Sep 1, 2008

Interactive Touch-Screen Technology, Participatory Design,and "Getting It"....

Interactive Touch Screen Technology, Participatory Design, and "Getting It", Revisited

There's been some discussion over the reasons why so many people don't understand touch screen, or "surface" computing, even though research in this area has been going on for years.

As the new owner of the HP TouchSmart, I know that I get it.

The research I've conducted in this area suggests that people will "get-it" only if there is a strong commitment to develop touch-screen "surface" applications through a user-centered, participatory design process. In my view, this should incorporate principles of ethnography, and ensure that usability studies are conducted outside of the lab.

This approach was taken with
Intel's Classmate PC. Intel has about 40 ethnographic researchers, and sent many of them to work with students and teachers in classrooms around the world. (A video regarding ethnographic research and the Intel Classmate project can be found near the end of this post.)

Where to start?
K-12 classrooms and media centers. Public libraries. Malls. Hospital lobbies and doctor's offices. Any waiting room. Staff lounges in medical centers, schools, and universities. Community festivities and events. Movie theater lobbies. Museums and other points of interests.

I believe we need to take a "touching is believing" approach.

Here are some thoughts:

When I try to explain my fascination with developing touch-screen interactive multimedia applications, (interactive whiteboards, multi-touch displays and tables, and the like), many of my friends and family members eyes glaze over. This is particularly true for people I know who are forty-ish or over.

Even if you are younger, if you never saw the cool technology demonstrated in the movie Minority Report, or if you have limited experience with video games, or if you haven't came within touching distance of an interactive whiteboard, the concept might be difficult to understand.

The reality?

Even people who have the opportunity to use surface computing technology on large screens do not take full advantage of it. Multi-touch screens are often used as single-touch screens, and interactive whiteboards in classrooms are often serve as expensive projector screens for teacher-controlled PowerPoint presentations.

Most importantly, there are few software developers who understand the surface computing approach, even with the popularity of the iPhone and iPod Touch. Most focus on traditional business-oriented or marketing applications, and have difficulty envisioning scenarios in which surface computing would be a welcome breath of fresh air.

Another factor is that not all people entrusted to market surface or touch screen computing fully understand it.
Despite a cool website showing off the goods, Microsoft's Surface multi-touch table has been slow to take off, limiting hope of bringing down the price tag to a price most families or schools could afford. (The picture above depicts an application for the Surface designed for health care professionals, not K-12 science education.)

Although you can't buy a Surface table for your family room, it is possible to buy a TouchSmart.

HP's TouchSmart website is engaging and highlights some examples of touch-screen interaction, but most people don't seem to know about it.

Unfortunately, you wouldn't have a clue that the HP TouchSmart exists browsing the aisles at Circuit City or Best Buy!

When I was shopping for my new TouchSmart, I noticed that from a distance, the TouchSmart looked just like the other larger flat-screen monitors filling up the aisles. The salespeople at both stores were not well-informed about the system. The only reason I knew bout the new TouchSmart was related to my obsession with interactive multimedia touch-screen applications- designing them, developing them, studying them, reading about them, blogging about them.... ; }

More thoughts:

After studying HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), and relating this knowledge to what I know as a psychologist, my hunch is that the "Window Icon Mouse Pointing-device" (WIMP) and keyboard input mind-set is embedded in our brains, to a certain extent. Like driving a car, it is something automatic and expected. This is true for users AND developers.

Think about it.

Suppose one day, you were told that you no longer were allowed to control your car by turning on the ignition, steering the wheel, or using your feet to accelerate, slow down, or stop the car! Instead, you needed to learn a new navigation, integration, and control system that involved waving your hands about and perhaps speaking a few commands.

For new drivers who'd never seen a car before, this new system would be user-friendly and intuitive. Perhaps it would be quite easy for 16-year-old kids to wrap their heads around this concept. For most of us, no. Imagine the disasters we would see on our streets and highways!

When we think about how newer technologies are introduced to people, we should keep this in mind.

