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

  • John Waterworth, Professor Emeritus at Umeå University in Sweden, introducing us to the current trends for Digital Travels;
  • Daria Loi, Head of innovation at Avast, Design and UX Executive, stressing out the importance of User Research when designing next-generation interaction for innovative technology.

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.

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
Fortnite: Travis Scott Concert, April 2020

What is the significant difference between physical and digital travel?

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

“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.

“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.

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.

“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.

“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

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