You don't need 3D holograms, surround-sound and a simulated fairground ride to stimulate a child's imagination – sometimes reading bedtime stories does the job better. …
Article by Peter Barr
You don't need 3D holograms, surround-sound and a simulated fairground ride to stimulate a child's imagination – sometimes reading bedtime stories does the job better. SICSA appointee Dr Eva Hornecker of the University of Strathclyde is interested in all sorts of multimodal interaction, including spatially-embedded systems, tangibles, haptics and whole-body interaction – what she calls “beyond-the-desktop” computing – but she's more concerned with usability and user experience than in the hardware and software. “What is most powerful in learning terms is sometimes very simple,” she explains. And old-fashioned books can be much more effective than even the smartest of novel technologies.
Engagement is one of the keys to the success of any interface, and for Hornecker this includes how it supports social interaction and learning. “What gets people talking?” she asks. “And what gets them using the system and learning?” Content is important, but Hornecker also believes that groups of users may create their own content through interaction and collaboration, and as a result have more fun at the same time as learning.
“I tend to focus on the user experience of multimodal interaction,” she explains, “working with qualitative methods, including ethnographic observation and detailed analysis of videos, as well as more objective aspects – for example, the influence of speed of interaction or correctness.”
The Mobiquitous Lab, run by Hornecker and Dr Mark Dunlop, studies user behaviour in relation to mobile devices and multimodal interaction – for example, working with teenagers in local secondary schools to develop new ideas for mobile study aids. Among the other projects they support is a “mixed-initiative planning” application for interactive multitouch tables, developed by one of their students in collaboration with the Artificial Intelligence group at Strathclyde, a tabletop “voting” system for children, in collaboration with Professor Ian Ruthven, and a PhD project which explores the utility of multitouch in maritime equipment.
Hornecker is also working on a project for the National Trust for Scotland, “test-driving” educational displays for its new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayrshire, focusing on the usability of prototype touch-screens and an interactive table (with physical buttons for interaction) by studying how young families “play” with the new installations.
Many “interactive” devices are not as interactive as they’re claimed to be, says Hornecker. Instead of interacting with the people around you and sharing information through discussion and participation, some displays lead to a “tunnel effect” where the user only relates to a small part of the overall content, in isolation from everyone else. Hornecker says it is important not to make assumptions about new technologies but see them in use first, and she also advises her students to “expect the unexpected” when it comes to designing and assessing new systems. For example, when she and her colleagues studied new technologies for steering wheels, they discovered that tactile navigation information tended to be confusing for drivers, but then found that feedback from tactile plus visual devices produced a much more positive result. Similarly, when mobile phones came onto the market, no-one imagined that people would primarily use them for texting (and nowadays also for email and Facebook) rather than voice calls.
“It's a question of attitude,” Hornecker explains. “We should prepare to be surprised – because if something doesn’t work, we can learn from this, and this may teach us how to create something better. Sometimes we can turn our failures into successes, if we investigate why things didn’t work, where our assumptions were wrong, and rephrase our research question or revise our approach.”