How affect influences geolocation design

Please note that this blog is written in an academic style, not my usual Matt-isms.

In the design of an interactive University tour using GPS on a mobile device, the direction of the tour depends entirely on the outcome of the decisions made by the user. The proposal is to produce an application for a mobile device that allows the user to walk around a specific University campus and monitors the user’s GPS position in order to locate points of interest in close proximity and push relevant information to the GUI and audio outputs of the device, be these headphones or an internal speaker.

‘Mediascape’ is a term defined by Hewlett Packard for media of this type. “Mscapes (short for mediascapes) are digital experiences directly related to where you are. Running on GPS-enabled mobile devices, they change as you move around, enriching the physical world with a layer of digital information, services and media.”1

Introducing the uncertainty and non-linearity of the user’s decisions that result from GPS operation

In the operation of a GPS device, the huge number of the possible outcomes to the user’s decisions greatly increases the risk of user frustration through the potential lack of order and instruction. Frustration is an emotion that the design of this mediascape must eliminate. This factor may lead to the implementation of software features that combat the user’s feelings of having made the wrong decision and blaming themselves for having missed key points of interest on the tour. This, for example, could take the form of a graphical or audio notification to give the user feedback on what they have missed as the tour timeline or current GPS location progresses and give unseen highlights of the campus, therefore allowing the user to learn from their decisions. This solution demonstrates good use of the concept ‘affect’ – “any evaluative (positive or negative) orientation towards an object” (Smith-Lovin in Brennan 2004, p.5) to make the best of a badly structured tour. From first impressions, the user controls exactly what they see and when they see it, however Malcolm Gladwell (allegedly repeating the management guru, Kevin Kelly) speaks of a team, or in this case, the user, being “in command and out of control”. (Gladwell 2007, p.118) To make best use of the tour and sell the University, the software must be designed to affect the outcome of the user’s decisions, whilst the affective design itself must appear transparent to the user. To do this, we must deconstruct the models of decision-making, from rapid cognition or “thin-slicing” (Gottman in Gladwell, 2007, p.23) at one end of the scale, to planned, contemplated decisions at the other.

“An integral part of human decision making is emotion”.

(Picard 2000, p.222)

Picard (2000, p.221) states that “humans use feelings to help them navigate the oceans of enquiry, to make decisions in the face of combinatorial complexity.” Bearing this in mind, ‘affect’ has highlighted itself as the key dependent variable in the development of the GPS product. If the affect on these ‘feelings’ can be altered by the structure of the mediascape, then the outcome of the user’s decisions can create a successful mediascape that provokes positive emotions. In this context, ‘feeling’ can be treated as a synonym for emotion.2

Emotion can be broken down into two parts – a mental, cognitive component and a physical, bodily component.3 Bearing this in mind, emotion can be considered the physical representation and tangible result of affect. Picard also states that “there is growing evidence that emotions can be discriminated by distinct physical signatures” (Picard, 2000, p.23). Applying this fact to the design of the GPS product, it should be possible to observe these “distinct physical signatures” by analysing the GPS positioning data. In affective computing, the computer must have senses – in this case, the sense is position. The GPS data effectively represents the outcome of each of the user’s decisions along the tour and a clear dependent variable from which to measure the effectiveness of the affect pushed by the product onto the user.

Desmet, Porcelijn & van Dijk speak of product design resulting in the “wow-experience”, clearly the ideal emotional outcome for a tool designed to essentially sell a University to a prospective student. This excitement “can best be considered a compounded emotional response” (Desmet, Porcelijn & van Dijk 2007, p.142). Desmet, Porcelijn & van Dijk (2007, p.141) specify this compound as “pleasant surprise”, “desire” and “fascination”. According to Norman (2004, p.21), emotion comprises three different levels of mental processing – visceral, “the automatic, prewired layer”, behavioural, “the brain processes that control everyday behavior”, and reflective, “the contemplative part”. Snap decisions fall under the visceral category, the level at which affect operates, and occur in the user’s unconscious. It is to be expected that the aspect of the software that monitors the user’s navigation around the GPS-mapped mediascape will be largely operated by the user’s thin-slicing. Gladwell’s point about the user being out of control takes effect here. Despite any previous reflective cognition on the part of the user regarding the most efficient use of the time spent touring the University, the likelihood is that the user’s control will be submitted to the mediascape once the tour has begun. Any plan that the user had for visiting particular features of the tour will be forgotten as the attention and control of the user is handed over to the software.

Gladwell highlights a thin-slicing pitfall of the highest priority – too much choice paralyses the user. Affect and emotions influence decision making processes through rapid judgements prompted by environmental pressures. As mentioned above, these judgements are made in the unconscious but exist as judgements nonetheless, meaning the process is intelligent. Thin-slicing is a logical system free of cognition that can become overloaded if it is presented with too many factors to consider. “Snap judgments can be made in a snap because they are frugal, and if we want to protect our snap judgments, we have to take steps to protect that frugality.” (Gladwell, 2007, p.143). The software must present the user with purpose and motivation on the tour to allow a logical choice to be made. This will deliver positive affect to the user and put them in a comfortable state of mind by providing them with new goals as the tour progresses, therefore avoiding frustration.

“‘That was an important goal to me and you prevented my attaining it; therefore, I am angry.”’

Picard (2000, p.23) gives an example of frustrated user dialogue.

