Yesterday I came across an interesting article that I can no longer find. In it the author described spending a day with usability and design expert Don Norman, looking at bathroom faucets, vending machines, buttonless elevators, and so on. It began with the discussion of a digital picture frame that had a particularly bad user interface and the learning curve associated with it.
That got me thinking about one of the biggest challenges associated with the high tech gadgets that we're increasingly surrounding ourselves with in high stress environments. In particular, I'm thinking of GPS navigation systems.
I've recently had the experience of breaking the Garmin StreetPilot c340 that used to be mounted on the dashboard of my car. At the same time, while flying from Midland, Texas to Bishop, California we made extensive use of the Garmin 430's terrain and obstacle avoidance data at night.
Having an up-to-date an accurate GPS device there to provide extra information adds a feeling of awareness and safety that's hard to describe. In the aviation world, we talk a lot about situational awareness, which Wikipedia says is:
Situation awareness is the correct term for the field of study that concerns the knowledge and understanding of the environment that is critical to those who need to make decisions in complex areas such as aviation, air traffic control, driving, power plant operations, and military command and control.
In other words, it's all about having the information you need to form a clear, accurate, and complete picture in your mind. This is a picture of what's going on in your environment and how it's likely to be changing in the near future.
GPS, like many devices, can be an amazing asset. It offloads the work of acquiring and organizing information, presenting it in hopefully easy to digest bits that can be quickly integrated into your picture of the situation.
Used well, such devices give you the confidence to do things you might not do without them. But there's a hidden cost associated with having them around. There's a learning curve required to figure out how to efficiently use and configure them. In a high stress situation, you don't have time to stop and read the manual or second guess what it's telling you.
That means not only do you have to get over that initial learning curve, you also have to spend some time configuring the device to present you with only the information you actually need. There's a real danger that these fancy devices can provide you with information that's distracting and potentially even misleading.
Driving around without the c340 is a bit disconcerting. I've had it for a couple years now and expect it to be there, telling me what I need to know. it's a real reminder of how much it was helping to increase my situational awareness without increasing my workload.
What's been your experiences with devices that do this particularly well or particularly poorly?
Translations: Don't forget that the folks at TechCzar are providing translations of selected technology related posts from my blog.
Posted by jzawodn at December 19, 2007 07:20 AM