PEDESTRIAN LEVER

INTERACTION DESIGN • SEATTLE • APRJUN 2015

PEDESTRIAN LEVER

INTERACTION DESIGN

For my Introduction to Interaction Design class, I replaced the button with a lever for the pedestrians who want to cross the street.

PROBLEM Due to the quarter system’s time constraints, the instructor asked us to focus on crafting well only a micro-interaction. I chose the button that pedestrians press to cross the street, because it was also my daily annoyance. I started with mapping the high-level interactions that contain six steps: 1) red light; 2) user presses the button; 3) user waits; 4) the speaker inside plays sound; 5) user crosses street; and 6) the traffic light turns red again, completing the cycle.

Then I produced a more granular interaction map, listing in detail the system output and user input & judgment. This would help me to identify the some initial points of friction for improvement. These friction points are:

  1. Not enough response to input, as the only output is given at the end of interaction;
  2. Not timely enough output, as the only output is given after whatever time it takes to turn red light;
  3. System does not show its inner workings, nor does it indicate in-progress states;
  4. Consequently the user is prone to the black box mental model, and could even start trying to guess the system’s operation rules.
  5. When the user’s guess is repeatedly not confirmed by the system, anxiety and disappointment results.

High-level interaction map of a street-crossing pedestrian.

MORE RESEARCH My instructor is in charge of Microsoft Cortana, and she preached the importance of human-centered design principles, amongst which one is that the product’s role in a user’s life should be appropriated to that of a human’s. Her team did user research on human personal assistants on whom Cortana is modeled. In defining human roles, it is also important to articulate the boundaries of that role, that is, what it can and can not do. After some research I came up with the pedestrian button’s human role: gatekeeper and police.

HUMAN ROLE

Originating from the guards of ancient city-states, two types of gatekeeper exists in the real world nowadays. The first kind prevents access into a dangerous area, and the second kind stops hostile people from entering a safe place. The pedestrian buttons (along with the traffic and pedestrian lights) is an example of the former. They judge the condition of an area and decide whether to grant access. There isn’t any obvious boundary to them, for the job itself is very much a conditional of if-then.

The police is similar to army in that they both represent authority and act as power constructs in society. The difference is that the police does not possess the same kind of brute force. And so their main function is to maintain civil order, largely by deterrence and not actual punishment. The police’s boundary, therefore, is that it does not overlap with the army.

MOTIVA­TION & FIELD RESEARCH

I also did a rough analysis on the primary motivation based on which people use the pedestrian button. There wasn’t much to report because unlike many other consumer electronics, the button is tightly integrated into the fabric of urban daily life. Simply put, in almost every circumstance one cannot not use it.

What this exercise had given me is unlike my classmates, whose project is focused on a coffee machine or a microwave. For them, there is a primary motivation—to be more precise, a primitive emotional need—that is underarticulated. I felt less pressed to find such articulation, for I believed that theirs are objects to be interacted upon with much more intimacy than mine. It is also curious that much of the user research methods at the present point of my writing is visibly focused on household, consumer electronics. With this understanding, I set out to do some field research, in the forms of guerilla user interviews and directed story-telling.

Persona Spectrum of Disabilities

In conceptualizing design, people no longer only recognize one persona; people have a spectrum of personas. I recognize these disabilities that might happen to a single person:

Situational
Vehicle blocking view
Carrying children
Earphones / noise
Looking at phone

Permanent
Arm loss
Deafness
Blindness
Wheelchair

Temporary
Arm injury

The insights from field user research mainly concentrated on two areas: jaywalking and the system’s response to input. Jaywalking happens under two circumstances: 1) when, for instance, it is midnight and the user is very sure there will be no through traffic; and 2) when he or she believes that the system is broken within, thus unable to orchestrate a fair share of interest between drivers and pedestrians. Interviewees also responded strongly to the lack of response in pedestrian buttons, agreeing that it is uncertainty and induces anxiety. One particular interviewee further mentions that the discomfort would be amplified if the user is in a new and unfamiliar environment, quoting his own anxiety when trying to cross a street in Chicago for his first visit.

