The Big Red Button

Eleanor Davies

The Big Red Button = feeling: In Control

As I write this, I’m sitting on a train crossing Germany – as I do quite regularly – typing at speeds of up to 300mph. I can flick my way through the journey on my touch-screen, headphones on and ‘connected’, yet completely removed from the physics of it all. Until, as happened on a recent ride, we come to an emergency stop. Well first we start braking, and I can feel that we’re braking. Then smell that something’s wrong – there’s definitely some friction somewhere. Removing my headphones I can hear a loud screech slowly dying down – and – we finally stop. I have seen nothing of this deceleration.

After a couple of minutes I do see people getting up, concerned faces asking what the problem is. I listen out for an announcement to try and decipher. I was reminded of this pretty minor event during recent research we’ve been doing on the role of senses in interaction – and the importance of physical feedback in emergency contexts.

I remember lively debate about where to draw the line between hardware and software in the design world, around the time Apple launched its single-button product line, a discussion that has continued through the rise of touch-screen devices. When it comes to sensory feedback, we are used to playing with things like Sony’s rumble pack and the more recent Wii ;responses to the need for a bit more action, rebelling against click-dominant gaming. Products have appeared, which attempt to preserve the physical activity of design itself – with digital sculpting tools providing haptic feedback – showcased as a means to infuse some feeling into digital design and production.

Terms evolved to define variations of interaction experiences, from ‘lean-in’ to ‘lean-back’, and designers often agreed to disagree; after all it was down to personal choice and consumers were left to vote with their wallets. Apple and Blackberry devices signified whether users were seen as ‘smart’ or ‘serious’, while large hard buttons were leveraged by anyone looking to take advantage of a growing market of older users.However, the scale of technology adoption has reached a point where these discussions are relevant far beyond consumer electronics.Before boarding this train, I had to navigate my way through a ticket machine that presents customers with a confusing mixture of touch-screens, dumb-displays, hard buttons and a payment panel completely separated from the ticket selection. Users are left guessing how to manouvre through the mix of interaction eras; sometimes required to switch between them sequentially to move through the process, and at other times to repeat their actions/selections on each different platform.

New ticket machines require classes for elderly users

Technology adoption brings newer interaction into an increasing number of touchpoints within our public services, therefore changing the issue from a matter of personal choice, to almost mandatory implications. Similarly, the issue becomes more relevant for equipment designed to be used in the workplace: We recently had the opportunity to learn about the attitudes and needs of technicians using instruments during their day-to-day work, that are becoming ever more ‘hi-tech’. Having been asked to create concepts to digitize existing electricity testing equipment – we entered a high-voltage, high-risk context, both in the physical nature of the work, and in the interaction attitudes of the users.

Understanding the high-risk context

Our ethnographic work in multiple countries, began by kitted out with protective jumpsuits, hard hats and steel-toe boots, before joining technicians for a series of typical ‘day-in-a-life’ studies, which began very early indeed, as they attended to electrical faults from their equipment-filled vans. The vehicles were both mobile home and mobile office, and a typical scenario involved being called to a site to pin-point an electrical fault between two sub-stations in different parts of a city, through a combination of electrical tests carried out from the van – literally – with the van connecting to the cable in question and generating the voltages being used to measure aspects of the fault.

When narrowed down to a particular part of a street, technicians drive to the approximate location of the fault and work on foot, with various hand-held devices to pin-point the spot on the road that they mark, ready for a construction team to dig up and repair the cable. From being clad in the protective gear and observing the safety equipment and warning signs strewn around the site, issues of safety – or stronger still, issues of danger – became obvious elements of the whole experience which override the usual drivers of convenience, ease and personal preference.

In a situation where every a user is responsible for controlling the huge potential power surging through a cable which has either a home, or colleague at the other end, the greatest need is for him to ‘know’ he is in control. Feedback, resistance and senses become vital in maintaining confidence and keeping focused on the steps within the process. When taking us through the process step-by-step, technicians confirmed that some elements of the experience should not be digitized, and the hypothesis to reduce the current, bulky equipment to a single tablet device was objected. ‘What if the computer breaks just as I’ve put a high voltage on the cable? I’d want to be able to override it’. These concerns were consistent across cultures, as well as the appreciation of certain universal symbols and indicators.

‘The big red button always means stop – and you want to know there’s a big red button before you start.’

Having spent time reading manuals and previous studies on the device, we were amazed to discover the huge role of multi-sensory feedback, undocumented in the literature. On foot, hand-held devices and headsets operate as huge stethoscopes, amplifying the pulse charging down the cable. Once the fault location had been identified, we could stand on the marked spot on the pavement and actually feel the pulse coming up through our feet. With the ground, literally shaking beneath us, it was clear this experience couldn’t be totally replaced with a screen.

Listening to the pulse beneath the ground

‘To really pin-point the fault, it isn’t enough to look at the display – I need to hear it, and to feel it’

Given the role of the technology within their lives, technicians expressed their need to test equipment, and to be involved in the purchase – not to feel that someone within their organization would be deciding based on cost or even trends.

The experience gave us a new appreciation for the daily work carried out on the circulation system of our cities that we otherwise encounter in frustration at road works, traffic and diversion. It raised the need to preserve and consider the relevant use of technologies in many of the emergency contexts we wish to design for, evident in communication, healthcare and transport to name a few. Finally, it gave us a deep respect for the experts on the ground, using the instruments and dealing with issues designed into their tools, underlining the need to involve them throughout the work we do.

Eleanor Davies

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