To all the boring stuff, we(still) do….

~1

Do you have a moment in your life, when your mobile phone falls down accidentally at shattering speed!! You get all tensed up, pick up your mobile and try to switch on.

Alas! To your bad time, your mobile does not ‘respond’. Your mobile screen is still blank,
1 second,
2 seconds,
your blood pressure starts rising up. Random neurons in your brain start to fire-up, already shortlisting your next 3 new mobiles to buy.

Huh!!! After 5 seconds, your mobile screen turn-on, winding off the sweat from your face.

You are happy and disappointed at this moment. Happy, because your mobile is working. Disappointed, because you do not have good enough reason to buy a new mobile.

You touch that shining black screen again, maybe even smoother it, as if it’s a reincarnated baby.

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The Past:

~2

During my childhood, my father tried his best to make our(me & my brother) summer holidays productive. My father bought us a dictionary and a Thirukural book(a book with couplets of knowledge on ‘moral’, ‘wealth’,’Love’).

My father said: ‘Every day if you both study and write 5 new English words and 5 new kurals, I will give you each 10 rupees(Indian currency)’

I was studying my 6th grade when this happened, and 10 bucks during the mid-2000s were quite a big amount for our age.

Obviously, Studying was always the last thing I wanted to do during summer vacations when my whole day’s schedule is blocked with cricket games(wink!).

Still, I went on to earn a total of 10 rupees during that whole summer( I didn’t cheat).

Why labour for pocket-money when we had an ‘open bank’(mom’s purse)?

Looking back now I’m wondering: Why was my craving for a wooden bat greater than for a wooden pencil?.

***
The Present:

~3

Every day as I travel on a public bus, it is a common sight to see tens of students and young professionals plugged in with their earphones, and eyeing their mobile(including me).
To stop the bus, I’ll have to pull a yellow wire laced to both the sides of the window or press a button inside the bus’s handlebars. Then the signal from the wire/button triggers 2 systems. Firstly, the Speaker inside the bus gets activated with a pre-recorded voice-activated message, ‘Stop Requested’. Secondly, a digital LED screen displays a message, ‘Stop Requested’.

Can we say that I am ‘interacting’ with bus here?
I think so because the bus gives me ‘feedback’ to my ‘action’ (of pulling the yellow wire) to stop the bus with a voice message to everyone on the bus and with a digital display too (really useful when you are listening to songs through earphones).

[ A little about the use of feedback when designing:
‘Feedbacks’ are one of many design elements(further readings suggested at the end of the article). As the accomplished designer Don Norman puts it: ‘Feedback is about sending back information about what action has been done and what has been accomplished, allowing the person to continue with the activity.’ Feedback is the machine’s way of communicating with whoever is interacting with it. In essence, the design of the feedback system is crucial in any ‘interactive system’.

Think of calling customer service, mild music will be played during your call wait time. It is one of the ‘feedback’ design embedded in the whole customer service calling system.

A more relatable example of interactive systems in our everyday life is Mobile phones or even a personal computer. We type on our keypad and a letter/word appears on the screen in microseconds. We touch the fingerprint sensor and the mobile should turn ON, immediately. We swipe left/right or up/down on our touch mobiles to see the desired action happening(continuous tense is the ‘catch’ here).] All right, back to story!

***

When I used to walk on the side-walks on my way to the bus stop, people here in the US smiles and asks me: ‘How you doing?’. When a stranger asks me this question, I used to feel good. I never understood why it felt genuine to me. Nor, why I feel happy having those single-question conversations. That typical conversation goes on like this:
Middle age women walking with her dog: ‘(Smiling) How are you doing?’
Me: ‘(Smiling) Good! How are you doing?’
Her: ‘Good(smile)’
All smiling, we keep walking our ways.

Sometimes, I used to yearn if I could have similar human interaction when I am travelling back to my house on the bus after a tiring day at college.

I feel this yearning is atypical to someone born in India.
Back in India, the job of pull wires, button sensors and bus passes are mandated and collected by a human (we call him bus ‘conductor’). If I want to get down in the next stop, I will have to tell the conductor: ‘Anna(brother), please stop in the upcoming stop’. I liked that human element of communication.

Realistically speaking, 20-minute bus ride might be too little a time for strangers to interact with each other. But, my wish still stands: Why don’t we have more human interactions in the public buses in the US?

