Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"What Not to Wear" for digital technology, kiosks, and interactive signs

What makes someone qualified to give advice about anything? Experience and knowledge.

My main claim as an analyst (aside from the PhD, which only authorizes me in a narrow scope of the social sciences) is that I read a lot.  I mean, a lot, and always in a wide range of sources, from academic books to what’s on the New York Times best seller list to magazines, web sites, promotional materials, archival matter (right now I’m working on advice columns in African American papers), and yes, even a few blogs. 

One of the few blogs I look at every day is Steve Portigal’s All This Chitta Chatta. Steve has experience and knowledge, but he’s also got an amazing eye, a true sense of the visual landscape, be it urban or rural, Southeast Asian or suburban America. His photographs tell you more than most feature length magazine articles. In terms of marketing and design, developing an acute visual eye is a critical tool, especially for folks in the digital signage and digital media industries. What distinguishes one product from another is often determined in a two-second glance.

One continuing point of interest for Steve is the notion of post-design, fixing a product by adding something exterior to it to explain or enhance its original use. Sometimes people adapt to a new technology (I'm definitely getting used to the self-checkout at the supermarket). Sometimes the technology has to adapt to people. Often designers develop ways of solving an environmental problem – a door handle, a checkout line, a digital menu – and then some aspect of the finished product doesn’t work out as planned after taking it "live."   Post-design is when the user – or designer – has to adapt what exists to the realities of how people think and move through the world. Think about how many of us would crash into doors without the ubiquitous “push” or “pull” signs. My favorite example is of a toilet flusher that requires a posted explanation of how it works.

In the world of kiosks and digital technology we’ve all seen versions of this: the most common is the taped-over swipe slot on a point-of-sale checkout, telling customers to hand their credit card to the clerk rather than swipe it themselves (even though the machine is designed for that!). People with long fingernails, people who don't see or use the stylus, and people with, well, slippery fingers, often complain about different aspects of touchscreen technology. And then, of course, there's the smart clerk who discovered that the wax paper used for picking up bagels and doughnuts works great on credit cards with hard-to-read swipe stripes. These aren't all problems that can be fixed by design, but they do present interesting issues to consider.

This week Steve highlighted a new version of post-design: a Chili’s interactive menu with touch-screen technology has a static sign added to explain to the customer exactly how to use the touch screen. I wonder if the designers saw the separate sign as temporary, until customers adapt to using the digital menu more readily. Or, perhaps, it was too costly to integrate the new directions into the existing terminal.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with having to develop designs post-implementation, it strikes me that the kiosk and digital signage industry needs its own version of “What Not to Wear” – like the do’s and don’ts fashion column that shows real people in real outfits walking down the street, looking extremely sharp or completely off, developers and designers in new technologies need to share what they see in terms of real life usage. While we can laugh at the truly ugly adaptations, it's also important for such a quickly changing industry to develop an archive of design development.

Feel free to send me your examples: photos preferred, of course.


Lynn V. Marentette said...


I sometimes write about touch-screen displays and usability on my Technology-Supported Human-World Interaction blog, and post related video clips and pictures.

Annie said...

Lynn has a few examples of exactly the kind of post-design problems I was talking about. Check out her post: http://tshwi.blogspot.com/2007/09/usabilityinteraction-hall-of-shame.html

Thanks for pointing us there. I'd like to see other example, high tech or not -- yesterday a friend reminded me of the doors to the arts building on a college campus that say "pull" when you are really supposed to "push." I'm amazed no one has duct taped a new sign over it yet...

Kiosk Journal said...

Great Post! I know its an oldie, but love the Kiosk Technology. Kiosk Industry News is always changing, so you have to keep current.