Physical Computing. Observation: interactive technology in public

Observation. Pick a piece of interactive technology in public, used by multiple people. Write down your assumptions as to how it’s used, and describe the context in which it’s being used. Watch people use it, preferably without them knowing they’re being observed. Take notes on how they use it, what they do differently, what appear to be the difficulties, what appear to be the easiest parts. Record what takes the longest, what takes the least amount of time, and how long the whole transaction takes. Consider how the readings from Norman and Crawford reflect on what you see.

I observed a very ubiquitous interaction — the walk sign button on the corners of the busy streets in the city. The walk sign button is pressed when people want to cross an intersection, but the light at that moment is red and there are cars coming the other way. But my hypothesis was that many of the people at the intersection would ignore the walk sign button and cross whenever the oncoming traffic thinned out, New York-style. When I observed various crosswalks, only a handful of people actually touched the walk sign button, and they looked more like tourists. Also, I found out that not all of the busy intersections in NY have a walk sign button at all. Of the people that did touch the button, about half of them pressed the button multiple times, perhaps willing the sign to change faster. This is the same thing that happens at elevator banks — people for some reason want to make sure their button has been recognized, so they push it several times. I found that perhaps, in a city as big as New York, it is probably a good thing that some city planner put in automatic walk-sign crossing alerts so that millions of people per day weren’t constantly having to push the walk sign buttons — that would almost certainly cause more wear-and-tear, which equals more taxpayer money to fix. The automatic walk sign alert also makes sense because, of course, there are millions of people walking around the city at any given time, and cars do have to stop for the flow of traffic, anyway, so why not incorporate, essentially, traffic signals for people/pedestrians? Waiting for the crosswalk alert can take a minute.

After my observation, I found out through online research that some say that most of the crosswalk buttons have been deactivated for 20 years because computers automate the alerts, but that people still push them in the hope that it will work still, out of habit, or ignorance. That explains a lot.

The buttons themselves are not necessarily anything of beauty, but at this point, knowing that they are obsolete is the bigger issue, not whether their attractiveness makes them work better, as posited by Norman in our readings. But the button, to work as a placebo for the masses, does garner more attention if it is pleasurable to engage. I think the better buttons are the smaller, pencil-eraser tip-sized buttons with the metal housing above it are the most pleasant to push, because they give way a lot more than the big buttons with the writing on them, which barely push in at all. But anyway, perhaps the new question is whether this psychological maneuvering by the city is a successful ploy. I think it won’t last, but that it has had a good run.


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