Category Archives: design

UX Cambridge: A good debut with Sigma UK

I’ve just returned from the UX Cambridge conference, having had a wonderful time. I attended interesting, high-quality presentations and gave two myself that were very well received. I met fascinating people and had exciting, energizing conversations. All in all, a great experience.

My major presentation was a one-hour tutorial on designing for older adults. Titled “Older adults: Are we really designing for our future selves?“, the tutorial discussed the common slogan “designing for our future selves” and teased apart the two types of issues that people face as they age — challenges due to changes in our bodies, and challenges due to unfamiliarity with newer technology — and discussed the implications that those two types of challenges present for the design process. I used examples from my own experience of aging (I’m just shy of 64 now) to illustrate and personalize the issues. For example, I didn’t need reading glasses until ten years later than most people do, and I’m still using a low-power magnification; but I’m probably a little early with the challenge of dexterity and stability of my hands, as I have both mild osteoarthritis and essential tremor. The tutorial elicited a lot of great questions, and the exercises saw lively discussion among the participants. People said (and tweeted) a lot of nice things about it, and I had some great conversations afterwards. The slides are on the Sigma Slideshare.

The other presentation was one of the “lightning talks” that these conferences run at the end of the second day. At one of the talks the first day, I had asked a question and raised some objections based on the answer, so the organizers asked me to do a lightning talk. Rather than speak about that objection (which would have taken me longer to prepare), I spoke against the oft-stated idea that a product “should be usable with no training”. Here are the slides from my lightning talk. The Sigma team are planning a blog post about it, so stay tuned. This talk elicited some great questions as well.

This was my first foray into representing Sigma at professional events, and I’d say it went rather well.

It was also my first visit to Cambridge, and I think I’ll enjoy living there.

Thesis abstract (as finalized)

I should have waited until today before posting the abstract, but I was too excited about it to let it go any longer. Today I had a meeting with my second supervisor, who explained the feedback he had emailed me and told me I didn’t have to stick to 300 words. So here’s the revised version. (I’m leaving the original version up because I did say it was the original version. <smile>)


Exploring Techno-Spirituality:
Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences

This thesis presents a study of spiritual and transcendent experiences (STXs) — experiences of connection with something greater than oneself — focusing on what they are, how artefacts support them, and how design can contribute to that support. People often find such experiences transformative, and artefacts do support them — but the literature rarely addresses artefact support for STXs. This thesis provides a step toward filling that gap.

The first phase of research involved the conduct and analysis of 24 interviews with adults of diverse spiritual perspectives, using constructivist Grounded Theory methods informed by relevant literature and by studies performed earlier in the PhD research programme. Analysis found that STXs proceed in three stages — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — and that artefacts support at least two stages and people desire enhancements to all three. This STX framework supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as stages in a cycle where integration alters future contexts, and it extends the structure of STX by incorporating the relationships of artefacts and of enhancement desires to the stages of these experiences. This extended structure constitutes a grounded theory of transcendent user experiences.

The second phase involved the design and conduct of three “Transcendhance” workshops for enhancing transcendence, which aimed to elicit speculative design ideas in an atmosphere of fun and play. By playing a game that incorporated themes from the grounded theory of transcendent user experiences, workshop participants sketched 69 design ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts. Analysis mapped the ideas to the stages of STX and drew on relevant research to inspire possible extensions to the workshop-generated ideas. By far the largest number of ideas mapped to the STX stage Creating the Context, with very few mapping to Living the Experience, which suggests that context may be easier than lived experience to understand and address directly. This point is especially important for experiences such as STX that are tricky to define, impossible to arrange or anticipate, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods. Transcendhance workshops approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, “sneaking up” on the lived experience by addressing the context.

This thesis combines the grounded theory of transcendent user experience with the Transcendhance workshop process, presenting peripheral design as a promising strategy for facilitating design to enhance spiritual and transcendent experiences.

Some thoughts on gearshift design

Gearshift arrangement of the hire car, showing 1/3/5 up and 2/4/R down
Gearshift arrangement for the car I hired
I’ve just turned in a car I hired for the weekend, and the UX part of my mind has, naturally, had some thoughts about its design. These thought are prompted by the trouble I had in downshifting from fifth gear. The arrangement of my hire car (see image) has fifth gear directly opposite reverse, and every time I needed to downshift into fourth I was afraid I would put the car into reverse (in fact, I almost did it once). This car had a weak spring that encouraged the lever toward the middle: when the car was in neutral and I was not touching it, the lever stayed in the middle. But the mechanism wasn’t strong enough to help me keep it from going into reverse when I was trying to downshift from fifth. This of course leads me to conclude that the gearshift is not well designed.

My first thought was that the problem is a poor arrangement of the gears — having reverse opposite fifth is risky because accidentally going into reverse from fifth is far more dangerous than doing it from first. Some cars have reverse in the upper left and first in the lower left, with some sort of mechanism that makes it easy to slide from first to second and difficult to go into reverse; my first new car, a 1976 Datsun F10, had this design. I don’t recall ever accidentally trying to go into reverse with it, but perhaps automakers rarely use this arrangement because first-to-second is a much more common move than fifth-to-fourth.

But then I thought about the cars I’ve owned (all of which have had manual transmission), and the last two (Toyota Corollas both) had reverse in the lower right, opposite fifth, just like this weekend’s hire car. So I’m thinking that the human factors issue may be a matter of which hand and arm are doing the shifting. Moving from fifth to fourth involves pulling back on the lever and moving it to the left. When you’re shifting with your right hand, reverse is away from your body and the more natural movement when pulling back is to pull toward you as well, so the danger of going into reverse from fifth is small. But when you shift with your left hand (which is for me the hardest part of driving in the UK), reverse is closer to your body than any of the other gears and it takes more effort to push the gearshift lever to the left while at the same time pulling it back, so the risk of going into reverse from fifth is much greater and a stronger preventive mechanism is needed. (I wish I had time to make diagrams of these movements.)

Some cars have a ring on the lever, just below the knob, that you have to lift to put the car into reverse; some require you to push down on the lever. Still others have a rather strong spring (or something that behaves like one) that will slide the lever from fifth to fourth when you pull back, unless you maintain substantial rightward pressure to force it into reverse. The strong spring is what my Toyotas had, as I recall, and I’ve driven cars with both of the other mechanisms.

Now, I imagine that people who learned to drive in the UK might not have any problem with the arrangement that my hire car had, as they’ve developed from the beginning the habit of the pull-back-and-push-away-left movement and their muscle memory works in their favor. (Or else they just don’t downshift. But I seriously doubt it’s that.) Nevertheless, this movement is, I maintain, less natural than pulling toward the body on a diagonal, and the gearshift should have something more than a weak(ish) mechanism to guide the lever away from the “reverse” position.

I am not sure whether I favor the ring approach or the push, but in any case the Ford Fiesta’s mechanism is not enough. And it’s not simply because I’m profoundly right-handed.

I’d be interested in hearing from people who work in automotive design, especially those who have experience in human factors of both right-hand-drive and left-hand-drive vehicles. What are your thoughts?


Update: A friend has pointed me to some info that indicates that it’s not possible actually to GO into reverse while the car is moving because reverse gear is not synchronized. So  maybe I have overstated the danger here. However, it could still cause damage to the gears (I did hear a godawful noise when I accidentally tried to do it), and that could be dangerous for one’s pocketbook. Certainly it’s no good for peace of mind.