In my mind, spreading the word about surface computing is not a "if you build it, they will come" phenomenon, like the iPhone. We can't ignore the broader picture.

From my middle-age woman's vantage point, I believe that it is important that the those involved with studying, developing, or marketing surface computing applications realize that many of us simply have no point of reference other than our experiences with ATMs, airline kiosks, supermarket self-serve lanes, and the like.

(The video clip at the very end of this post provides a good example of touch-screen technology gone wrong.)

Be aware that there are substantial numbers of people who might benefit from surface computing who prefer to avoid the ATMs, airline kiosks, and self-serve grocery shopping.

Realize that the collective experience with technology, in many cases, has not been too pretty. Many people have had such user-unfriendly experiences with productivity applications, forced upon them by their employers, that any interest or desire to explore emerging technologies has been zapped.

My own exposure to interactive "surface" related technology was somewhat accidental.

A few years ago, a huge box was deposited into the room I worked in a couple of days a week as a school psychologist at a middle school. After a week or so, I became curious, and found out that it was a SmartBoard. Until then (2002!), I did not know that interactive whiteboards existed.

The boxed remained unopened in the room for the entire school year, but no worry. I played with the only other SmartBoard in the school, and found a couple at the high school where I also worked. I hunted for all of the applications and interactive websites that I could find, and tried them out. That is when I was hooked. I could see all kinds of possibilities for interactive, engaging subject area learning activities. I could see the SmartBoards potential for music and art classes. With my own eyes, I saw how the SmartBoard engaged students with special needs in counseling activities.

(By the way, if you are working with middle school students, PBS Kid's ItsMyLife website activities work great on an interactive whiteboard.)

A few years have passed, and reflecting on all of my fun experiences with interactive whiteboards, with and without students, I now understand that many teachers still have had limited exposure to this technology.

This school year, many teachers are finding themselves teaching in classrooms recently outfitted with interactive whiteboards, scrambling along with educational technology staff development specialists, to figure out how it works best with various groups of students, and what sort of changes need to be made regarding instructional practice.

For the very first time, interactive whiteboards were installed in two classrooms at one of the schools I work at. One of the teachers I know thanked me for telling her about interactive whiteboards and sharing my resources and links.

If I hadn't let her know about this technology, she wouldn't have volunteered to have one installed in her classroom. It has transformed the way she teaches special needs students.

In the few months that she's used the whiteboard, I can see how much it has transformed the way the students learn. They are attentive, more communicative, and engaged. The students don't spend the whole day with the whiteboard - the interactive learning activities are woven into lessons at various times of the day, representing true technology integration.

Now let's see what happens when all-in-one touch-screen PC's are unleashed in our schools!

Some resources:
HP TouchSmart PC website, with demo
HP's TouchSmart YouTube videos
lm3labs (catchyoo, ubiq'window)
NUI Group (See member's links)
Perceptive Pixel - Jeff Hans
Microsoft Surface
(More can be found by doing a search on this blog or The World Is My Interactive Interface.)

Value of ethnographic research:
Ethnographic Research Informed Intel's Classmate PC
"Intel looked closely at how students collaborate and move around in classroom environments. The new tablet feature was implemented so that the device would be more conducive to what Intel calls “micromobility”. Intel wants students to be able to carry around Classmate PCs in much the same way that they currently carry around paper and pencil." -via Putting People First and Ars Technica

The video below is from Intel's YouTube Channel. Information about Intel's approach to ethnographic research in classrooms during the development of the Classroom PC is highlighted. This approach uses participatory design and allows the set of applications developed for the Classmate PC to reflect the needs of local students and teachers. Schools from many different countries were included in this study.


Need for Improvement: User-Unfriendly Information Kiosk Interactive Map

Here are some interesting pictures from lm3labs, which are in my interactive usability hall of fame:

Samsung's new Omnia SDG i900 was re-created in a much larger size, using lm3lab's Ubiq'window touchless technology.

For more about lm3labs, including several videoclips, take a look at one of my previous posts:
Lm3Labs, Nicolas Leoillot, and Multimedia Interaction
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