Rob Tannen is an expert in designing products, interfaces and systems that accommodate the complexities of human behavior and capabilities. He has researched cockpit interfaces for the U.S. Air Force, designed trading floor order systems for the New York Stock Exchange, and created touch screen applications for consumer appliances. Rob is Director of Research and Interaction Design at the product development firm Bresslergroup. He has a PhD in Human Factors and is a Certified Professional Ergonomist. Rob shares his thoughts with us below:
What projects are currently inspiring you?
At Bresslergroup we’re really excited about projects that allow us to rethink the way people interact with technology. At the end of 2009 Popular Science choose two Bresslergroup-designed products among the best of the year. Both of these represent product paradigm shifts, but in very different ways. One is the Sole Power Tile – it’s a roofing tile with solar photovoltaic technology built-in. In other words the roof is the solar system, and you don’t need to put solar panels on top of your roof. The other is the Black & Decker TLD100 Thermal Leak Detector, which lets homeowners check for thermal leaks by translating the complicated readouts common in pro devices into three simple colored beams. As you scan your house for drafty windows and doors, a spotlight will change from green to red or blue in areas of hot or cold. So in both of these case we’re helping people achieve energy efficiency, but without the complexity of the traditional tools and products that people associate with energy efficiency. The best products let people focus on the goal of the activity, not the details of working the product.
In response to some of the conversations going around about our multitasking culture, you’ve identified the idea of narrowtasking. Can you describe briefly what narrowtasking means to you and how this manifests in the way we interact with objects/devices?
There’s been a backlash against multi-tasking for a number of valid reasons – safety, performance, and just plain rudeness. The key issue here is divided attention – we don’t want people texting and driving, and recent studies have demonstrated that switching among multiple tasks results in reduced efficiency. But what if you could do divide your attention among multiple facets of the same task, rather than across different tasks? That’s the idea behind “narrow-tasking”. For example, I might be watching a World Cup Game while getting additional information about the players on an iPad. Technically I am still multi-tasking, but the tasks are intended to augment, rather than divide each other. Or I could listen to a song on a digital radio that’s also displaying the lyrics. In this case I am actually getting more out of both of the listening and reading experiences, rather than less with traditional multi-tasking situations. As tightly-coupled information and content can be delivered synchronously, we really need to redefine what we mean by “task”. It’s typically meant a one-to-one relationship between a person and an object or stream of information, but humans are naturally multi-sensory systems; I like the term “informavores”. We put information together from different sources to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Can you share your thoughts on mobile devices as a platform for 3D content?
At first glance mobile devices might seem sub-optimal compared to larger display TVs and monitors. But from both socio-technical and user-centered design perspective, there’s a lot of limitations to fixed displays that don’t constrain mobile devices. And in fact, mobile devices may be the best platform for 3D content. For example, mobile devices are typically viewed by a single person at a time, so the user can set the device set in the optimal viewing position. This isn’t feasible when there a lot of people at various positions around a TV. In addition, mobile devices are often used in immersive entertainment situations – think of watching a movie on your smartphone during a plane trip. That’s a perfect time to be visually focused (even with special glasses) – a one-on-one entertainment experience – versus a multiviewer environment where’s there’s more distracting activity outside of the screen space. 3D also provides value on a smaller display device because it’s a means to get beyond the limited real estate of the screen – consider a user interface with depth and layering that essentially multiplies the amount of presented data at any one time. Of course this would need to be thoughtfully organized and appropriate, but the potential is there. Moreover mobile devices are indeed mobile, not just in their portability, but in their maneuverability. I could change the orientation of the device as a means of navigating a 3D image and viewing it from different angles, heights, etc.