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.