Designing for Better Experiences

The constant grind of daily commutes, travel, and transportation are only made worse by high costs, low taxi/train/bus frequencies, unreliable time estimates, and unexpected delays. Luckily, over the last several years, Uber has worked to create a product that eliminates this frustrating experience from many of our lives. According to activity theory, “the ultimate cause behind human activities is needs”, (Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi, Acting with Technology). In fact, the idea for Uber was born when its founders, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, had trouble hailing a cab in Paris. They identified a need and built a product to solve a problem which they predicted wasn’t uniquely their own.

Transitioning to anything new takes time, creates emotions we typically don’t like and many times, this discomfort causes us to fall back on our more familiar but outdated methods. However, it’s our need to alleviate this discomfort that motivates us to find a new solution. And, when we find that solution, “When a need meets its object…[it’s] a ‘moment of extraordinary importance’” (Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi, Acting with Technology). It is this very moment, this moment of importance, when a person with a need recognizes how to direct their efforts; that is, they know how they want to solve their problem. In the case of Uber, that cold, winter night in Paris pointed both Kalanick and Camp to find a solution for their ride-hailing problem.

Users of the Uber app are looking for an easy, seamless experience. Not only do they want an affordable, reliable, and comfortable form of transportation, but they also want their digital experience to be just as pleasant. That’s why the Uber team invested heavily in the app’s “Tangible Bits”. Coined by Hiroshi Ishii and his team, the term “Tangible Bits,” refers to “…a direct focus on the interface between the physical and virtual worlds,” Paul Dourish, Where The Action Is. As a result, the app’s UI has been designed to be an intuitive and easy experience.

Visually, the landing page achieves the delicate balance of prominently displaying important information without cluttering the screen. What’s most important to the user is being able to mark their exact pick-up location, knowing how much they’ll have to pay, and how quickly their ride will be there to pick them up. The app also takes what comes most naturally to us, language and communication, and combines them with human interaction and visual symbols to create a more intuitive experience. Within the app, the map, arguably one of the most important parts of this application and a very familiar symbol to most people, takes up nearly the entire screen. Our intuitive nature in understanding and using maps makes the adoption of the digital version faster and more powerful. As a result, the user’s learning curve isn’t steep and they’re able to quickly understand the product’s key features, resulting in higher usage and fewer frustrations.

The early Uber team identified a need that hadn’t been met and used that experience and discomfort to create a solution. However, they also recognized that just meeting a need doesn’t necessarily correlate to a positive outcome. As a result, by focusing their design on the human’s interaction with their app, Uber successfully created an intuitive (read: comfortable, familiar) experience for the user. By addressing these design protocols early, Uber was able to create an app that was clean, simple, and easy to adopt.

Uber UI

I love to use Uber app not only because it makes calling a car to travel so easy, but also because the UI is very useful and effective from the perspective of the Activity Theory.

When I use Uber to call a nearby car, I notice it simplify the user’s goal by one goal at a time. For example, when I’m moving the pin to my current location in the map view, the App will hide the Uber type options, Car vs. Eat option, and the hamburger menu, and after I finalized the pin’s location, it will make the UI focusing on getting my destination address.

Such easiness and smoothness of using the App makes it more successful to help me achieve my goal, which is to travel to a destination from my current location. And from the perspective of the Activity Theory, because of this easiness, it has helped me internalize the interaction with the UI to a level close to unconsciousness after I got familiar with the whole user flow after several trips. Besides, the easiness of using Uber app to call a nearby car also aligns with the Object-Orientedness of the Activity Theory.

Moreover, such easiness and smoothness of using Uber app also represents a unity between consciousness and human activity, from the perspective of the Activity Theory. When it becomes so helpful and so easy to do it successfully, the Uber UI can also be analogized to an extension of our human body, which responds to our consciousness to perform certain task as we wish.

From another perspective, the design of the Uber app has also casted impact on the environment, as a way to reflect our spiritual relation to the cosmos, according to the Activity Theory. The most obvious feature of Uber that has this effect is Uber Pool, through which up-to-3 riders can share a car at the same time to save gas and be more environmentally friendly.

Google Maps

A UI that I use very frequently and love is Google Maps. I’m considering the UI as both the screen element (where the user inputs origin/destination information to see a route on the map), and the speech element when Google Maps tells me directions. Looking to Activity Theory, Google Maps, is an object in the world, that I, the subject, interact with. One aspect of Activity Theory is consideration of the social context of the activity relationship between a subject and an object. Google Maps is a wonderful UI because it is useful in this social context, and develops because of the social context.

When I use Google Maps, I’m using it to achieve a goal – to get me from point A to point B as quickly as possible. I have a larger motive though, which is to be efficient with my time. This is a psychological need of mine which is largely shaped by the culture I live in. I live in a culture that runs on efficiency. This results in punctuality being much more highly regarded than in other cultures. This cultural need, existing in the social context, transforms Google Maps so that it helps me achieve my motive. For example, when I begin my route from point A to point B, the speech component of the UI will inform me if there is an accident that has occurred that will delay me, and gives a precise number of minutes that the delay is expected to be. Additionally, the speech UI will periodically reassure me that I am still on the fastest route. These pieces of information are only valuable to me because I care about how my activity fits into the larger social context (what meeting I’m headed to, dinner I am traveling to, etc.) and they help me gauge if I need to be considerate and let others know if I will be late/on-time/early.

