Posted by: mumriken | November 28, 2012

Some thoughts on ramps and usability…

An example of a wheel chair ramp that is exposing the person using it.

Exposing ramp.

To access a building or other places where there is a difference in height it is often necessary to walk up a set of stairs. This, of course, becomes very difficult when you are using a rollator or a wheel chair, or as a parent with a pram. So, in order to simplify the process of accessing the building by adding a ramp! A ramp is a flat surface with a suitable incline and surface. This makes it much easier, no? Well, if you have tried to do some inline skating you know that to skate uphill and downhill is much worse than skating on the flat surface. Skating uphill is very tiring, and for skating downhill, well, imagine the speed you can get in a long downhill run. It is the same thing when in a wheel chair. If the ramp becomes too steep or too long, there will be a difficulty to access the building also with a ramp. Also, going uphill is a difficult feat since it will change the point of balance in the wheel chair, increasing the risk for people who are new to the use of a wheel chair.

A ramp with a strange selection of surface material - cobble stone.

By trying to fit the material to the building, the architect selected to use “cobble stone” as the surface material. However, that is about the worst surface you can have in a wheel chair.

 

But there are other things to consider. A ramp that is added to a staircase will also expose the person using it. It becomes clear that the ramp (such as the one in the picture to the right) is not the main entrance, but an added extra. Apart from that it is not designed to look good, but gives a generally ugly impression, clearly showing that it does not really belong.

Thus the wheel chair ramp is clearly stigmatising the person using it. He or she will be clearly visible as going a different path than the “normal” people. Thus it should be a strive for more integrated solutions, where the solutionbecomes a part of the building, where we want to have a public access

Even if we try to make things all right, there are other traps in the issue of minimising the stigmatisation. In the figure to the right, the architects chose to use cobble stones as a surface for the ramp, quite likely with an ambition to integrate the ramp in the building style. However, the ramp is the only place in the area where you need to traverse a surface with cobble stones. The rest of the area is laid out with asphalt (which is nice to drive over with cars).

What most people who are using wheel chairs know by heart, is that uneven surfaces, such as cobble stones, is the worst kind of surface you can have when using a wheel chair. The shaking of the vehicle that is caused by the stones does give the person a difficult ride. And it is also pretty sure that it has not been tested by any person who is using a wheel chair as an everyday tool. My students, during the practical sessions where they are allowed to try out wheel chair driving for a few hours, immediately recognized the problem with this surface. It should not be difficult for anyone to realize that this solution does not work well. So how come that this ramp was built at all?

A combination of ramp and stairs.

Combining ramps and stairs is very common. But why do we need the stairs?

Such a solution is shown in the figure to the left. It shows the combined approach. When rebuilding the entrance, a ramp was added, using the same material as the general entrance of the building. Stone and black iron fit in well with the existing materials. So this approach is much better from the point of view of stigmatisation. However, there is still one problem. Now both the stairs and the ramp become very narrow, and this complicates the usage. Both the people on wheels and those on foot will have to wait for a meeting person.

So, the next thought that comes to mind is: Who needs the stairs? The slope of the ramp is very small, which means that people should have little problems of walking up the ramp instead. The stairs are also designed partly as so called “donkey stairs” (stairs with intermediate smooth surfaces, which is where the donkey could make a pause when going up the stairs). These stairs are rather difficult to walk up and down, since they do not allow for a rythm in the walking. They also increase the risk of stumbling, since people do often not focus on the walkway. So, who needs the stairs? If we make the whole entrance into a large ramp, then we have all the space we need, and people will not have to choose which way to go. And above all, there is no difference made between different categories of people. Anyone can use the whole entrance.

There are two things that I think are showing in this blog. One is that we still seem to think that good enough is the same thing as good. But it isn’t, which is very clear in these examples. All these solutions do work, in the sense that the person can access the building, although while being exposed, shaken and competing with other people about the space. However, neither of the examples are good, in the sense that they do not provide a good feeling in the person using the artefact.

The second observation is the lack of including the real users in the development and evaluation processes. It should be compulsory to involve the users of the tools in the development from the beginning, even during the planning and design phase, as well as involving the final users in the testing of the result (or prototypes). This is something that has quite likely not been done in these cases. And the result is useable, but not good.

