How can we make devices better? By studying what people actually do

Many new technologies are based on what companies and designers seem to think their users might want to do, or what they envision them wanting to do, but not as many are based on what people actually do, Ellen Isaacs told attendees at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference on Thursday. As a principal scientist at the famous Palo Alto Research Corporation (PARC), a subsidiary of Xerox, Isaacs said part of her job involves watching what users do with their phones, tablets, computers and other technologies so that she can see where they aren’t performing properly — and in many cases, the Xerox ethnographer said, they simply aren’t reflecting the way people actually use their devices.

Surveys of users can only reveal so much about how people use technology, Isaacs said, for a number of reasons: for one thing, people forget certain steps because they have become so familiar they are almost invisible, but sometimes those steps are the most important parts of the process they are describing. Users also tend to tailor their answers to the question being asked, as anthropologist Margaret Mead Elizabeth Loftus discovered in her research — so the phrasing of the question can determine the answers that users provide, which can muddy the water in terms of results.

To take just one example of how ethnographic research can reveal gaps in the way technology functions, Isaacs said that she and her PARC team watched a group of close friends over a three-day period — by literally following them around with video cameras and logging their activity — and then applied a variety of research methods to their behavior, including conversation analysis. What they noticed was that the most common usage of mobile phones and tablets was in groups, where multiple people were trying to communicate with one or more remote contacts, who in some cases were also in a place with multiple users also trying to communicate.

If you look at advertisements for cellphones and other devices, Isaacs said, “the implicit assumption is that we are all going to be in one place, alone, with one device, talking to another person in a remote place by themselves, with a single device.” But the reality, she said, is that the communication patterns she and her team saw involved a huge amount of what she called “channel blending,” with multiple users and multiple devics trying to take part in a single conversation all at once. What technology should be doing, Isaacs said, is making it easier for users to do this — to be talking on the phone and then have a friend or family member come up and join in on the conversation with that remote person, and allow them to do the same with people in their physical location as well.

Whether anyone takes advantage of this knowledge remains to be seen, but Isaacs made a strong case for the use of ethnological tools and research to determine where there are unmet needs in the way we use technology, and particularly mobile technology.

Check out the rest of our Mobilize 2012 coverage here, and the live stream can be found here.

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