Prompt: Pick a piece of interactive technology in public, used by multiple people. Write down your assumptions as to how it’s used, and describe the context in which it’s being used. Watch people use it, preferably without them knowing they’re being observed. Take notes on how they use it, what they do differently, what appear to be the difficulties, what appear to be the easiest parts. Record what takes the longest, what takes the least amount of time, and how long the whole transaction takes. Consider how the readings from Norman and Crawford reflect on what you see.
For this assignment I studied the two automatic hand sanitizer dispensers placed near elevators on ground floor on 721 Broadway. Each dispenser is a small unit on top of a stand. When a user places hand(s) below it, it dispenses sanitizer right on the hand(s).
I suppose I am quiet comfortable now with the dos and don’ts of the New York City! The interactive technologies in public are different here than what I have seen before in other places. Although it was not altogether a new concept, I found it interesting to see people interact with machines almost everywhere in public. A fascinating observation about cultural differences: In India I do not remember seeing interactive technologies like vending machines in public wherein people pay money and buy food/ tickets: There is always a ‘rational human being’ on the other end, one who could resolve queries, and most importantly guard the system when it is in public. (Makes me think of John Kolko’s “Thoughts on interaction design” where he describes need of a sentient entity, preferably human, to respond to the confused users.)
Another interesting facet of differentiation is the heavy use of electricity to power the interactive systems. This is where the idea of observing automated hand sanitizer came to my mind. The ones that I had used before were all mechanical, the user needs to ‘press’ a bulky mechanical button that dispenses sanitizer as a result of springs and notches and perhaps gears working in the background. When I used a dispenser near elevators on day one at Tisch, it took me hardly a second to theorize the overall interaction; but it was all routed through looking at the dispenser, forming a mental model with the help of visuals that I saw, and memories I had about interacting with similar systems. I was able to understand that there’s no need to press a button, without consciously noticing it. This became clearer when I read Norman’s take on forming models about systems:
“Everyone forms theories (mental models) to explain what they have observed. In the absence of external information, people are free to let their imaginations run free as long as the mental models they develop account for the facts as they perceive them.”
It would be interesting in this context to see someone use this system for the first time, especially when they have no knowledge of what a dispenser is. Unfortunately I was not able to observe such a user, since the placement of the dispenser is not technically in a ‘public’ area. All the users entering the space seemed aware of at least the basic idea of what hand sanitizer is.
People who used the dispenser were generally sure if they wanted to use it or not. As described above, the space is frequented by regular students, faculty and staff members and it is really a part of daily habit to these users. On basis of whether they used it or not, I could see three broad categories:
Users who interacted with it, no matter what. Mostly these users were females. These people even occasionally made others wait for them while they quickly finished the interaction.
Users who did not use it at all. The majority of these users were males. It’s not the case that they were unaware of the existence of the dispenser— they sometimes read the text on it while they waited for the elevator. But they never interacted.
Users who interacted with the system because they were standing idle nearby, waiting anyway for the elevator.
I found third group extremely interesting, and I think this group impressively contributes to the success of having the dispensers installed right next to the elevators.
Irrespective of what group they belonged to, people took around 5 to 7 seconds to interact when they used the dispenser. Afterwards a very few users stood right in front of the unit while they applied it onto hands, most of them left for the stairs or elevators or just ‘moved aside a bit’ while rubbing it onto hands.
Another interesting part of the unit is a flat black plastic part that projects from behind the unit, and runs a few inches below to form a platform for any ‘unused’ sanitizer that the user choses not to use (or that the user fails to ‘catch’). The other purpose that this projection serves is it defines constraint. It directly communicates the range of operation. As Norman describes it:
“The world restricts the allowed behavior. The physical properties of objects constrain possible operations: the order in which parts can go together and the ways in which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manipulated. Each object has physical features—projections, depressions, screw-threads, appendages—that limit its relationships to other objects, operations that can be performed to it, what can be attached to it, and so on.”
There is a tiny green LED to the left of the unit. It blinks when the unit detects palm(s) and dispenses the sanitizer; but I saw it only when I paid close attention to it as I had to work on an assignment. Otherwise, I am sure I would not have noticed this tiny feedback.