Ortony et al (1988) in Desmet, Porcelijn & van Dijk (2007, p.143) created a typology of human concerns – goals, standards and attitudes, all of which relate to particular emotions. The goals of this particular product do not need to be written into the GUI or announced through the audio interface but will nonetheless affect the user on the unconscious, visceral level. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell states that “We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction”. Gladwell (2007, pp.70-71).

Standards, the second level in Ortony’s model, concerns how the user is to expect the product to behave. Product behaviour expectations, while not reflective, are not ‘factory’ senses engrained in our unconscious. A good example of this, as far as mobile devices are concerned, is the soft key; a button coupled with a virtual label shown on an accompanying visual display that varies depending on the context in which the interface can use the button. The button itself often denotes a horizontal line. The expectations attached to a button with a horizontal line are learned socially. This is particularly evident in new users to Nokia mobile phones that do not identify a static button label with a particular part of the display screen . For these users, the operation of soft keys requires reflective cognition to apply the onscreen functions to the phone buttons. This distances the user from the interface. “Negative emotions kick in when there is a lack of understanding, when people feel frustrated and out of control–first uneasiness, then irritation, and, if the lack of control and understanding persists, even anger.” (Norman 2005, p.77) In the case of Nokia mobile phones, the user often operates the device several times and is able to navigate the interface more instinctively as time passes. This is not a possibility for software that is designed to be operated a very small number of times.

Experienced users are able to consciously, yet almost instantly associate soft keys with the onscreen labels and navigate the interface with relative ease. For these users, the mental process falls under Norman’s ‘behavioural’ category because the associations are made consciously, yet happen almost automatically. As a development of affect, this part of Norman’s model does not happen as a ‘gut reaction’ but nonetheless happens instinctively, despite being no pre-programming. The Cocoa Touch interface, developed by Apple, is a more complex example of user interface standardisation and is featured in their iPhone product. In this case, the way the user expects the interface to behave is determined by a standard set of largely undocumented touch gestures and UI components. Apple demonstrate good understanding of this user need and support third-party development that fulfils this by supplying a comprehensive library of standardised UI objects in their development environment for use, not only in native applications to the device, but also to web content. Desmet, Porcelijn & van Dijk (2007, p.143) state that “we approve of things that comply with standards and disapprove of things that conflict with standards”. The conclusion must be drawn that an unexpected interface, however ergonomically designed it may be, is considered by many to be unacceptable. To comply with an interface standard, all parts of the application that cannot be represented with the standard user interface must be entirely self-documented, self-explanatory or self-operating. As a prospective student using the GPS application on a visit only once, it is important that little to no time is spent learning how to operate it.

The third entry to this model, attitudes, takes the form of a conscious value judgement on the part of the user. To ascertain the user’s judgement of the GPS product, with a view to iterative improvement, based on feedback, the obvious solution would be to question the user directly to establish their attitudes towards the product. Gladwell argues that this approach carries its risks. “When we ask people to explain their thinking – particularly thinking that comes from the unconscious – we need to be careful in how we interpret their answers” (Gladwell 2007, p.70). As was established earlier, the medium of the mediascape is likely to feature decision-making on the unconscious level. “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.” (Gladwell 2007, p.69). The solution to this problem is to use data on users’ mediascape usage as an attribute to restructuring the tour for future iterations. The distinction between the user and the developer or producer has been removed without affecting the user’s experience with the product. Using the GPS position data from preliminary tours, future tour iterations can, in theory, be tailored to one or more target audiences. An initial mediascape will need to be produced, based around research on the University’s primary target audience for the application. The quality of the mediascape experience is designed to increase exponentially with each iteration. There are important privacy issues attached to the monitoring of people and these will need to be addressed before the product reaches any kind of testing.

The term ‘produser’ (Bruns 2008, p.2) is used to describe the role of the combined consumer and creator in the field of user-generated content. Developing a product itself should highlight the attitudes of prospective students to each part of the tour. Locations on campus that are missed or visited very briefly can be flagged up and the appropriate sections in the mediascape software can be marked for revision. All GPS location data, subject to relevant data protection legislation, will form a collaborative knowledge base for the University to use to improve the tour. “Users are … also producers of the shared knowledge base, regardless of whether they are aware of this role–they have become a new, hybrid, produser”. (Bruns 2008, p.2)

This cyclical Kaizen software model will provide prospective students with the opportunity to assist in the design of the tour while their focus is kept on the end goal of the software – to help the user find the right University.

1 Marketing copy from HP Idealab – http://www.hp.com/idealab/us/en/index.html#/mediascapes/

2 According to Dictionary.com – http://dictionary.reference.com/dic?q=feeling

3 Picard (2000, p.23)

References

Brennan, T. (2004) The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bruns, A. (2008) Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage, New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Desmet, P. and Porcelijn, R. and van Dijk, M. (2007) ‘Emotional Design; Application of a Research-Based Design Approach’. Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2007, pp.141-155.

Gladwell, M. (2007) Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, New York: Back Bay Books.

Norman, D. (2005) Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, New York: Basic Books.

Picard, R. (2000) Affective Computing, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Web references

‘Dictionary.com’. [Online]. Available at: http://dictionary.reference.com/dic?q=feeling&search=search (Accessed: 1 May 2009).

‘HP Idealab’. [Online]. Available at: http://www.hp.com/idealab/us/en/index.html#/mediascapes/ (Accessed: 28 April 2009).

Matt Radbourne

Matt Radbourne

London-based web developer, tech enthusiast and digital exorcist.

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