Voice 2.0 conference examines usability issues behind mashups

OTTAWA – The phones of the future need to be simple, meet specific needs and give control to the people who use them, panelists at the first Voice 2.0 conference said.

One entire session at the one-day conference was devoted to mash-ups, in which existing products or capabilities are linked to create new capabilities. One example was code that Pika Technologies, Inc., of  Ottawa, wrote to tie the Skype service, which lets people make free phone calls over the Internet, in with Asterisk, the open-source phone-switch software, so that Skype calls can come directly into a company call centre just like regular phone calls.

Specialized services like this are where the money will be made in the telecom industry in future, said Martin Geddes in the conference’s opening keynote. Geddes, a British telecom consultant and author of the Telepocalypse blog, said that while the money in telecom used to be made when a customer picked up the telephone, in future it will be made before and after the phone call, on specialized devices and added capabilities such as presence awareness, integration, directories and social-networking tools.

And Mitch Brisebois, head of the human factors lab at TrueContext in Kanata, Ont., saw an opportunity to explore a “long tail model for mobile applications” based on specialized, personalized offerings for niche markets.

But Bill Buxton, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, showed a slide during an afternoon panel on user experience of an all-in-one gadget bearing the Jeep brand. It included a lantern, flashlight, cigarette-lighter power adapter, black-and-white television, AM/FM radio, emergency blinker, siren, audible mosquito repeller, thermometer, compass and earphone.

“You laugh at that Jeep device,” Buxton told the audience, “but that’s what you make, and mash-ups just add to that over-populated piece of crap.”

Buxton followed up with references to three laws. First was the familiar Moore’s Law, most commonly cited as stating that processing power doubles roughly every 18 months. He proposed his own variant of this, Buxton’s Law: promised functionality doubles roughly every 18 months. Then he pointed out what he called God’s Law: human capability remains constant.

So there are three questions to ask about a new product, Buxton suggested. Does it reduce or increase the complexity of the user’s world? Does the design reduce or increase the user’s control over complexity? And what is the emotional response to the device?

Geddes suggested that the real reason videophones have never caught on, despite several attempts over the past 40 years or so, is that they are simply too complex to use. 

Yet the panelists also acknowledged that ease of use is not the only issue. “Something can be very usable, easy to use, and completely useless,” argued Gitte Lindgaard, director of Carleton University’s Human Oriented Technology Lab. “Something can be very useful and difficult to learn.”

Research in Motion’s BlackBerry mobile device is an example. Before it appeared, said Desmond Ryan, vice-president of experience design at Design Interpretive in Ottawa, research had indicated people would not use small handheld devices with a lot of tiny buttons. Yet the BlackBerry has been a major success.

Alec Saunders, chief executive of Ottawa technology startup Iotum, described his BlackBerry as a “ridiculously complex device” that took him a long time to learn to use, but said he uses it because it keeps him in touch with his office and because of its dial-by-name capability. “You probably couldn’t pry it out of my hands,” he said, “because I’d have to go out and learn somebody else’s equally bad device.”

If user interface design is so important, an audience member asked, why do so many deep-pocketed companies do such a poor job of it?

Buxton suggested it’s partly because many businesses think that once they hire a designer or usability expert they have addressed design, but the commitment needs to go much deeper than that, becoming a part of company culture.

Fellow panelist Ryan said part of the reason is that companies tend to put more emphasis on the plumbing. Making the plumbing work is often not trivial, he noted.

But, Buxton said, “you’re only aware of the plumbing when it’s broken and there’s (waste) all over the floor.”

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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