Addressing the psychological challenges behind a paradigm shift. Two reflections on the future and on the passage of interaction design: digital travel and touchscreen interfaces

UX TALK for the Opening of the 2nd Edition of the Master in UX Psychology

On the opening day of the second edition of the Master in User Experience Psychology, held in collaboration between Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and Politecnico di Milano, we had the great pleasure of having:

  • John Waterworth, Professor Emeritus at Umeå University in Sweden, introducing us to the current trends for Digital Travels;

From virtual encounters to digital travel — John Waterworth

The pandemic was one of the most prominent reasons driving the current need to organize digital travels. Many people were forced into their homes during this particular period of history, and the urge to compensate for what we used to do outdoors with new digital experiences was just a natural request. Furthermore, transforming many of the activities we did face-to-face with a digital substitute is often a good choice for the environment, since by reducing the numbers of physical travels and commutes, humans pollute less.

Last but not least, digital travels would allow the ageing population and impaired people to experience new adventures and journeys (often independently of their caregivers). Travel requires for this category of people an enormous amount of effort, and often they decide to stop travelling, significantly reducing personal new experiences.

Undoubtedly more and more encounters are already digital: in a work situation, many international and local meetings now happen in videoconferences; teenagers meet each other through computer games in fascinating fantasy 3D environments. So overall, it is possible to notice that much of our daily life already happens online.

Indeed, since the beginning of the century, people have started living through their digital phones and other devices, experiencing their virtual existence rather than the physical place in which they are.

These are the traits of our current society that makes it clear we are moving in the century of digital travel.

But what is the current status of virtual travel?

Google Earth and Microsoft Simulator are suitable means to visit places and see buildings. These tools offer the possibility to users to freely explore a version of the world or a significant site; for example, two friends could show each other their hometown and meaningful places in their lives.

Microsoft flight simulator

Immersive games characterize another essential category of digital travel experiences happening in a fictional or simulated world. This kind of experience can also include the digital representation of cultural places such as museums, art galleries, historical sites. Just as importantly, many real-time events, such as sports, plays or concerts, can be experienced virtually.

The representation of these places often come from a pre-recorded video or live cameras.

A great example is the unprecedented concert by the rapper and producer Travis Scott held inside the famous video game “Fortnite”, in April 2020, during one of the first Covid lockdowns. The show channelled each user into a surreal experience, giving the possibility to millions of fans to watch live the exhibition. The 10 minutes concert was interactive and fascinating with vibrant colours and a stunning barrage of graphics, an entirely new way of attending a live show. Anyway, sad irony of fate, the artist recently hit the headlines for a bad live case that happened during one of his concerts.

Fortnite: Travis Scott Concert, April 2020

Similarly, the first kinds of virtual vacations have been implemented: they include a pre-packaged collection of experiences, which usually last no more than a couple of hours. Anyway, this kind of adventure does not aim to substitute actual travels but instead integrate different complementary digital experiences. For example, attending a virtual tour before booking a holiday in a specific place.

What is the significant difference between physical and digital travel?

The most immediate response is the ‘sense of presence.’

All the activities above mentioned usually involve going into a place physically. The difference between meeting a person in a cafe and reaching them via video call is that the latter reduces the feeling of belonging to that situation linked to the sense of presence. The people are not in the same space, indeed are not experiencing the same reality. Consequently, they are undergoing two very different contexts and distinct daily moments.

“The sense of presence in a place with other people is what establishes an unconscious behavioural code, given by the human understanding of the situation and the consequential co-creation of a set of rules.”

John Waterworth

On the same line, people’s behaviour is different when in online meetings. Bailenson (2021) outlined that, when video conferencing, often the user is not entirely at ease; this feeling is given partly by the fact that they see themselves while speaking with others. People do not know how to behave and might feel too near to other people due to the camera’s closeness. In addition, video conferencing can minimize and mistranslate our gestures: hand movements and breath intensity can be missed. Omitting all these physical cues decreases the memorability of what is said in that event. In this way, the experience is harder for the participants due to the lack of sense of togetherness and space, provoking a general sense of being in limbo.

On another hand, in digital travels, a factor that might make the experience more relaxing is the absence of the “unpredictive”. In real journeys, we have certain established phases such as departure and arrival but things that aren’t organized can happen, such as the possibility of danger (Meyrowitz, 1986). This kind of episode can change the experiencer significantly. Instead, digital travels are generally pre-established, unpredictability seems not to be ever considered in the experience.

Indeed real journeys change the self; moving to a city for some months transforms the person in a certain way that could have never been the same otherwise since the experience is full of unexpected events and people. How could something similar be simulated in digital travels? Should we think about this aspect? Or should it remain something only related to actual trips?

“We mainly represent the place we are in, in the way we act or try to act in that place.”

