The User Experience of Places

Greetings from Raleigh! I don't think there is a single month this year that I won't be traveling somewhere. I just got back from Chicago, where I was a part of the 2013 OSA Convention - it's essentially a three day weekend full of fun and activities to help bring together people who are from Orissa - the state of India my parents are from - but live in the US. I am incredibly happy with how it all went; I was a moderator for the convention's women's forum and also got to speak a little about what I do as a UX person as a panelist for the convention's young adult career panel. I hope that I inspired at least one person, and I have even more respect for people who serve as moderators for panels (it is incredibly difficult but highly worth the experience!). While I was at the convention, I got to meet up with a good friend from college and we got dinner at the local P.F. Chang's. I've been to the restaurant before a long time ago, but as we walked in I took in the little details of the place: the (faux) clay statues, the choices in interior design, and even the design of the printed menu. The restaurant had a cohesive story with its design with the goal being a modern dining experience while also bringing in the influences of the culture represented by the cuisine. The experience of actually sitting in the restaurant was a great feeling even while we were waiting for the food.

The design of places is something that I've been interested in since seeing the talk about the Royal Ontario Museum's Dinosaurs exhibit that featured built in iPads and augmented reality components to the exhibits. Museums design their spaces around the objects they are displaying; I can't imagine that the items on display would be nearly as enjoyable if they weren't put in a setting that maximized their beauty for visitors to enjoy. Sure, exhibits would still be fascinating if they were just put in a large undecorated room with a few signs describing the objects on display, but who's the audience? Little kids? Adults? The undecorated room might be okay for some adults, but for kids it's just be boring! On the other hand, something like the ROM? As an adult, I enjoyed it immensely but I also had to be careful not to get bowled over by enthusiastic kids. By paying attention to the experience of walking through the exhibit, the designers created something incredibly memorable... and not just for the beautiful collection of dinosaur skeletons.

I'm going to stick to designing for devices, but hats off to interior designers and everyone else involved in the process of designing the experiences of buildings, rooms, and other types of locations. It's a lot of detail oriented work, I imagine, but when done well it makes an incredible difference.

I Love My Car. For Now.

I keep forgetting my goal to write here more often. Oops. It's especially hard when there are so many things in the world to talk about (this of course is what makes design so necessary and incredible, but I've lost track of so many little things I've observed. I really need to start writing this down).

My car is a beautiful Toyota RAV4. I'm very fond of my car, it's sentimental to me because of all the trips I've taken in it with my parents and the little things that remind me of home. But I've found myself guiltily checking out other cars in the past year or so. It's not that I'm particularly a car person, but it's the fact that cars have been evolving much like all sectors of technology. When I saw first saw pictures of the Ford Focus and then recently the Santa Fe, I got the sudden itch to find a Ford dealer.

Touch interfaces in cars. Who knew that would happen a decade ago?

My car is very much not tappable. I have knobs, buttons, and toggles all over to navigate my heating and sound systems - they're eve on the steering wheel so I can adjust the volume and change the radio without taking my eyes off the road. Coming back to my car to fiddle with the cords and buttons of the physical world is strange.

I'm pretty okay with that though. I haven't really experienced touch screens as a driver much, but my mom's car has a pretty rudimentary touch screen. I've tried manipulating it (safely) and the fact is that whether or not your controls are manual or touchscreen, there's a whole realm of interface design left for cars.

Being in healthcare has taught me one fundamental thing: Do everything you can to not kill people. Follow good design, yes, but an okay design that doesn't cause potentially life threatening mistakes is far preferred to a great design that could go south (best case scenario is that we design something excellent that also avoid endangering patients). Car designers have this same problem I think; whether the car has touch capability or not, that primary goal of keeping people out of danger is still there. Looking away to fiddle with a part of the car is still a distraction.

There is voice recognition, yes, but the way that my car's voice navigation is designed is a rudimentary long list of commands that the user has to sort through to get to where they want to go. From an interaction perspective, it should be simple to say "Play on repeat". There is headway being made in that direction with iOS's Siri and the voice recognition capability on Android. I wouldn't be surprised if there was exploration into being able to plug your phone directly into a car system and have it power most (if not all) of the entertainment system. My One X has a car mode, but I currently stick it into a cupholder while I'm driving, so it's a little lost on me. That said, it's a pretty small set of tap targets while driving. I'm better off scrambling for the dials of my car.

People pictured flying cars in the future long ago. Me, I picture cars pretty much as they are today, but with the chance to really innovate in interaction beyond touch. A little strange for someone who works in mobile which is all about touch interaction, but I think it's an amazing challenge. So when I think about that moment far in the future where I'm trading in my RAV4 for some shiny new car, I hope that it's something that doesn't even involve touch - what if I could wave my hand to skip to my other favorite radio station? Could gesture based interaction work as a viable alternative to manual/touch? Pairing it with voice could be interesting. I saw some really amazing prototypes done by some of the designers I've worked with previously, and while testing it would be a little precarious, it opens a new door for designing interfaces in cars.

For now? I'm good with fiddling with 3D dials and buttons if at all I'm messing with my system. Tapping on a screen has probably evolved from what it was when my mother bought her car, but at the end of the day after breaking mobile applications, it's nice to feel the physical feedback of a pushed button. Call it a crazy personal preference.

Ask me about it again when I buy another car.

Dieter Rams Exhibit @ SFMOMA

I had the amazing opportunity to go see the Dieter Rams exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and I can't even begin to describe how amazing the experience was. If you're looking for inspiration of any kind, I highly recommend this exhibit. Prior to going, I would recommend viewing the documentary 'Objectified' - I just discovered it recently and it includes a section on Dieter Rams himself. A lot of today's most popular designers, including Apple's Jonathan Ives, attribute their insights to Dieter Rams in it, and it will give you some pretty good background to the exhibit.

The first thing I saw when I got into the exhibit: a display of some of the furniture he's worked on, and the first thought was "so that's where IKEA got their ideas from". The pieces on display were more than just beautiful, but they were somehow timeless - for pieces that were designed between 1960 and 1970, these were pieces that could fit into today's design.
But the part that resounded with me the most was a room with a display on one side and writing printed all across the wall on the other. The writing on the wall was the Ten Principles of Good Design:

  1. Good design is innovative
  2. Good design makes a product useful
  3. Good design is aesthetic
  4. Good design makes a product understandable
  5. Good design is honest
  6. Good design is unobtrusive
  7. Good design is long-lasting
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail
  9. Good design is environmentally friendly
  10. Good design is as little design as possible
The beauty of these principles is that they apply to the design of most things irregardless of the product you're working on . You can find these themes in every piece of his work - from furniture to software to lighters and vacuums, and I can't tell you how inspiring it was to see. You'll have to come see it for yourself.