Lecture date: 17 May 2005
In a talk as intriguing as its title, Patricia Wright presented her vision for user interfaces that go beyond mere usability.
According to Wright, a user interface can not only be readable and usable, it can also be congenial. But what is congeniality? To Wright, it means providing a user interface in the desired context, via the preferred medium and in a way that the user wishes. In short, it means that the user interface is “in tune with the way I like to do things”.
As an academic at the University of Cardiff, Wright has conducted several rigorous studies to test her ideas. In a study of 189 women, for example, researchers asked whether they preferred print, video or audio for receiving information on medical topics. The answers varied widely depending upon the actual topic. For information about childhood vaccinations, 88 percent of respondents preferred print whereas for information about speech impairments only 32 percent did.
Another experiment explored how user interfaces can support decision-making. Realising that complex decision-making involves juggling multiple variables and making trade-offs, Wright and her colleagues sought to design user interfaces that could aid the process of making these trade-offs to arrive at a ‘best fit’. The result was IDEX, the Interactive Decision Explorer. Wright discovered significant variations in user preferences: older people preferred using ‘boring’ tables to optimise their health by adjusting amongst level of exercise, cholesterol, diet and other factors while young men preferred user interfaces more like computer games.
With so much diversity, what’s an interaction designer to do? Wright notes that it’s difficult to categorise heterogeneous user populations and guidelines are prone to error. Nonetheless, Wright has a simple solution: let the user decide by offering several options.