Can technology draw us closer to our physical environment? The rollout of ‘tap to pay’, the growth of beacons and embedded digital intelligence (IoT) challenges everyone, from automotive manufacturers to retailers, to consider the user experience of interacting with smart physical objects.
One of the design challenges at MEX/15, facilitated by Alex Guest, asked a team to investigate and define the principles of proximity interactions. The challenge was deliberately broad, but grounded in the belief interacting with a physical object through digital means will vary according to the users’ degree of proximity. However, the team was otherwise unencumbered by the usual focus on a specific enabling technology, such as Bluetooth or NFC, and instead encouraged to look for the deeper behavioural traits which govern users’ expectations of these experiences.
Facilitated by Alex over a two day period, their work ranged from field trips observing examples in action to sketching and iteration with two design students from Brunel University. Their results are detailed below.
Produce a set of illustrated design principles to draw us closer emotionally to our physical context and environment through the use of technology. You may wish to consider a range of variables which influence the experience, from defining degrees of ‘proximity’ to the underlying characteristics of various link technologies.
- Determine directionality. Associated with the concept of proximity is that of motion. The team noticed that certain specific and different outcomes were required in the approach compared with the retreat from an object or a destination.
- Anticipate interaction at stages of approach. The team considered a journey to a specific destination. The field trip, which included a visit to the statue of Sir Isaac Newton outside the British Library, gave inspiration to the possibility of enhancing the journey during its planning and approach by providing additional content or opportunities to engage with the destination. The team also considered minimising negatives: for example, in the context of London Underground commuting, getting stopped at the barrier for lack of funds could be anticipated on entering the station.
- Enable natural gestures to correspond with physical context. Next to the statue of Sir Isaac Newton is a small purple circle with various means for triggering some information about Newton. The circle is hard to reach even for a 6 foot tall man. For the majority of people, climbing onto the lower tier of the plinth is the only way to reach it. A sign on the plinth says ‘do not climb’! The team extrapolated from this the need to maintain a relationship at the closest proximity between visitor and destination that is unencumbered: instead it should be intuitive and anticipate instinctive behaviours.
- Let experience guide the choice of linking technology. The team explored a variety of situations with different means of linking user and object. ‘Experience’ here refers to user experience. The example of unlocking a car using an app has been used as an example of adding unnecessary steps and complexity into a simple task that should reside in the ‘quick thinking’ part of the brain.
- Provide reassuring feedback to actions. Automatic outputs resulting from a proximity input requires providing some clue to the person that the output has been effected. A bike lock (the team considered the Skylock) that automatically locks when the owner walks away does not provide any reassurance that the bike is, in fact, locked. Visual, audible or haptic feedback can be deployed to provide confirmation and reassurance.
- Deal with negative emotions and outcomes elegantly. Considering again the example of failing to pass a barrier in the London Underground, the team found that insufficient information is provided to the passenger to resolve the situation, leading to irritation both for the passenger and others in the queue.
- Some other examples we considered including linking to a Bluetooth speaker, returning items to a shop, lecture room furniture, Wifi provision in retail outlets, self check-out terminals in supermarkets, electronic information displays (eg at St Pancras Station in London), automatic doors and ‘free to play pianos’ at St Pancras.
Watch the team present their findings during the concluding session of MEX/15.