****

***

If you are some cross-word puzzle genius you might have to guess the common patterns between these 3 situations as ‘Interaction of humans with technology’.
That’s the theme, you are right!
If you are like me, you might be wondering, ‘Oh, wait! What are you trying to tell?’
Little more patience, we are getting there!!!!

This is an article about human interaction with other objects(your mobile, pen, buttons, pull wires, cricket bat, book, coffee cups, spoon, etc..).
What I am interested in conversing in detail is ‘The time length of those human-computer interactions’. Since we are concerned about the length of interaction, I want you to remember this word: ‘feedback’(a response to an action). I am interested in exploring with you, how the ‘feedback time’(response time) of interactive devices influence our disposition(prevailing mood, tendency, and inclination)?

The last sentence might be too hard to grasp at the first read. That’s totally fine! Keep reading!

*****
To define ‘feedback time’ again, it is the time gap between the instant a human performs an action to moment receives a response from the object of interaction.

Examples:
‘Feedback time’ in a mobile phone is micro-seconds, the feedback time when you hit a ball with the cricket bat is in microseconds, so does pulling the yellow wire to stop a public bus in Pittsburgh. But, we do know that the above three activities are different.
Though mobile phones are interactive, we somehow enjoy playing cricket(mostly) than web surfing in our mobiles.

How can we understand this better?
Maybe the ‘feedback time’ for an instance(a single action) is not as critical as we assumed.

What I feel is more important is not the feedback time itself, but the wait time between these interactions.

Let’s get back to our example we saw before to understand this better.
The wait time between two subsequent touches in mobile phones is still micro-seconds. So, does pulling the yellow wires two times in the public bus. To generalise, the feedback time between two subsequent actions for the majority of interactive systems are in microseconds. But, when you play cricket, the wait time between two subsequent ball deliveries is in minutes. Being an outdoor sports lover, I would say that Cricket is a lazy game. It’s fun only when you are batting, bowling or wicket-keeping. But, most of my summertime during my childhood was filled with cricket matches, and it still a memorable experience. Fielding and waiting patiently to bat are the boring aspects of cricket. Still, my childhood cricket experience was filled with jars of joy. [There is also a better biological explanation for ‘Why do we feel happy playing cricket?’ ‘ What makes it so memorable?’, which I feel is worth knowing. You could find in the postscript of this article.]

How ‘feedback time’ design affects our disposition?
In a general context, I feel ‘Feedback time’ and ‘wait time’ here is closely similar to the classic ever-lasting problem of how we humans make choices between short-time gains(instant gratification) vs long-time benefits(delayed gratification).

Now, here is my hypothesis: ‘Increasing the ‘wait time’ between two possible interaction in any product would make the product less interactive and boring but probably more enchanting if we get the design right.’

The best real-life analogy I could think of to enumerate this is how much we still appreciate and cherish a hand-written ‘Thank you’ letter or a gift card. Writing a letter on a paper is definitely time-consuming than a ‘Thank you’ email. (remember, there is no backspace when we write on a paper). No doubt this is a creative process and sometimes a little boring thing to do (because it takes a lot of planning, drafting, and maybe a lot of torn papers until we get the final good copy that is presentable). You might argue back that writing a letter on a laptop is a creative process too. I agree. Yet, writing a physical letter is more rewarding from my experience so far, mainly because I need a lot of patience and focus to write a good letter. I want you to try both for yourself and share your experience as well.

For some reason, to summarize and connect the dots, all I could think of is another story. It’s a scene from a Bollywood movie ‘M.S.Dhoni: The Untold Story

The scenes are set at the time in the story when ‘Dhoni’(The Aspiring cricketer who would later go on to win 2011 Cricket World cup for India) has quit his job in vain, deciding to concentrate on ‘playing cricket’ to get a chance to play for the national team. In short, he has worked his ass-off for years, sacrificing a lot. But he is yet to see a big breakthrough in his career (a long ‘wait time’?). The scene starts with the aspiring cricketer ‘Dhoni’ plays badminton with his friend after a tiring tournament. The scene keeps on rolling with his one other friend running inside the badminton court, shouting and revealing the good news ‘Dhoni, you are selected to Indian cricket team trials (that is an 11 member team in a 140 crore people country where cricket is the unnamed national game)’. Dhoni keeps playing badminton, calm and contained in his emotion.