Posted by: mumriken | June 11, 2012

When it happens…

In the previous posts I have touched back on the problem of stress-related Exhaustion Syndrome. A frein of mine got hit, much worse than I did. But when I heard about his first days I could very well relate to what I heard. The sad and bad truth is that a person who has run into this syndrome will have changed afterwards, both in short and in a long term perspective. So what happens? Well, in some cases it appears almost as the aftereffects of a stroke. I am not sure whether it is a physical change to the brain, but according to the way it affects a person, it may well be.

Short-term effects
The short-term effects are often the ones that people see, and which are of a more explicit kind. It is important, however, to note that the profile is individual. Different people display different effects in varying strengths, and I think it might be very difficult to be exhaustive in the descriptions. But the most common ones are:

  • Extreme Fatigue – Here the important keyword is “extreme”. It is not like any ordinary tiredness, and you can’t sleep it away, no matter how much you sleep. The degree of fatigue might vary over time, but it is very unpredictable, also for the person affected by it. Different activities may trigger the fatigue, such as social gatherings, big or small, going shopping, or even very loud of visually intensive situations.
  • Loss of memory – Most of the memory functions will be affected, to some extent, such as:
    • Short-term memory – It is difficult to remember things that are kept in the immediate memory. People tend to forget what they were about to do. I have even opened a kitchen cupboard to take out a cerial package for breakfast five times, without getting the package on the table in the end.
    • Long-term memory – There is a great tendency to miss meetings and appointments. Unless they are in a calendar or in the cell phone, appointments don’t exist. The main long-term memory is seldom affected (in contrast with dementia). However, names or faces, even well-known ones,may be difficult to remember and recognize.
    • Semantic memory – The semantic memory may also be affected, resulting in what I have myself called “Associative aphasia”. You have difficulties finding the right term, and it was in my case many times not the right word that appeared, but rather an associated term. I heard myself, e.g., telling the passengers in the car, that I was going to put the trailer in the trunk of the car, rather than the garage.
    • Episodic memory – The episodic memory is also affected sometimes. There are difficulties remembering the context of activities and events afterwards. The time of the events are also confused, not only in terms of hours and minutes, but also in terms of week days and even weeks.
    • The memory of often-used knowledge is also affected. The remembering of pin codes, passwords, important telephone numbers and other simple (but easy to confuse) pieces of information becomes an increasingly difficult task.
  • Unfocused activity – this is probably to do with short-term memory, in that people tend to either not start or not finish things they do. It might be that while cleaning up the room, you start by cleaning the table, and then suddenly see some other cleaning task that needs doing. This means that you start on the new task, forgetting about the previous one you started. Associativity plays a large roll in this difficulty.
  • Decreased social competence and activity level – Social situations are very hard to handle after a stressrelated Exhaustion Syndrome (even positive ones). This can take on many shapes, such as not responding even to social invitations from close relatives or friends. Parties may cause days of fatigue, even if they were great. Initially, it might even be too much with family, which leads to a kind of isolating behaviour.

This is a very depressing list of symptoms, and the worst part of it is that the healing process is long (≈ years). Even when a person is considered to be healthy again, many of these symptoms will appear now and then in different situations. A person with a stressrelated exhaustion syndrome will probably never be a party popper afterwards, because the environmental stress from the social situations will be too hard to handle.

But now comes the real difficulty. What happens to people in the immediate social context? In many cases the efforts are focused on the person who is ill. The wife, husband, partner, children, etc. are very seldom addressed, despite the fact that they are equally affected by the illness of their relation. The people around the person who has fallen ill, are very likely to feel very lonely and isolated, since the person who is ill needs their constant attention, and of course the social activities will also be removed from the agenda. There remains (often a single) a person who is responsible for everything that happens, where there used to be more people around.

I think it is very important that we also acknowledge those who are affected around the person who has fallen ill. They need to talk! They need to talk much about their situation, and they need to do it often. So one of the important things to do is to lend the person an ear. Helping out with simple things can also be very supportive in this situation. But the most important thing is to be there for the person.