Persona Spectrum of Disabilities

In conceptualizing design, people no longer only recognize one persona; people have a spectrum of personas. I recognize these disabilities that might happen to a single person:

Situational
Vehicle blocks view
Carrying children
Earphones / noise
Looking at phone

Permanent
Arm loss
Deafness
Blindness
Wheelchair

Temporary
Arm injury

And so, it is a wonderful reminder for me that interaction design in public space is not only spatial, in that all we tend to concern is what would and could happen between the user and the machine in an articulated, demarcated space; it is also temporal and even geographical, concerning the human experience of time (“the first visit”) and location at a large scale (“visiting Chicago”).

DESIGN GOALS & EMOTIONS

In comparison with my original simplistic wish to make the design less annoying—an intimately personal goal—now I had a more refined set of goals for a wider, more public audience:

Jaywalking
Now that I was educated about the reasons people jaywalk, how would this redesign better help them decide whether or not to jaywalk, and even stop them?

Anxiety
Pedestrians feel more anxious when they don’t feel a strong sense of control. Then, how could this redesign enhance their sense of control?

Responsiveness
An effective way to reduce pedestrian anxiety is to let the system give sufficient, timely and frequent responses to input. It also promotes the user’s sense of system reliability and thus reduce jaywalking.

Transparency
Revealing what is going on within the system can repel the “black box” mental model and reassure the user that his needs are catered to. It also reduces guessing of the system’s rules.

Disabilities Accommodation
The original design in fact requires very much of the user: ability to discover the button, operable upper limb, sight and hearing. How can I lower requirements?

PROTOTYPING With a more clearly defined set of goals and key emotions, I set out to do some brainstorming, envisaging what form this redesign can take, using post-it notes on my bedroom wall.

The two bread toaster ideas at the very bottom ultimately ranked first and second in the prototype pageant. I then sketched out the hero sequence to visualize the way humans would interact with the prototype. And amongst the two bread toasters, the vertical lever became the remaining one for which I drew a hero sequence. I did not choose the horizontal version since I was concerned with directional implications that could be associated when the movement is on a horizontal plane.

The reason to rule out other proposals is largely dictated by the considerations for disabilities. First, it is absurd to use screens, if at all. This automatically rules out every attempt to do progress updates based on some form of loading bar, as so frequently is the case for mobile apps and websites. Second, a machine heavily relying on sonorous response will not work either for it neglects the needs of those auditorially impaired. Some may ask a third point: what if, like some existing implementations in the Seattle area, the interface itself provide cues? For those non-Seattlites, some pedestrian buttons vibrate when it is time to cross. Another example is the popping button, which remains in the pressed state and only pops out at the correct condition. However, not many people can accurately sense such change on the interface itself, especially the blind ones. After such reductions, the only possible solution for me at this point is to have the machine response built into the interaction itself, that is, the action and its consequences are no longer parallel (i.e. “press a button and a light goes on”). Action itself does not trigger, but simply is, the precondition of machine response.

Hero Sequence

The user would pull the lever down to bottom to send
 a street-crossing request. Then as the remaining time reduces, the lever goes back up accordingly. When the traffic has completely stopped, the lever would return to its original position with a distinct sound (perhaps “ka-ching” in mimicry of the bread toaster).

Hero Sequence

The user would pull the lever down to bottom to send
 a street-crossing request. Then as the remaining time reduces, the lever goes back up accordingly. When the traffic has completely stopped, the lever would return to its original position with a distinct sound (perhaps “ka-ching” in mimicry of the bread toaster).