As this activity goes on over time between Google Maps and its users, the activity becomes so ubiquitous that it changes the cultural norms. For example, as Google Maps becomes more precise and as everyone uses it, there’s a higher expectation among humans to be on time. As this activity continues, it develops the humans (i.e. the subjects) into more punctual people who care more about optimizing their time (a motivation influenced by a changing culture) because it is easier to do so, and it develops Google Maps (i.e. the object) to have more precise algorithms for route optimization and further functionality to meet the changing human needs.

Mazda CX5

A couple of years back, I upgraded from an old 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse to a new 2014 Mazda CX5. The CX5 came with an inbuilt GPS on the dashboard. While this might not seem as a big deal today but having struggled with a slew of solutions to mount a portable GPS on the dashboard of the Eclipse, this was a great feature and a good example of the concept of ‘object-orientedeness’ as defined in the context of the Activity Theory. It took into account my (the subject’s) objective/goal of getting to a destination and aided that process by providing easily accessible navigation options.

Furthermore, it has a blind spot detection system which is comprised of an LED in the side mirrors that lights up if there is another vehicle on the blind spot and beeps if you are indicating to turn in that direction and there is potential collision hazard. While now I rely on this feature so much that I almost cannot drive another vehicle without this feature, this was not always the case. Coming from an Eclipse which did not have blind spot detection this was distracting, annoying and sometimes dangerous (due to the distraction). The CX5’s interface accommodates for the concept of internalization-externalization as defined in context of the Activity Theory by providing an option to turn it off – I would turn it on for sometime in the beginning (and then turn it off) till I got used to it and finally internalized it. Now I do not even need to turn my head to look at the led. My peripheral vision can account for the led and I am synced to the beep enough to rely on the whole blind spot detection system without having to expend any extra effort. The ability to turn it on and off helped me ease into it and internalize it.

Last but not the least, the CX5 takes into account my social context as defined in context of the Activity Theory. It provides a Bluetooth sync up for my phone which allows me to see the caller’s number for incoming calls and attend the call hands free. Unlike receiving a call while driving my Eclipse, wherein I had to take my eyes off the road to see who is calling and take my hands off the wheel to attend the call (in case I decided to), this was a much better experience of attending a call while driving.


A watch first, smart watch second

My dad bought me my first watch when I was 15. It was small, silver, and fit perfectly on my wrist. It was also one of the few gifts I received from him before he passed, so I cherished it. Every time I looked down at that watch, it acted as a small reminder of him. It fell off about 10 years later, but to replace the watch felt like I was moving forward without him.

This year, I decided the time was right, and opted for a smart watch. What I found was that most smart watches seem to be a watch second, and ‘smart’ first. The Apple Watch for example is saddled with apps that are hard to select (fat finger syndrome) and buzz constantly. The original intent of it being a watch felt lost, irrelevant.

I came across the Withings watch (pictured below) and instantly fell in love. Why I felt this way was clarified by the Dourish reading, where he posits “tangible computing is exploring how to get the computer ‘out of the way’ and provide people  with a much more direct – tangible – interaction experience.” (p.16). The Withings watch’s UI is all watch. It tells time. Yet, the unobtrusive second circle tracks my steps and works with an app behind the scenes to store data about my sleep and health. It is minimalist, simple, elegant, yet powerful.

Tangible interaction, as Dourish writes, is a means of exploiting “the ways we experience the everyday world” (p.17). My new watch is the embodiment of an analog user wanting more, without giving up the ability to look at my wrist and instantly know the time.

A favorite UI in context – Siri

One of my favorite UIs—mainly for its simplicity—is that of the iPhone’s Siri. There is almost no UI, and that is part of what I love about it. I use Siri only for the most simple and mundane of tasks: setting reminders, setting alarms, setting timers, and the like. Using her (I’ll use that pronoun since the voice is female) allows me to accomplish my goals much more quickly. When I use the GUI to set an alarm for the next day, I’m required to tap at least a few times, and also use fine motor skills to rotate a digital dial to the exact minute that I want the alarm to chime. In contrast, when using Siri I can simply speak clearly, and then see my request echoed in a visual format for confirmation after Siri takes care of it. Referencing activity theory gives me an insight into this particular draw of using Siri: Siri allows me to accomplish my intentions much more easily than I can with the GUI. My activity and interactions with her are goal-oriented, as activity theory points out.