Posted by: mumriken | June 7, 2012

Follow the warning signs…

Picture of broken electric wiresI wrote in the previous post about a friend of mine that I heard of had fallen into the trap of stress-related syndrome. I guess I should have read through that checklist as I was writing them. Especially the item number 8. Denial of being stressed. No I am not stressed, I just have lots of things to do, and I am really feeling good about my situation right now. I can’t be on the way to that famous wall again…

Well, so wrong I was. Reading the checklist today scored me around 8 on the scale.

If you didn’t read that post, I can tell you that the list contained eight items. And this morning I just couldn’t get out of bed. I have slept 14 hours tonight, and still feel completely exhausted. Just thinking about taking a short walk is too much. I have booked myself for two parties tonight and tomorrow, two parties I have looked forward to very much, especially since one of them is to celebrate a good friend of mine who really deserves it. But I will not be able to make it. I am too exhausted even before the party, and since social meetings drain me, even if they are positive experiences in themselves. After any larger social event, I always get drained. But I have learned to handle this fatigue. (Did you see that word? Fatigue – warning sign 4 in my list). But in those cases I am reasonably alert before the party.

To make a long story short. This morning I realised that it is necessary to pull the emergency brake, and I just hope that I will be able to stop the train in time. Like with a train the stopping stretch is long. That is why it is important to have clear signals to follow. And to start braking when the signs are there. I guess (and hope) that this was the final sign before the wall, and not the wall itself. I hope that I have some petrol left in my spare tank, on which I am running now.

So, what is the point in this post? Well, the point is twofold, one is of course to help raising the warning flag for others, but the second is also to try to explain myself towards my social environment. I don’t act in the usual way, and I don’t act as I would like to. I forget things, I forget names of people I know well, and I have big difficulties in focusing. This can cause much discomfort among people in my surroundings. I don’t want that. I don’t want to behave the way I do when this happens. So what will I do about it?

As I feel currently, I have decided to start by cutting down on my social activities, that is hard enough. I know that may disappoint some of my friends, but I hope they are more happy to have me around later, even if I don’t attend some social things now. I still have a few work tasks to do before I go for summer. So why not go on a sick leave and leave that? Well, there are some things that cannot wait, and if someone else would do them for me, they would have to ask me about it all the time, which means that I am not able to put them away. Course reporting is one such thing. Other things will be on my mind even if I would postpone them until I get better again. Such things just need a relaxed pace, and doing away with them will actually make me feel much better. So I will continue with my work doing those things that cannot wait, or that will relieve me of stress. This will help me to reload my batteries. The social events are easier to remove (albeit with a bad conscience towards other people). In social events, you are most of the time possible to replace, that is the hard truth. You are of course possible to replace in the work context too, but with much more problems to other people.

But, you may wonder, isn’t that still to continue along the stress path. Yes and no, the most stressing things in life are often those things you don’t do. If it is possible to get a few undone things unloaded, it will remove a large amount of stress. But, if I feel that even this will not work, then I will drop it. I have seen the warning signal (a bit too late, but still) but I think I will be perceptive about this.

Just to round up my post today, I hope that you who read this will understand more about this impairment (because it is an impairment, and an impairment that is chronical to some extent). Hopefully you will be able to avoid it, but also that you will understand the problems it causes to both the person who is affected, and to this person’s social environment, wife, husband, children etc. It is often so that we concentrate on the person who is affected, while the people around him or her are left aside.

I will write more about this in a later post. It may take some time until it appears, but it will, I assure you.

Posted by: mumriken | May 14, 2012

Yet another one…

Today I got some knowledge about another friend of mine who has reached the end of his bodily petrol tank, running out of gas. I met him at the end of April, and it was difficult to realise that this would happen, because nothing could be noticed, at least not directly. In afterthought there were small signs, but it is much easier to make post-fact-observations.

So, now he has joined the club of burned-out people, or the club of people with stressrelated exhaustion syndromes. This group of people is constantly growing, it seems, and nobody seems to really care about any preventive actions. People with this syndrome are really impaired for a long time after the events that caused it, and even thinking in economical terms, it is really a waste. But what could be done to prevent this type of illness? Isn’t it, as I said, always easy to see afterwards, but much more difficult to see the warning signs in advance? Actually, I think there are plenty of possible warning signs, that should lead to a preventive consultation with a psychologist or someone educated in stress therapy (I know that this is not a formal term, but I think the intention is clear).

