Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Second-hand serendipity?

Doing research on serendipity enables me to reflect more than I would have done otherwise on experiences that I'd class as serendipity. Preparing for a recent workshop, I realised that it was a serendipitous encounter that led to all our work on serendipity, and transformed the careers of at least two members of my research team...

DSVIS 2004 was held at Tremsbuttel Castle in Germany. People from Lexis Nexis UK participated (i.e. the company paid for them to get out of the office and attend an academic conference that was frankly quite tangential to their core business). Over a beer, I mentioned that one of my post-docs had done his PhD on journalists' information seeking, and that Nexis had been an important product for them. The findings about how journalists used information (and particularly Nexis) was interesting to them, so they commissioned us to run a workshop for their staff on journalists' information seeking. This was followed by further consultancy projects on lawyers' information seeking, and collaboration on a research project on "making sense of information" (MaSI). These projects led to new Lexis Nexis products that are still going from strength to strength. All because Lexis Nexis supported their staff to go to a workshop in Germany in 2004 and we met there.

That same meeting enabled me to develop information interaction and sensemaking work that was foundational to the SerenA project studying serendipity. It also provided lots of opportunities for at least two members of my research team to study legal information seeking. So that one meeting, all starting with a beer (!), has been of immense value, to both us and Lexis Nexis. I suspect that my team have never realised quite how much all of our careers owe to that one serendipitous connection that they weren't even a direct part of!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

When is "Okay" not Okay?

Twenty (or more) years ago, I worked with a software development kit that demanded that I click "OK" every time it crashed (which was at least once a day). I wanted a "Not OK" button  – not because it would have a different outcome, but because it better expressed what I was feeling at the time.

Now I find that Facebook puts the same socially inappropriate demand on the user:

This dialogue box uses socially appropriate terms such as "Sorry" and "Please", but I want to say "I've noted the problem and what to do about it", not "Okay". The software developer presumably regards the requirement to click "Okay" as as simple acknowledgement that "something went wrong". And at one level that is all that can be said: no amount of ranting will change the system. But "Okay" usually means something stronger: that I accept the behaviour, and don't mind if it happens again. It presupposes that the individual has choice: to accept or reject the behaviour. And implicitly that the other agent will take note of the response and act accordingly in future. In this case, of course, there is no such learning, no such evolving relationship between user and system. It's a pseudo-dialogue, and actually it is not "okay" at all.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Hidden in plain sight

Last weekend, I was showing a visiting colleague around the Wellcome Collection. As he stopped to take a photograph with his iPhone, I noticed that he unlocked his phone first, then flicked through several screens to locate the camera app, selected it, and took the snap. I quickly took out my own iPhone and showed him how to access the camera function immediately by sliding the camera icon on the "lock" screen up. He was amazed: a mix of delighted and appalled. He considers himself to be a "power user" but had never noticed the icon nor discovered its purpose.

I had noticed the camera image a few months ago, following an operating system upgrade, but I also had not discovered its purpose unaided, having assumed that it was some kind of information rather than a functional slider that provided a useful short-cut. I had to be shown the use by someone else who had already discovered it. Doh!

Once discovered, the feature is quite obvious. But it is not as easily discoverable as it might be: there is no immediately presented information about key operating system changes, and few people search for features they have no reason to expect to find. Children may explore objects just to see what happens; many adults lose this. Just putting something on the screen does not guarantee that it will be noticed or appropriately interpreted.

Social interactions are so often a powerful means for learning about the world and the less obvious affordances of systems.