The feeling of being in a digital place is an illusion and the user may not have a vivid sense of being in that place. This can be different in certain situations among a restricted group of people. For example, immersive games can fully engage their users in that reality, creating a shared set of values and attitudes with established aims and strategies, assembling a code of behaviour. The gamers often believe in that fictional world as if it was real.

So what are the opportunities and challenges to design enjoyable, satisfying experiences of travels and meetings? Clearly, UX design and innovation are the keys to successful digital trips. This is still an open question

Watch the entire event

User-Centred Research to address the interaction of next technology innovation — Daria Loi

Digital travel and virtual social encounters represent the next generation of technology innovation, in which still a lot needs to be designed and established.

But how should we design the interaction of next-generation technology in this sense? Which is the best way to discover how the user should be engaged with the technology? Data grounded human-centred professionals are figures able to investigate the anthropological response of users when experiencing a digital space.

The human-centred approach was introduced through a case study, with the aim to investigate innovative forms of interaction in human-machine.

The story begins in 2011 when Windows 8 Operating System was about to be launched. At that point in time, while the new OS was designed to be “touch-first”, the industry was not considering necessary to provide touch interactions in laptops. The late Steve Jobs did not leave that much room for decision, classifying touchscreen just for phones and other “horizontal screens”.

“We’ve done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical.” Steve Jobs October 2010 Macbook Pro Event.

On what basis was this statement accepted by the industry? Where was the data to back off this strong perspective?

In examples such as this one, User Researchers need to intervene, investigating hypotheses based on users’ actual behaviour.

The first step was securing funds to conduct research and a senior leader to sponsor the investigation. The second obstacle was how to test a technology that was not yet accessible, since the operating system wasn’t yet released and not many laptops included touchscreens, yet. The answer was to create an experience prototype that looked and behaved like the real OS (i.e. a flash prototype delivering a series of scripted usages, ported on a touch-equipped laptop). Experience prototypes, as well as Wizard of Oz Techniques, are great ways to test ideas or hypotheses with users without creating or leveraging a working product, which requires considerable effort and resources.

During interviews, users were asked to perform a number of everyday tasks (e.g.open and watch a video or write and send an email) and multiple input devices were offered (i.e. mouse, touchscreen, keyboard or trackpad).

While interacting with the experience prototype, participants’ interaction steps were accurately recorded with emphasis on the chosen input modality. Participants could voice over their activities and at the end were interviewed to deepen understanding. It was during this portion of the interview that it became clear that not only participants used touch dominantly, but they also loved engaging using touch in a laptop context. After completing the research in two countries, a data-grounded case was made, as users clearly and consistently used the touchscreen across all tested usages.

Data clearly demonstrated that original assumptions were incorrect, as people loved using touch on laptops and found the experience of value. To ensure data scalability and validity across diverse regions, the same tests were conducted in additional countries. The investigation further confirmed that touch interactions are valued and enjoyed in vertical screens.

At that point, all key players already decided not to include touchscreens in their laptops — yet her leadership team was supportive of the data. Dr Loi, therefore, worked to socialize data and convince key stakeholders to reconsider their strategies, to ultimately ensure users globally could engage in more intuitive experiences. Clearly, this was going to be a challenge and only a convincing data-grounded story could change the game.

Besides demonstrating that users consistently use touch in a laptop context if, given the opportunity, the study also highlighted important motivators for that behaviour. Why was the touchscreen so important to them? What made it so attractive in that specific context? These were and are fundamental questions for designing valuable touch-based experiences and innovations.

To bring the research’s insights and recommendations to diverse stakeholders, the story had to be well articulated. Data can be very powerful if adequately visualised and the strategy was therefore to create one visual that would strongly represent user’s preferences.

“Through an extended User Research, it was possible to discover that touchscreens were opening the door to a completely new form of products, interactions and features. Following a human-centred process, it was possible to identify some key trends for targeted consumers and how the product could fit in user’s daily life.”

Daria Loi

Below are ten principles that Dr Loi suggested to those considering user-centric research processes:

  1. Data is key and had user, market and tech dimensions

2. You can impact a lot with little (if you are persistent and passionate)

3. Big things rarely come from playing it safe

4. You can test and learn from almost everything — if you are creative with it

5. Never underestimate the importance of a well-crafted protocol/plan

6. Never underestimate the power of visual, user-centric story telling

7. Never underestimate the importance of a champion that believes in you

8. Ask for help and embrace others to amplify your success

9. Adapt and create new ways while focusing on the final prize

10. Impact and success come in many forms and shapes

Watch the full video

These lectures were held during the opening day of the Master in User Experience Psychology by Politecnico di Milano & Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook to be updated about the upcoming UX Talks, that will be open to the public.

Curated by Alice Paracolli

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