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

Reader Comments
# Kenneth said:

was it this article:

"After conquering the faucets, Dr. Norman headed on to inspect our new phones and our smart elevators without any buttons inside them. But I must defer discussion of those mysteries – there’s only so much of this knowledge that can be absorbed at a time. For now, let’s stick with the bathrooms. Are there any secret faucet techniques to be shared? Is there still more to learn?"

on December 19, 2007 08:27 AM
# Charles said:

I'll tell you about my first GPS experience. A few years back, a friend and I drove from Tokyo to Nikko, he rented a van with the latest Japanese GPS system. We were both glued to the screen, trying to decipher the little kanji displays and listen to the voice announcements, as we inched through huge traffic jams. As we got out of town and traffic opened up, we fiddled with the GPS to get a look ahead. Then I started to notice something odd about the traffic, we were being passed by tiny little cars, immaculately restored classic Cooper Mini cars. It looked like the Japan Cooper Mini Club was on parade, there were about 30 or 40 of them, it was awesome.
We decided to turn off the GPS and enjoy the ride, we knew where we were going.

on December 19, 2007 08:41 AM
# jr said:

I'm somewhat of a GPS noob. I've had them in rental vehicles before but I've never owned one until recently. I have a healthy bit of distrust of the beasts and view them as somewhat snippy back-seat drivers telling you where to turn around now that you've missed the exit they quite clearly told you about 300 meters ago.

To me, they're assists providing me with some additional info I wouldn't have had before (e.g. the left turn coming up is a dead end, so skip it in favor of the next one.)

Honestly, that's the bit that I find most interesting. I can flash a glance at the 3D map and get all sorts of quick info about the area around me. Something I tend not to do much when there's a lot of traffic around me or I'm moving faster than, say 20mph. I'm also pretty good about cutting out distractions and focusing on tasks at hand, so I'm willing to admit that I'm deeply abnormal and probably should seek therapy.

Possibly involving heaps of shiny objects and pop music.

on December 19, 2007 10:01 AM
# Sunny said:

Is this the article you were looking for?

on December 19, 2007 10:20 AM
# Lance Nishihira said:

The other day, some fellow designers and I were discussing what it would be like to design heads up displays/systems for military theater situations. We were talking about how the HUD, auditory cues and other sensorial stimuli might make it impossible to focus on the main task (not getting killed). It seems like there should be a "mute" button that turns all stimuli off and allows the person's own fight or flight mechanisms to take over. Norman refers to this level of affect as (visceral). Or instead of "mute" the configurations of interfaces should be contextual to the current situations. For example, perhaps if you're in firefight mode, the HUD displays vectors of incoming bullets.

on December 19, 2007 11:26 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Sunny: that's it!



on December 19, 2007 11:41 AM
# Rick said:

The 430 isn't exactly a study in usability (I owned a
Piper Archer w/dual 430s) - takes quite a bit of getting
used to. On the other hand, I find the Garmin auto GPS
fairly intuitive. Wish the '430 series had the touchscreen
navigation the auto units do, but OTOH, it might be
difficult to use on a bumby day.

on December 19, 2007 01:40 PM
# Joe Hunkins said:

You've now got me really intrigued about the difference between our biological awareness and the situational awareness from technologies where we create a sort of abstraction using GPS data, maps. Pilots need to do a lot more of this abstract type of navigation than the rest of us, though cars will increasingly use it.

on December 19, 2007 06:30 PM
# Julian Bourne said:

Jeremy, Your comments on situation awareness hit the nail on the head. One thing I would add is that there doesn't need to be a learning curve. Proxpro has applied level 3 situation awareness for our product Prompt. This product knows where you are, where you need to be, displays the fastest route and tells you the best time to leave. 70% of our new users are repeat users and some of our customers are using the product 30-40 times per month.

Julian Bourne
CEO & Founder
Proxpro Inc.

on July 13, 2008 07:27 AM
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