Designing Interactive Media

Many apologies for the late entry today. Aside from feeling weary and having a sore throat, I have been thinking long and hard about how to write today’s entry. I have not learnt very much about the principles of interactive media design, though I will find out more in this semester as I learn how to create interactive media. Before that, as a form of revision for myself, allow me to share some basic principles of media and object design that combine common sense and some designing psychology.

1. Users have to understand what to do

This is very very important and so often overlooked. Designers sometimes forget that users know nothing of what the medium is up to at first glance. I have met systems and appliances that do a whole lot of complex stuff, but nobody can figure out how to switch it on and off. While it is wonderful to have a mouse, for instance, that allows you to expand images when you triple-click, take screencaps when you double-right-click and makes you a cup of coffee if you scroll to the side, nobody knows unless you make it convenient for users to do so. Users will not be able to remember which action has which effect if they are not properly communicated, neither would they know how to do it correctly. While it is cool to have many novel functions, make sure those functions are user-friendly.

On the same note, if users do something wrong, it gets quite frustrating if the machine whistles a cheery tune as the phrase “invalid command” appears on the screen. It is not fun for users to perform trial and error endless times to get the machine to do what they want. Machines should guide the users towards the correct actions.

2. Use examples, not logic

People who are not knowledgeable about a certain domain tend to prefer specific examples to help them understand. This may be why mathematics can be inaccessible to the layman, because it follows abstractions rather than examples you can see in daily life (at least, once you get out of arithmetic and into calculus). Computing is quite similar to maths and hence programmers make the mistake of explaining functions in technical jargon. When communicating a new product, talk about the specific problems the product solves. A computer’s specifications fly over the head of a layman till you explain how much time he must wait for a video game to load and how clear the graphics can be compared to.

3. Conceptual models and mapping

Certain properties of an object have certain affordances, meaning that when people see the object they have an instinctive feel of how to use it. For example, a handle on a door would lead people to pull it open whereas a flat plate on the door is the other way around. These affordances make it visible how to use a product. Of course, most complex objects and software operate by a combination of buttons, knobs or mouse clicks, which mean more direct instructions have to be provided. And now we come to mapping.

Mapping is the concept that a user has that a certain action will lead to a certain effect. For example, in driving a car, we know turning the steering wheel to the left turns the car to the left. Similarly, in touch-screen smartphone apps for instance, we know that pinching the screen makes images smaller. It is pretty intuitive. Users have a conceptual model of how the app works so that if something does not happen, they know how to solve the problem.

To know about conceptual models, think about something like your printer. How do you visualise it working? You put the paper somewhere and then the printed paper is sucked into the machine one at a time. Some nifty things happen that involve ink sticking to the paper and the paper emerges from another end, printed. You can visualise the process in your head. That is your conceptual model. Now what happens if you find after using your printer that alas, the paper was put facing the wrong side? That happens often enough to me. You must now revise your model again, that maybe the paper is sucked in around a disc which flips it around, or that the ink comes from the other side. You keep revising until you’re sure you know how the machine is supposed to work and what you are supposed to do, and that is when your conceptual model is the same as the designer’s conceptual model.

I’ll introduce these 3 basic concepts for now, and I hope that as you geniuses cook up your awesome inventions, don’t forget about us common folk who struggle to understand why we even need them in our lives. Remember, it’s up to you to teach us how to love your creations!

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