My guest for this UXDesignCast podcast episode was Bill Curtis-Davidson of the IBM Ability and Accessibility Center. Bill describes the IBM’s kiosk business, outlines the accessiblity challenges with kiosks, details the innovative solution he designed, and summarizes the feedback he’s received on the design. We also discuss the generalizability of the solutions discussed to other touch-based user interfaces beyond kiosks. Additional information on this project is available in the Design Gallery section of our Design@IBM site.
Input and output on mobile hand held devices have been a challenge for years. Recent advances in these devices have dramatically increased the resolution of the output to the screen. Direct manipulation via multi-touch has also vastly improved the ability to interact with content on the screen. However, getting input into these devices has seen little improvement other than trying to get to parity with desktop and laptop devices. Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch introduced the software-based keyboard. Although this was novel in many ways, it didn't fundamentally address the problem of trying to type on a very small keyboard with fingers larger than the surface of the keyboard.
I recently came across a true innovation that cleverly addresses this problem. Shumin Zhai and his team at IBM Research have created WritingPad, a free app for the iPhone. The innovation here is that you don't simply tap out individual letters and correct each one as is the case with the default iPhone keyboard but, instead, you simply drag your finger across the WritingPad software keyboard contiguously and the system infers the words. Corrections are done at an individual word level rather than letters.
The other innovation here is how this research team is gathering user feedback on the design of the app. They provided it as a free app in the iTunes Store and with it's built in rating and commenting system, the team has been able to rapidly collect huge amounts of very valuable feedback. A quick read through the feedback indicates that this direction as a new method of providing input into a mobile hand-held device is a real hit and deserves more focus.
So, hats off to the IBM Research team for this design innovation and for an innovative way of collecting feedback on it. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch and would like to try WritingPad for yourself, here's where to find it in the iTunes Store.
Many years ago, designers at Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, and IBM each contributed to what became the user interface standard for personal computers. Back then, issues like whether individual windows should overlap were hotly debated. Of course, all of that is now behind us and the basic elements of the user interface of personal computers are amazingly consistent. Sure there are some differences between OSX, Windows, and Linux systems but there are vastly more similarities than differences. Enhancements to these systems are also not dramatic. Such should be the case so that users can have a mental model of how these systems work and that mental model shouldn't change very often. Of course, there are some basic problems with each of these systems that nobody is willing to fix at this point because the standard is so ubiquitous. A number of details could have been changed quite dramatically in those very early days because users hadn't yet built up a mental model.
We're witnessing another major wave of this type of phenomenon right now. The introduction of the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch 2.0 represent the beginnings of a new user interface standard for multi-touch mobile devices, and likely, multi-touch devices of all sorts in the future. It is therefore wise for all designers to explore and experience this new user interface for themselves. I've spent significant time with the new user interface and am of the view, consistent with many others, that the design is exemplary. It should be pointed out that the design is appropriate for the device it was designed for - the iPhone/Touch. I'm less sure that the design will be appropriate for other non-mobile devices that it may well be used for in the future. And remember that Apple has had difficulty in the past with successfully adapting and evolving designs such as was the case with the iPod when it started to include content in addition to music. If the experience with personal computer user interfaces is any indication, flaws in the designs of this new mobile user interface standard may have already been introduced and we have to live with them for a couple of decades.