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Does your mobile suit you?

Posted on 12 November 2003

Christmas will see many new mobile phones, laptops, and personal organisers bought as gifts. They’re intriguing, stylish items to have about us, whether for work or leisure.

But because clever, must-have tools such as the mobile phone and the Internet have become part of our lives, not just office equipment, there is a growing need to understand not only what people do with these things but also how they improve their quality of life and lead to more enjoyable experiences at work and home.

If we could understand this we could help designers develop better interactive products that meet people’s real needs, says University of York academic Dr Peter Wright.

“Designers are moving away from just thinking about how to make phones and other technology more user friendly towards thinking about what people feel about using them and how their actual experience matches up to their expectations.

“People designing in areas like electronic commerce are becoming very aware of this, but there’s an uneasy silence about what ‘user-experience’ actually is and what makes the difference between a good and a bad experience."

Dr Wright, who works in the Department of Computer Science at York, and Visiting Fellow, John McCarthy of University College Cork, have been awarded £12,500 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to complete a book, articles and workshops analysing these experiences.

In an earlier joint project they analysed people’s on-line experiences with buying major brands compared to their experiences of ‘bricks and mortar’ stores and have had an enthusiastic reception for their ideas at British Computer Society meetings (the professional association for computer experts), and international conferences.

Dr Wright says there are various processes that make up the user’s experience of, for example, buying over the Internet.

“Just as with reading a story or watching a TV drama, there is the need to understand what has happened and what’s going to happen next. There is also the sensual aspect - the look and feel of the site. This is sometimes hard to explain but may be crucial in whether or not we decide to buy something.

“Thirdly there is an emotional aspect such as our anger, disappointment, satisfaction or frustration at what has happened, or the sense of empathy we have with designers or retailers of the web site. Lastly, there is the sense of time and place that a web site evokes for us. Is the experience one of a hectic rush in a disorganised place or does it evoke a sense of calm and unhurried familiarity that a good bookshop might?”

An important part of Dr Wright’s research findings is that we cannot design an experience. “An experience is as much about what a particular person brings to the situation as it is about what’s already there. But if we understand how people make sense of their own experience and how technology participates in this process, we can try to design for an experience.”

Dr Wright’s future plans are to use some of his ideas on user experience to help designers design better interactive products. With Andrew Monk in the Department of Psychology at York he has recently been awarded a £198,000 EPSRC grant to develop a theory and methods for what he is calling ‘Experience-centred design’. Dr Wright and Dr McCarthy’s book, Technology as Experience is due to published by MIT Press in 2004.

Notes to editors:

  • The Department of Computer Sciences attracts about 20 per cent of the nation's industrial funding for academic research in computing, more than any other department.
  • The Department's excellent relations with industry have led to its designation as a University Technology Centre by Rolls-Royce and as a Centre of Excellence by British Aerospace (BAe).
  • Research activity centres on the Department's seven major research groups: Advanced Computer Architectures, Artificial Intelligence, High-Integrity Systems Engineering, Human-Computer Interaction, Management and Information Systems, Programming Languages and Systems, and Real-Time Systems.

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David Garner
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