So what are the warning signs? Well, there are many different ones, and I will write down those that I can see should have given me a warning, apart from the major indicator: the constant feeling of being stressed:

  1. Keeping many things going at the same time. This is of course not a problem, as long as you are not in the risk zone. Often this is regarded as an important skill. But if you are continuously forced to juggle many tasks in order to keep them up and running, then this is a high risk factor.
  2. Loosing the control and overview. When you now and then feel that you are no longer in control of your work or personal life, and that you have lost the overview over all things that you have to do, then that is also a warning sign. If it happens once, there is of course not a problem, but if it reoccurs, then you need to check what is going on.(*)
  3. Forgetting things and missing meetings. One of the first things that fail under stress, is the memory mechanisms. Most affected is the short term memory, and a person who has kept most things in his memory, will soon discover that he cannot do so any more. One of my first signs, was actually when I missed having a full class waiting for me to give a lecture, while I was happily skiing.
  4. Fatigue Being unexplainably tired is a late warning sign. If you are unable to sleep the tiredness away regardless of how much you sleep, this is also an indicator. The body is trying to avoid the burnout by shutting down, the only way it knows. Unfortunately, this will most of the time result in an even greater stress, during the waking hours.
  5. Problems talking. Stress does affect our oral output. If you start to stutter or realise that you are sometimes saying things without thinking, that is also a very strong indicator. Our speech system is very sensitive to stress, and gives us away immediately.
  6. Losing of focus or having difficulties reading. When we are too stressed, the mind tends to sprint between many different things that are wirling around in the head. It becomes difficult to stay focused on one topic for a longer period of time. Reading texts is also one of those skills that are affected by stress. If the reading gets to slow for the stressed mind, it gets bored, and skips reading.
  7. Mood changes. Getting angry or upset without any reasonable cause, or having large mood swings is one of the indicators of that something is out of balance. This can of course have many causes, but is one of the indicators.
  8. Denial of being stressed. Many people who are on the edge do not admit to the problem. And even if they admit to a stressful situation, they still maintain that they cannot change the situation now, or that “when I have only finished this”, things will get better. But the situation never changes, and the stressfulness continues.

There are several other symptoms, I presume, but these are the ones that I can more or less easily see in my own pre-burnout history. And towards the end, I had most of these at the same time, and did still not understand… We are very good at denying our own weaknesses, and many times we need other people to help us in detecting the problems enough to make something of it. I think we need to be aware of this, all of us, because we need to help our friends colleagues in understanding that something is wrong, and that something has to change.

This is difficult, and we are often scared of intervening in other peoples lives, but I think it is completely necessary, in todays society with all requirements that meet us everywhere… So my only advice is to look around you, and be aware of the warning signs. And maybe we can help other people to regain their health.


(*) People with very stressing work situations, such as flight controllers, can report “loosing the picture” when they have been in the business for a long time. This is a warning sign as well, since it is a signal telling that the mental mechanisms are not coping at the same rate any more.

Posted by: mumriken | January 31, 2012

Where is the emergency exit?

Emergency situation with man i wheel chair.

In case of fire, don't use the lift.

During the course on Universal design that I have given before Christmas, we came to discuss the issue in this post. Where is the emergency exit when you have an impairment? It is very simple to say a thing such as: “In case of fire, do not use the lift”. But what are the implications? How is a person in a wheel chair supposed to get down? Taking the stairs is definitely not an option. Part of the problem is of course the actual instance, where the suggested solution is not a possible alternative.

But part of the problem is also of the more general kind: Why are there so few solutions for emergency exits for people with impairments? In a normal lecture room at the university, there is exactly one entrance and exit. If the corridor gets filled with smoke and fire, the only exit is through the windows. But how is a person in a wheel chair supposed to get up to the window? The window ledges is so high that it is bad enough for a person who can use both legs.

