Interaction unintended

Interaction unintended

Opening the oven released a cloud of steam. I should have been expecting it. It’s hardly the first time I’ve roasted a chicken.

What I most certainly did not expect was that the chicken would start talking to my phone.

As the steam billowed out, the moisture must have brushed against my wireless ear buds, which I was wearing to listen to a podcast while I cooked.

There was something quite disconcerting – spooky, even – about hearing the sound volume rise ever louder in my ears. It took me a moment to work out what was happening.

The moisture from the oven, condensing on the surface of the ear buds had been interpreted as a ‘touch’ event on the capacitive control surface. The buds thought a finger was being pressed to them. With this particular model – Samsung Galaxy Buds Live – that kind of touch event is programmed to increase the volume, transmitting a command via Bluetooth to my paired smartphone to turn up the podcast.

I suspect the sense of disquiet at how this experience unfolded stemmed in part from the feeling that a device I’d trusted to be close to me – almost hard-wired into my auditory sense – had a mind of its own. It was heightened by the two main control mechanisms – touching the buds themselves or interacting with them via my phone – being out of reach. I had my hands full with a hot baking tray and my phone was on the other side of the kitchen.

Ed Maklouf gave a talk at MEX/9 (which you can watch here) about the evolutionary reasons why things which interact with our sense of hearing can feel particularly emotive.

It leaves me thinking about the numerous other day-to-day scenarios where multi-sensory interfaces are popping up. The Incident of Chicken Sorcery – as it shall henceforth be known – was a low stakes event. The consequences didn’t extend beyond my partner giving me a weird look as tried to tell her – my voice having to get louder and louder to compete with the podcast – why I couldn’t hear what she was saying.

What happens, however, when someone spills coffee on the steering wheel touch controls in the latest electric vehicle? What about when your kids are shouting something from the backseat which gets misinterpreted by the voice UI?

Interaction design is nothing if not the modelling of intention. We should think carefully about the failsafes needed to ensure it never strays into the unintended.

P.s. aside from their complicated relationship with chicken, the Samsung Buds have been a great overall user experience. Reliable, quick to re-connect and fantastic cancellation of wind noise for making calls on the move.

Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

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    Marek Pawlowski

    Update, November 2021: ‘Synthetic wool beanies’ should also be added to the list of items which trigger unexpected interactions with my Samsung Buds. Heading out on a chilly autumn morning to walk the dog, I couldn’t find my usual natural wool hat and instead pulled on something made of synthetic fibres. It triggered the touch and hold ‘volume down’ command on the left earbud, sending it into an unstoppable spiral ending in eery (yup) silence.

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