Another pertinent point from activity theory concerns the issue of development. My usage of Siri is so simple that it’s unlikely my “skills” in using her for those purposes will develop mightily, but one of the reasons I enjoy using Siri is that her “skills” develop continually. Apple can update her algorithms and databases in the background, and all that I’m aware of is that she can suddenly hear me better, or come up with better answers, or simply do something more than she could before. This is slightly different than Kaptelinin and Nardi explained, because it is the object that is doing the developing, but I think it points to a key importance in whether people enjoy interacting with Siri. If her skills didn’t develop and improve, we would soon tire of her and her oddities.

Finally, a third reason that I can deduce for why I enjoy using Siri is that the interface allows me to jump around to whatever topic or task I care to do, in whatever order I desire. As highlighted in Dourish, humans when using tangible or ubiquitous interfaces do not approach tasks sequentially. The fact that Siri allows me to do this is no doubt one of the reasons I enjoy using her in contrast to the GUI, which has a very structured approach to setting an alarm or timer, and requires more than a single step.

Braid by Jonathan Blow

This nifty little arcade game is arguably one of the most creative ones to emerge in recent years. The premise is for the user to solve extremely tricky puzzles when given various opportunities to bend the laws of physics. As I was reading why research in HCI needs to have a theoretical framework that is in the middle of the two extremes (the generalist cognitive science approach and the particularist ethnomethodology approach), this game stuck out from my memory because it ties constructivist learning through the puzzles with reflective thinking through the plot of the game.

While many players of the game are already presumed to be familiar with spatial reasoning (and basic math, an example mentioned by Kaptelinin and Nardi to illustrate how artifacts are used by a subject to aid learning), the game tries to recreate a new learning challenge by presenting an environment where the user can go back in time or where the environment moves only when the user does (see attached GIF). This also reinforces the Activity Theory concept that no property of the subject (player’s avatar Tim) or object (the game environment) exist other than during the activity as each ‘world’ has a different physical curveball, placing the subject in a new unfamiliar learning challenge.

In addition, this game is an homage to the popular game Mario Brothers and feeds into the sociocultural familiarity that users have with the intention of the game, while also providing an outlet to restructure some of those cultural norms – for example, you don’t have to start over because you don’t die in the game; how does that make the subject perceive the object?

Fat Tuesdays

I came across a new form of drinking vessel during my recent trip to Las Vegas. The Fat Tuesday comes in a long cylindrical tube with expanded ends. The vessel holds a cold slushy-like drink which is sipped through an elongated straw (picture below for reference). While this was my first experience with such an interface for drinking, I was able to understand its usage easily enough because the physical embodiment fit roughly into my mental model as an instance of the abstract class of glasses (Dourish, p21). I further appreciated the tangibility of the cold drink on a warm Vegas night as well as the reduced circumference of the vessel that allowed for a firm grip even in an inebriated state. Through phenomenology, the creators of the Fat Tuesday understood that customers would enjoy the experience of an altered drinking vessel and that was a key part of their value proposition.

TI-89 Calculator and the Helicopter Game

The helicopter game on the TI-89 calculator was a favorite for anyone taking Calculus in my Junior year of high school. The user interface was incredibly simple—a single button to control the height of your flying helicopter. The task of the game was equally simple—to guide your helicopter through a 2-D cave space. Apart from the game being intuitive, we all enjoyed the game because we could play it in class without our teachers knowing. There was also the comic effect of playing games on something meant for mathematical calculations. In reading “Acting with Technology”, the authors mention that “activity is proposed as the basic unit of analysis providing a way to understand both subjects and objects, an understanding that cannot be achieved by focusing on the subject or the object separately” [29]. In the same fashion, we can come to understand why such a simple game is so engaging for the users. The subjects are calculus students in high school listening to their teacher for an hour. The calculator is the medium by which one can play the helicopter game. Viewing the subject and object separately we lose understanding as to why the game is so engaging. Together we realize that the game itself has little meaning. The engagement stems from the tool—one which hides the users real intentions from the teacher.

The Click Wheel – iPod

Let us consider for this post, our object to be ‘Listening to music on the go’. As we have seen throughout history , there have been multiple attempts at designing and creating user interfaces to allow users to attain this goal. Technologists knowingly or unknowingly have been disrupting the system by changing, adding or removing subjects from the system designed to support the above goal. As part of this system, we have seen at one time or the other that the daily user, tapes, CDs, etc and the different devices used to play music have all been the subjects. Looking at all the audio players that I owned, a major device that in an inexplicable way cemented my love for music was the first ever classic iPod. The key differentiating factor was the design of the operating method for the iPod – ‘The Click Wheel’.

The iPod revolutionized for me the way I was able to use my iPod and access my entire music collection using just 4 buttons laid out on a click wheel. This design removed multiple unintended and mostly confusing and non-useful actions from the system. The click wheel made me able to swiftly move through my entire library in a manner that felt much more intuitive to my mind. I was essentially scrolling through a list of items (in this case my music). Not only did it beat audio players by removing the hassle of inserting tapes, CDs, but it also made the action of playing your music much easier as compared to other digital audio players. It didn’t take much time for these actions to become an operation when it came to listening to music. No longer did I need to stop, look down and figure out how to get to my next favourite song.