After the lecture, I have started to look at emergency exits for people with impairments. There are virtually none. Steel spiral staircases? Window exits? Staircases instead of lifts? The sad but true fact is that the emergency solutions are designed for people without impairments. How can you find the exits if you are blind? How can you notice the fire, if you can’t hear the alarm bells (actually, in some places they are difficult to hear even with normal hearing).

How can we change this? By developing new evacuation tools. Why not try to invent a way to allow a wheel chair to get down a stair case in an emergency. Why not provide good instructions for blind people at the entrance of a room. We might even print the instructions in Braille on the walls close to the door. And why only use sound as warning sounds. A flashing light together with a warning sign would help many more attend to the warning signs.

But the most important thing is, maybe, to increase the awareness of this problem. Opening the eyes of architects and designers might be another way to start a process of preventive design.

The picture in this blog is by Garrick Tremaine, and is used with his kind permission. Please don’t copy it without permission.

Posted by: mumriken | November 10, 2011

Acceptance and Normality

I am currently giving a course on Universal Design and Evaluation at Uppsala University. This is the first time I am giving this course, and it is really exciting for me. I am especially happy to see the faces of my students in this course, as they listen to my lectures and enter the discussions. I feel understood, even more, many times it feels as if we think the same way.

During one of my lectures on Stimatization, I had a sudden insight, which I think is very important. We keep talking about inclusive design, universal design and design for all, and this is of course very important. Better design of artifacts and environments are crucial and there is a lot of work to do in these fields.

However, when we talked about Stigmatization as a general issue, it becomes equally important to think about the societal view on deviation(°). We may design things well enough, and we may make architectural solutions that are ingenious, but if we can’t make this into a general change of attitude among people it will all be in vain, people will still stare at a wheel chair, people will still feel uncertain when they see a Hoover (white) cane.

Stigmatization will not be removed, only by Design (although I am certain that a good Design can do a great contribution as well), but also by changing the view on Normality. I think that Normality is the main key to Acceptance, and Acceptance in turn will be a major key for the removal of Stigmatization. I will get back to this in a later Blog entry. But for now, I think it is enough to start the mind thinking about how we can normalize the deviation. And make “them” (the deviant) into “us”.


(°) The use of the word “deviation” here is not intended to be used in derogatory sense. It just asserts that there IS an apparent difference which is caused by an impairment or other categorizing personal property, which can be the cause of people staring or avoiding encounters.

Posted by: mumriken | November 2, 2011

Oh, it is simple… You only have to…

This is one of my favourite indications of bad design. You complain about something that doesn’t work, and then immediately some technical wizard comes up and says, “Oh, that is so simple! You only have to… ” and then follows a short or long sentence of computer gibberish.

Mind you, I often complain about things that I know how to handle or problem I know the solution to. I don’t even want to know how to solve it, I just want to point to that the problem exists. But when someone goes into the “you-only-have-to”-mode, then I have the definite proof of that the thing could have been better designed, or easier to use. You shouldn’t only have to “ooogle the burkyfizer” in order to use something (didn’t you understand my computereze?).

Recently I wrote on facebook about the problem with having different good passwords on all your web sites. That is difficult for all who have bad memory, at least (maybe people with a normal memory capacity can remember several “ir%T2frtdi334_” passwords, I don’t know, I can’t). Immediately there was a comment that noted that it is not difficult at all. You only have to (!) get a friendly (sic!) computer that helps you remember all the different passwords and then lock it with a “super password”.

A good solution! That you may use several different computers, or even public ones, is not a problem, of course. Or if your friendly computer gets a hard disk crash, and forgets all your passwords at once, that could never happen. Actually, when you don’t have your friendly computer with you, then you are completely free of the problem of logging in, because you have definitely not memorized the password, once you have confided your friendly computer with all your different passwords.

The most solid solution is still to have post-it notes on your desktop, computer screen, or on the archive drawers (the only thing people use them for today seem to be to hold the post-it notes with passwords).

As long as we have to use passwords to log in rather than other solutions based on something that is simple to remember, we have a usage problem, that will keep people frustrated.

PS. The person who suggested a “friendly” computer? A computer scientist, of course. What else?

Posted by: mumriken | November 1, 2011

What is it like?

