Experimenting on My Family

One of the aspects I like about my newish team, Applications User Experience, is access to real research. Through eye-tracking, the usability labs, ethnographic research, focus groups and a host of other tools, AUX collects data from real users to help us understand how to build better software.

This is perfect for me, since I’ve always been an anecdotal designer, relying on relatively small data sets and what I observe from those around me. Now, I have access to a wealth of data to balance what I see on my own.

Of course, the users around me most often are my family members, so I do a fair amount of observation and experimentation on them.

For me, this is a side benefit of being the family’s technical support.

My family presents a nice mix of personas too. My wife is a savvy user, whose technical knowledge has grown as I add gadgets. She also hates to rely on me for support, which is awesome, because a) I don’t have to do as much and b) I get to observe how she approaches and adapts to new gadgets.

My parents came to computing and the interwebs relatively recently. So, with them, I see the challenges faced by inexperienced users. They too have experienced technology creep, slowly adding new gadgets to their home, and they also prefer to rely on their own wits vs. calling me for support. Another win.

I now have a new user in the family, my daughter, and watching her absorb technology is fascinating. She got a Leap Pad for Christmas, one with a stylus, and it’s amazing how immersed she gets. Using the stylus is a learned behavior, and it was interesting to watch her default to touching everything, even the drawing apps, which you’d think are better with a stylus.

At some point, we tried to get her using a laptop, but the keyboard and mouse presented too big a challenge. She kept trying to touch the screen, and the mouse was nothing more than a toy, unrelated to the actions on the screen.

Recent Experiments

A couple weeks ago, I decided to wipe my OG iPad for her. It’s forever stuck on iOS 5, and I’ve replaced all its uses with Android tablets, the Xoom and Nexus 7. So, why not put it good use?

We had already bought a few apps for children, so we had content for her. Ironically, the App Store is super buggy on iOS5, so all the time I wasted trying to find more good apps for her was completely wasted.

Not that it mattered, because as soon as we identified the device as hers, she wouldn’t let me use it without complaining. Toddlers exist to possess.

The biggest observation for me is how natural touch UI is for humans. As much as it limits me personally, it’s hard to argue that touch makes more sense than keyboard and mouse.

Back to my wife, a week ago, I asked her to use Facebook Home on my Nexus 7, since she’s a heavier Facebook user than I am. She played with it for about ten minutes with no direction from me, and when I asked her about it, she said, it’s pretty much the same as on her iPad.

Turns out she immediately touched the notifications displayed on Home, which went directly into the Facebook app, bypassing the browsing capabilities of Home.

I explained the launcher concept, and she browsed some updates. She liked what she saw, but it’s clear that Facebook Home is targeted at heavy browsing of the News Feed and drive-by liking. In fact, the up-front nature of notifications actually detract from Facebook Home usage.

A Single Thread

Whether I’m asking my family to test something, supporting their usage or just observing them use technology, there’s a recurrent theme, frustration. Technology creates frustration in two big ways, first by breaking (or not working as designed) and second by creating work.

My recent focus has been on the latter. Over the past decade, Wintel dominance has been replaced by siloed ecosystems, thanks in large part to Apple’s devices and cloud services. These ecosystems tend to create inefficiencies for consumers. Simple stuff like sharing pictures is now dictated by who uses which service and who else uses that service. By who else, I mean privacy concerns.

I don’t see these ecosystems going away, but as they expand to offer as much as possible to everyone, we’ll probably see another dominant platform emerge in the next decade. That should eliminate some of the work, but there will always be frustration.

Thoughts? Find the comments.




  1. re: “…it was interesting to watch her default to touching everything…”

    Kate started on the iPad a little more than a year ago. Her progress on it has been nothing short of amazing. Taking out the communication factor of the device, she’s been able to really blossom…independent play (sorry, fragmented, I don’t really know how to describe it) I guess is the term. She does it. Pre-iPad, we’d have to sit there with her a make sure a commercial didn’t come on (meltdown) and that Dora never, ever ended (meltdown x 100). (Dora intros…she aged out of the “old” one and hated every single show with the old intro, digression).

    Anyway, she has a bunch of Dora videos downloaded from iTunes and one season of Fairly Odd Parents. She’ll swtich between “Video” and “YouTube” fairly easy. On both, she’ll hold down the FF or RW key and cruise through the videos at fast speed. Annoying if it were anyone else.

    +1000 for touch.

  2. @chet: I remember you writing about that, but only connected it now. Funny how these really critical use cases escape the mainstream. I need to broaden my reading.

    Glad Kate’s progress continues thanks to the iPad. This might be the only truly magical use case, so I’ll officially remove the sarcasm I usually impart when referring to it.

    I have a Dora fan too, although I think she prefers Boots.

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