use their personal device or its equivalent?
  • If you’re asking users to use their personal device, can you supply an equivalent on the day? Can you provide an equivalent with appropriate device preferences such as screen brightness, orientation or text size display?
  • Consider left-handed users and large-handed users. Also, some people who are perfectly happy having their face recorded will get seriously self-conscious about having their hands filmed. True story.

Phew. Hope this is helpful. We ended up with some good insights and a very happy client so we couldn’t have fluffed up that much. But I still want a Mr. Tappy.

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