What is it like, having an impairment? What is it like to sit in a wheelchair? It looks so easy when you see someone in a wheel chair doing tricks and turns, and it looks so easy when a blind person reads on a Braille-keyboard. But what is it like? Is it even possible to understand what it is like to be dependent on a tool, when we can just change the situation by standing up, or opening the eyes? My immediate answer is quite clearly, no.

We can get some ideas by trying the tools and by reasoning about the situations. That is what we are doing in an ongoing class on Universal Design at Uppsala University, but it quickly becomes clear that it is difficult to understand the complete situation.

Wheel chair on cobble stone is not easy to handle

One student is trying to use a wheel chair on cobble stones. (coypyright: LarsOe)

Prior to the lecture, I used an electric wheel chair in the corridors at the department, just to test the conditions and what it felt like. And, of course, I felt ridiculous, sitting there driving myself through the corridors, seeing people giving me free way with a strange look in their eyes. Maybe it was because I was using a 170 kg heavy chair in the narrow corridors, or maybe it was something else… Clearly, life is different once you sit down in one of these things. Just to make the point, having skidded some 2 kilometers in an electric wheel chair has not given me ANY understanding of what it is really like. However, it has given me a lot of thoughts… and I will try to put them down in this blog, once I have pondered through them.

And, to answer the question in the beginning of today’s blog: I don’t think it is possible to understand unless you are or have been in that situation yourself… I think that the best we can do is to try to catch glimpses by working close to the people, and then attempt to apply these insights properly.

The dangerous thought is “I know what it is like!”.

Posted by: mumriken | October 14, 2011

Burnout…

I just thought I would copy this item from my (mainly) Swedish blog. If you have read it before, then it might be good to read it again, and I have added some afterthoughts in the end…


I suffer from a burnout syndrome and this has been a large part of my life since May 2008. I have decided to be personal in this blog, but I think it is necessary to be frank and honest with this. I have had problems being frank and honest to myself during this time, and there are many hours in therapy behind my own understanding of what has happened.

Then…

I was giving a course at the university in the middle of May, 2008. The course was new, and the subject one I had not taught before. At mid-lecture I just felt that I had to fold my laptop and walk away. I had never experienced anything like that before. I was literally shaking when I left the lectuere theater, and I could not stay at work. The next week I contacted the doctor, and was sent home from work. As soon as this happened I started sleeping. I slept for about a week, more than 18 hours a day. I didn’t think that you could sleep that much.

Now

A year has passed, and I am now back to work at 75%. What has happened since? Well, I can cope with the work I am doing, although I have realized that I have to compensate. The old person that I was before May, last year has changed, and the changes need to be accounted for. A constant tiredness, bad memory, difficulties to focus, difficulties to find words and names, and a sensitivity to stress are new properties that I need to learn how to handle.

I am a person who is almost allergic to planning, and one of the difficult things I have found out recently is that planning and making lists is going to be a new part of my life. Without lists, memory support (a.k.a. calendar) and writing down what I do, things will not work.

Thought

It is very easy to fall into the trap of viewing yourself as being almost chronically ill. I was very ill in the beginning. I could not do very many things, and just passing the building where I have my office gave me a panic attack. However, this has passed. I have been at the office, I have talked to my colleagues, etc. I have even started to work, although not with teaching.

Many people who suffer the same thing report a long time of recovery, lasting over years. If I try to think about my own situation, I even start to wonder whether you really recover, or if you rather learn how to manage the situation. And even if you slowly recover, it might be better to accept the situation, and learn to cope. If you live with a condition for several years, that condition becomes you, and not a defect within you. As soon as you start accepting that there are things that you need to compensate for, then it becomes your new identity, and that identity is not faulty, but different.

But is this just not a way to fool yourself? Is it better to incorporate the “defects” in your person, than to think that you could do better? I think it is, because when you have accepted who you are, then you will not constantly be disappointed. As long as you compare yourself with your “old” self, you will constantly think that “I used to be able to do this” and that is a depressing thought. If you accept who you are, any progress will be instead be a positive effect.

I still struggle with my acceptance, but I think that if I can manage to change perspective, this will be a very large help forward.

Afterthought…

Now it is 2011, and three and a half years have passed since it all started. Have I recovered? Well, not entirely. I manage to work full time, but I still have to be very careful with stress. I cannot keep more than one or two balls in the air at the same time, and I still don’t have a memory I can trust. I have started to challenge myself a bit more, which I think is good.

