Schulze & Webb: Awesome

Before I go any further with this post, I want to thank Ben for imploring the readers of his blog to check out this presentation from some guys called Schulze & Webb. These days, you get pointers to so much stuff out there on the web, a lot of it interesting, but a lot of it only so-so. Then, occasionally, you’ll come across a gem, which truly was worth reading, and the presentation by Schulze & Webb, for me at least, is one of those gems. A word of advice if you do decide to read it, though: if you’re going to read it, read it right through as there’s a lot of good stuff in it.

I can relate to the presentation, titled The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Interaction Design, and its authors, Schulze & Webb, on a number of different levels. For starters, they use the example of football, specifically that magical goal Argentina scored against Serbia and Montenegro in the 2006 World Cup, to illustrate the concept that the means or the experience is more important to most people than the end result. In scoring that beautiful goal, Argentina strung together 24 passes before Cambiasso struck the ball into the back of the net. Football fans all over the world appreciate that goal because of the lead up to it, not the goal itself. This is also one of the reasons why football lovers can tolerate nil-all draws, and indeed why it can be truthfully said that some nil-all draws are more enjoyable than games in which five goals are scored: there’s so much more to the game than the goals. But football is only the most obvious example. The same can be said of other sports from cricket (the innings-long battle between batsman and bowler, rather than the fall of the wicket) to tennis (the rallies, rather than the rally-ending shot). Anyway, using football to illustrate a neat concept is a sure way to get me on side!

Their presentation also resonates with my recently written “About” page. They both speak of thresholds, boundaries and tipping points. They both talk about figuring out how to develop new things that harmonise with human experience and the human cognitive model (I love their bumptunes hack for the Powerbook; I wonder if the MacBook Pro has an accelerometer?).

Several months before submitting my Ph.D. thesis, I made the decision that I wanted to refocus my subsequent pervasive computing research more towards the user, or at the very least, to ensure that if I was going to be developing middleware to support pervasive computing applications, I would lobby hard to have some time and resources set aside to build decent, cool applications to exercise that middleware. It turns out I didn’t have to lobby that hard! But the point I’m trying to make here is that the Schulze & Webb presentation has provided a timely reminder of why I made that decision to think more about the user in the work that I do: it’s because in the research space I work in, that’s where the rubber hits the road. You can build middleware, context management systems and so forth, but in the end, it’s all in support of what the user wants to do, and it’s a fun challenge figuring out neat applications that people actually want to use because they’re a joy to use.

The challenge in my particular line of work is this: how do you create applications for emergency and disaster prediction, response and recovery which are “fun” to use? How do you design an application for the emergency services sector which creates an experience as pleasurable as watching Argentina’s second goal against Serbia & Montenegro in the World Cup? Is it even appropriate to create fun applications for an industry that, by definition, regularly deals with human tragedy? I hope the answer to the third question is a resounding “yes” if the applications help to save more lives than would otherwise be the case. Perhaps the word I’m looking for isn’t “fun” but “rewarding”. An application that makes its user feel rewarded for using it is a successful application because, presumably, the user will want to continue using it. An emergency worker feels rewarded if they are saving lives and making snap decisions that turn out to be good ones. Therefore, I think a good reformulation of my goal while I remain part of the SAFE project at NICTA is this: to develop rewarding applications (and supporting infrastructure) for the emergency services sector. This isn’t far off my official job description, but what it does is bring into sharp focus the importance of considering the users’ experiences as they interact with the application and system.

Thank you Ben. Thank you Schulze & Webb.