Old 2.0: adventures in retail

I spent a little while with my parents in the UK over the past couple of weeks. Their use of television was frustrated by the electronic programme guide on their new set-top box. But what can you expect in terms of user experience from a piece of electronics that cost 8.99GBP in the supermarket. The second thing that I noticed is that they had become much more comfortable with the iPad. I don’t mean in terms of the software but in terms of how they related to the hardware, the device no longer had to be plugged into the charger when not in use; instead they were happy to leave it on the computer desk that I grandfathered to them and now doubles as their TV stand. In terms of television content my Dad is now addicted to Quest – a TV channel full of documentaries about large machines, treasure hunting with metal detectors and real-life forensic science cases. Dave TV which is basically old episodes of Top Gear on repeat is his substitute if there isn’t anything on Quest that he hasn’t seen before.

So I have managed to get my parents using technology, my Dad is most au fait with the touch screen interface of his TomTom sat navigation device, they also use an iPad (Facetime is preferred over Skype because of the easier interface design), but they draw the line at technology outside of the home.
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We went to Birkenhead Park which has been transformed from a run down Victorian folly to something approaching the designers original vision for the space, but they couldn’t get enough money to resurrect the original hot house on the site which used to house plants from around the world. It has been restocked with geese and ducks in the lakes and modern adult exercise equipment that seems to be unvandalised at the time of writing. Whilst we there we took some pictures, we also took some pictures when we went to the cinema and having dug up some homegrown potatoes. My Mum and Dad wanted these pictures printed which meant going to the supermarket and using Fujifilm’s touch-based kiosks to get the photos printed out. They were resistant to having the pictures in an electronic format on their iPad, the memories didn’t seem shareable and real by comparison in their eyes. Even my Dad was leery of using the touch screen of the Fujifilm kiosk, despite the fact that it talks you through on screen each process it wants the user to do. The interface was Flash-based and runs slowly, my Dad was anxious that he somehow managed to crash the console. So that fell to me to complete the process.. We also decided to do a little shopping there and I decided to brave the automated tills. This when things got really interesting. The tills are voice activated with a passive aggressive woman’s voice, and like the aggression shown towards the female sat nav persona on a previous visit home this did not go unchallenged by my Mum. A mix of coughing and ‘Are you sure that’s the right price, I didn’t think it was that on the shelf’ drowned out the audio instructions from the machine, so I had to takeover the buying process from them halfway through.

So what does this all mean? It made me more aware (yet again) that interface designers are probably using voice in the wrong way. Devices like tills and kiosks don’t take account of how a machine talking to you exists in a social hierarchy and how they could make people more comfortable with it. I suspect that the way forward maybe to give the machine a distinctive voice of its own (think Stephen Hawking, rather than Siri).

Secondly, digital retail is inevitable, but again user experience and interface design needs to improve in terms of accessibility and performance.

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On the road 2