On the whole, I feel lucky, though. I have found a way to cope with the new self, and I have started to accept that the old person is not there anymore. Finding strategies to avoid or overcome all things that have happened in the last days has become part of my life. Essentially, I have now accepted a new life, which in the long run may be richer than the old, in that I have found new values that will complement the old ones. And I have become very sensitive to when other people run the risk of falling in the same trap as I did.

Hopefully this can be of use to someone else. I will write more on this topic later in this blog too.

Posted by: mumriken | September 27, 2011

What’s in the name of “computer”?

ABC80 - Z80 processor, the computer of 1980...

ABC 80 Basic and 8 bits...

The technological development is very rapid, and seems to speed up more and more. We still have computers on our desks, and they look about the same as they did more than 30 years ago. Of course there are differences and the computer of the 1980:s is not the same thing as the computer today, especially not with the introduction of smartphones and tablets. One question is of course why the progress hasn’t been greater. But from the point of view of Human-computer interaction (HCI) the issue becomes more complex. We have to decide when something is a computer or not. Which screens are computers and which are not? Is interacting with the menu on a TV the same thing as interacting with a computer? Or is Human-TV interaction something different from HCI? I would myself say: “No it isn’t!” With some emphasis, even.

The central topics of HCI are relatively well defined, but in the periferi, the definitions quickly becomes more fuzzy. There is even an ongoing debate on the scope of HCI, and how we should teach the topic to various groups of professionals. Human-computer interaction is not easy to define in itself, since it can be regarded as a supportive research (and education) field. I quote a recent facebook entry from my friend and HCI-philosopher, professor Masaaki Kuroso from Tokyo:

What is the core, the central zone, of HCI? Is there something useful and effective? Or, even a question, is there anything? HCI is a field formed from the surrounding edge; computer science, material science, mechanical engineering, cognitive psychology, ergonomics, design and social sciences. They came into this frontier from outside but didn’t form the core. The only reason they ran into the central area is a belief that there must be something that links the artifact(computer) and the human being. In other words, the handshaking could be said to be the core of the HCI.

Essentially, the meeting of the artifact and the human is the central core of Human-X interaction with any entity “X”. As professor Kuroso wrote, maybe we should even start to forget the “C” in HCI, and replace it with an “A” (for artifact). This would make many things much more transparent and straightforward. A “handshake” between a human and something else poses essentially the same problem area regardless of what that other something is. Understanding, ergonomic aspects, logical work flow, control, safety, trust and satisfaction are all properties of an “handshake interface” and an artifact, whether it is a physical computer (HCI) or the physical control of an electric wheel-chair or an aeroplane (HAI). We could even consider interaction with virtual artifacts within this term.

What is there to be gained from this change? On the surface it is only a lexical change, but the implications are quite large.

  • By looking at artifacts, we may, e.g., losen ourselves from the idea of computer users, which, to start with, is a large gain. The “user”, or as sometimes more specifically named “computer user”, is traditionally an unspecified, but very specific creature, who is more or less experienced in one or more skill dimensions. By considering the “user” we do not look at the artifact as a work tool, but as an implementation of the tool within a strange virtual environment. This is something we do not do with a “hammer user” or even a “carpenter’s toolkit user”. We just consider the best way to design and use a hammer for a specific task.
  • By looking at artifacts we will also be able to look at more diverse design spaces. Now we tend to separate design of virtual artifacts from physical design of tools. There is also a tendency to mimic physical tools and controls in computerized settings, which is not always a good idea. By looking at artifacts as a general term, we don’t separate the two design spaces and minimize the risk of copying the wrong properties and features.
  • There is an increasing involvement of computers in many physical tools, which causes strange borders within both research, education and application. Is a robot a computer, or is it far enough from being a computer that it warrants a completely different research direction (human-robot interaction). This may lead to barriers between researchers, meaning that valuable knowledge may disappear between the fields of research.

There are quite likely many other arguments to add, but these are in my opinion enough to make it arguable to form a more general term, such as “HAI” (Human-Artifact interaction).

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