In that character-defining scene, Dhoni is portrayed as focused, composed, and curated with perseverance and patience personality(which he actually is, on the field).

The Future:

I am not chiding the overuse of mobile phones, or other tech products(like social media). As Don Norman beautifully tells in his book ‘The design of everyday things’, the blame is not with people who use the technology. The blame is on the ‘Designers of those tech products’. Good or bad, designers take the blame. Not the users of those products.

What I believe is important to foresee the kind of person all of us could become if just the feedback time is delayed longer in current technology products.

I feel that current product designers are doing an over-excellent job. Maybe, we should make them underperform. Maybe, make products a little boring by increasing the ‘feedback time’ or increasing the ‘wait time’!

Design challenge: ‘How can we design systems that communicate with the users with optimum(not instant, nor too slow) ‘feedback time’? How can we effectively incorporate ‘wait time’ while designing products? How can we engage the users during this wait time?’ I wonder how these ‘New interactive’ systems(without instant feedback system) would look like! Would we classify these ‘new interactive systems’ as ‘Machines’?

I am really curious how would such a constructive technology influence the culture,
behaviour and character of humans.

Till then,
To all the boring stuff we still keep doing,
Cheers!

~Rahul vignesh Sekar

P.S: To my dearest,
Who tied the knot this January after 7 years of love, friendship, sacrifices & rock-fluid patience.
The person who made me believe that ‘it’s okay to go slow’.
To,
Shahin ji :)

P.P.S:
I recommend ‘Design of everyday things’ book by Don Norman. I have read the initial few chapters & I loved it. You can find the ‘basic of design elements’ in Chapter 1.

My take on ‘Why do we feel happy playing ‘cricket’? What makes it so memorable?’
Let’s talk about pleasure for a while.
A little biology:
What we define as pleasure is a ‘chemical’ reaction in the brain.
Different activities generate different kinds of ‘neurotransmitter’. (think like a chemical which gets injected inside your brain every time you do some activity)

Some other important neurotransmitters we should care about are,
Oxytocin — Generated when you are in love (actually Oxytocin is also a hormone)
Endorphins — Generated when you exercise (That high feeling after running, coming out of the gym, after a football match).
Serotonin(Also called ‘Leadership’ hormone) — Generated when you feel safe, as a part of society, a team, a community,
Dopamine — Generated when eating, listening to music, & during sex.

So, answer: Why do we love playing cricket?
I think at least 3 types of neurotransmitters generate when you play cricket(or any team sport). Endorphins generate a lot because you are involved in physical activity. Dopamine generates during key moments in the match. Serotonin generates because of cricket is a social activity.
There is also a possibility of oxytocin to generate if the girl next door becomes a spectator. (Conditions applied, she is beautiful. But, let’s not go there!)

Whereas every time you see a ‘like’ or ‘Love’ for your post on Instagram, a dose of dopamine gets injected into your brain.

Why do we care about Neurotransmitters?
Because it is important for maintaining motivation. As Sanesco website defines: “Motivational salience is a term used in the fields of psychology and neuroscience to describe how our brains choose what to pay attention to. We are surrounded by so many stimuli that we can’t process all of it at once. Things that are salient are most important for survival or success.

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Few personal experiments:
To experiment with this concept of delayed gratification, I tried a few things. I tried playing 1-day chess in chess.com (each player has 24 hours to make a move). The longest streak I had was 27 days out of 6–7 attempts.

Something useful turned out of this concept too, a cool project(Touch of warmth). This is a group project by Tarika Jain, Kavi Pather, Eileen Wang

Below is the brief of about the project,
“Human touch is a unique way of human expression which is different from talking or writing to someone. Human touch is the way of dissolving the barriers between people. Sometimes all we need is a hug or even a touch from the person we love. When we think of human touch, the warmth is what that would remind us of them. With our art installation ‘Touch of warmth’, we are hoping to connect people over countries and over time. Touch of Warmth is an art installation placed in multiple cities around the world, enabling people to give and feel the warmth from each other. Some other ideas we are trying to convey is to give warmth first before receiving. Giving love first before accepting. Also, the slow interaction inspired by slow games. The metaphor we are trying to convey with the slow interaction is that people want our touch and warmthness longer than we expect. We believe a single touch could bring people together.”

Masters in Product Innovation @ CMU. I am passionate about leading people, empowering them and enabling teams to create something meaningful together.