Friday, 26 April 2013

Who's the boss? Time for a software update...

Last summer, I gave a lift to a couple of friends to a place I was unfamiliar with. So I used a SatNav to help with the navigation. It was, of course, completely socially unaware. It interrupted our conversation repeatedly, without any consideration for when it is and is not appropriate to interrupt. No waiting for pauses in the conversation. No sensitivity to the importance of the message it was imparting. No apology. Standard SatNav behaviour. And indeed it’s not obvious how one would design it any other way. We turned off the sound and relied solely on the visual guidance after a while.

More recently, a colleague started up his computer near the end of a meeting, and it went into a cycle of displays: don’t turn me off; downloading one of thirty three. I took a record of the beginning of this interaction, but gave up and left way before the downloading had finished.
It might have been fine to pull the plug on the downloading (who knows?) but it wasn’t going to be a graceful exit. The technology seemed to be saying: “You’ve got to wait for me. I am in control here.” Presumably, the design was acceptable for a desktop machine that could just be left to complete the task, but it wasn’t for a portable computer that had to be closed up to be taken from the meeting room.

I have many more examples, and I am sure that every reader does too, of situations where the design of technology is inappropriate because the technology is unaware of the social context in which it is placed, and the development team have been unwilling or unable to make the technology better fit that context.

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