The vertical travel, which is an inherent characteristic of a lever-based interaction, meets this requirement. Conventionally, a lever is simply an elongated switch whose longer travel requires more user effort and reduces human error. Here, when the lever is at the most bottom, its journey of going back up to the original position is an indication of progress, of remaining time to cross. The track on which it travels also coalesce with the loading bar model, but its biggest improvement is that a lever needs no screen; its physicality is already sufficient.

This mode of interaction also responds well to the design goals and key emotions mentioned above. By conspicuously offering in-progress status updates, it exposes the system’s inner working (or at least conjures a lucid illusion of it by encouraging strongly a pattern of guessing). It repels the black box mental model and reduces anxiety, which is a big factor in jaywalking. This is also in contrast with some other ruled-out proposals, one of which displays a huge warning sign of jaywalking penalties. Sometimes when the cost for rule violation is very low, it is more effective to also lower the cost of rule observance to compete with free-riding, instead of raising the punishment for deterrence.

With now the hero sequence illustrated, I proceeded to make an animated prototype:

Then I presented this to a bunch of classmates as mock user tests. Some feedback I received included poor performance in low-light conditions and confusing state indication on the lever track. They were indeed correct: when a pedestrian pulls the lever mid-way, what he is seeing include simultaneously red and green, which can be confusing. With them in mind I modified the existing design as the final hand-in for this quarter, including a glowing handle and a pair of tracks that change color all at once.

REFLECTION I learned three things in this class project: 1) the temporality of interaction design; 2) a more refined definition of context; and 3) that design can only help and relieve to a certain degree.

Good design embraces temporality by occuring the smallest change for the vastest situations.

From my casual readings and course text, the concept of time in design seems very minimally touched in interaction design. The popular understanding concerns literally the very definition of “inter-” and “action,” putting “what to do” and “what happens” as the main topic of discussion. The mobile app design class I am taking now touches on the concept of time, but only briefly as to mention the significance of changing the app’s presentation and behavior based on what happened before. But in this project I learned that the better a design can embrace timelessness, that is, occuring the minimal change on itself to perform in the vastest situations, the easier it is understandable to human beings. The original button indeed changes minimally but at a significant cost. My redesign is an improvement because the modularized travel of the lever itself is an integration of temporality, instead of using a screen loading bar to visually conjure a concept as such. Moreover, while most consumer products are focused on singular moments, e.g. pressing a button to heat food, tilting a nob to wash dishes or sliding a slider to amplify music, such singularity in a public space design had traded its significance for temporality, as I considered the first-time street-crossing experience for a person who had never visited the area.

It is, then, under this premise that the idea of context needs even more attention.Context isn’t now limited to “what happened before and after” as in app designs; it is to be interpreted as is: the social and cultural surroundings, and even far more sophisticated than what color should not be used on what culture, for example. What are the affinities towards buttons and levers for a specific group of people? What are the reactions to unfamiliar objects for different cultures? These are questions I believe cannot be simply answered by UX designers or marketing researchers, and some broader interdisciplinary collaboration with anthropologists or sociologists would be greatly helpful.

PREVIOUS
GITCAFÉ TYPOGRAPHY

PREVIOUS
GITCAFÉ TYPOGRAPHY

NEXT
CHINESE IDIOMS

A final thought concerns my idea about design’s capability of improving the human condition. Just as I was thinking about discoverability, I suddenly got worried: what if the user cannot even discover it? Should it announce itself when, for example, the user steps onto a pressure-sensitive mat built into the street? But it quickly would get absurd to the point of invoking every kind of sensor technology and over-complicate the issue. On the other hand, human beings’ ability of observation and imitation is great. And so, there is a point where the design’s help would stop and the rest be carried by the human-human interactions. When the newcomer sees a local person presses a button or pull a lever, he or she learns. By restricting the power of design to enhancement, amplification, relief and guidance, design improves—not reinvents—the human condition.

NEXT
CHINESE IDIOMS

PREVIOUS
GITCAFÉ TYPOGRAPHY

NEXT
CHINESE IDIOMS