Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Human Computer Interface: a four-year-old child could understand it...

Rufus T. Firefly: Clear? Huh. Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. [to Bob Roland] Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can't make head or tail of it.
Duck Soup (1933)
originally uploaded by Claudecf.
I got a new mobile phone (that's "cell phone" in American English). I didn't want a new phone. I was quite happy with the one I had. I could make and receive calls, I could switch it off when I didn't want calls and I could play Snake on it. What more could you want from a phone? Well, my wife wanted a cameraphone. She accused me of being a Luddite when I said I couldn't see the point as I already had a phone and a good digital camera! Me! A Luddite! In case I haven't already made this clear: My name is David Muir and I am a geek.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (too late) we went to buy her a new cameraphone. We were offered a fantastic deal, but it meant changing network. Since it costs much more to phone between two different networks this would have meant that it would have cost a lot more for us to phone each other. In fact, assuming we phoned each other at least twice a week (probably an underestimate) it would only take a year and a half of phone calls to have cost us the price of me getting a new phone too. ...So we both got new phones.
So I now have a phone that takes pictures, can browse the Internet (on a tiny wee screen that makes the experience... interesting), but I can't play snake.

This device is trying to do loads of different things and you only have a limited set of control buttons and a tiny screen to control it, so perhaps it is not surprising that the Human Computer Interface (HCI) is a bit difficult to use in places. It may not be surprising, but does it have to be that way? Not necessarily. There are examples of complex tasks being made easier by good HCI design. One example is the iPod which is generally acknowledged as having a very simple but effective interface. Another favourite example of mine is Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). Why do some of them insist that you hit enter after typing a four digit PIN? As far as I know there are always exactly four digits in a PIN, so why can't the machines work out for themselves when you have entered all four numbers? However I like the Clydesdale Bank's system because you have the shortcut buttons down the side of the screen for common amounts and the £50 shortcut (which is the most common amount withdrawn) is beside the button you just pressed to get to the withdrawal screen - nice! Even nicer is the way that they display an entry box in the middle of the withdrawal screen so you can type an amount that doesn't have a shortcut instead of having to hit "Other" and go to a different screen. It's things like that, which you may not even notice if they are done well, which makes the difference between a good and a bad user experience.

And therein lies the problem. For most teachers, the experience of using a computer is frustrating and difficult because computers don't do what the teachers want or act in a way they find comprehensible. I talked in a previous post about how many of our students are concerned that pupils may know more about ICT than they do. If ICT was easier to use (like an iPod) perhaps fewer students would be concerned.

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