A couple of entries in one for the HCI Diary, today.

First: observation exercise and surveys.

As I wrote before, we were sent out into the wild to practice our observation skills. The brief was to pick an aspect of public transport and, working in a group, plan and carry out some observations of users and run a survey to gather some quantitative data, then compare the two and present back to the class.

Our group chose to look at the stresses of public transport for those travelling with small children ages 2-8. This involved spending 40 minutes at Brighton station one evening feeling incredibly creepy whilst we identified parents entering the station with kids and followed them through making notes on their behaviour. As an observer it was tough to know how much detail to note down; I tried to get as much as possible, on the basis that it would give us more to work with when doing analysis, but found the more I was writing, the less I was observing. A definite case for pair work, or in future taking notes using something like Griffin iTalk: I could comfortably read out observations and look like I was on a phone call, I think. Alternatively, working very carefully in pairs - one observing, one noting - might help.

This we followed up with a short survey posted to Mumsnet and sent to friends with children of a relevant age.

We ended up watching 5 families in the station, and having 6 responses to our survey. It definitely felt strange and creepy to be watching people: we weren't subtle and I'm sure a couple of them noticed it. As for patterns in behaviour: families tended to use seating in the station, sit for about 10 minutes, go and stand near the departure boards for a couple of minutes, then head to their train. We're not sure why they'd stand near the departure boards before boarding - they're visible from all parts of the station.

The other consistency we noted was the excitement of young children heading through the automated gates. The older kids made a big deal of trying to wander through by themselves (demonstrating how grown-up they were, perhaps?) and there was a tendency for groups to head through the manned gate: mother and children first, father (carrying the tickets, no doubt in case they were attacked by bears) last.

We correlated some data around wait times with that from our surveys; no-one waited more than 15-30 minutes for a train, the majority of folks less than 15 minutes. And about 60% of the survey respondents found ticket machines difficult or very difficult to use (though most used them anyway).

Once again, I found it hard not to be proposing solutions to problems as I saw them. I'm not sure, but I think that one of the keys to doing good observation might be training yourself to avoid analysing: just concentrate on what's around, stay aware, note it down, and plan to think through it all later. I'm led to think about six thinking hats and mindfulness.

The second piece of observation we've done recently was around video games. Pejman showed us a sequence of 10 short video clips of games: game-screen, biometrics of the player, and a video of the player running inset. We were invited to note usability issues and prioritise them; to my mind, they broke into three categories, prioritised thusly:

  1. The player wasn't in control of their "character", and couldn't work out how to be. This either manifested itself as verbalised frustration ("how do I jump?"), or as staggered or artificial in-game movements (very noticeable in FPS games). This struck me as stuff that ought to be fixed;
  2. The player was controlling their character, but in an unskilled fashion: they'd drive a car into the wall by the roadside, or jump up and down in a situation where they were trying to be stealthy. Practice would help here, as might instructions, training levels, or a rethinking of controls;
  3. The player couldn't work out what to do. Going through this pain seems to be the heart of many games - without challenges, what are they - and I noted that in every case we saw, the player worked it out, after some initial frustration.

There were some positives, too: players seemed delighted to notice unexpected depth in the games (the ability to shoot out tires). And there was a little pattern of delight when they got high up and could see far around them (in FPS games), which felt like it might be deeply rooted in our evolutionary history: good visibility means safety, the ability to see threats or food a long distance around. What's not to like about that?