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Fitter, happier: improving how we interact with the systems that surround us

13 November 2009

On World Usability Day, two UCL researchers describe how their work is making the systems in our lives more efficient, pleasurable and safe to use.

Ann Blandford, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction and Director of the UCL Interaction Centre

“Systems that are easy and enjoyable to use improve people’s experience, whether by making systems safer, improving efficiency or creating delightful interactions. The quality of design has a direct impact on the user experience. But in order to design well, we have to understand the relationship between design and use, which means understanding people as well as technology.

London Ambulance Service

“Researchers in the UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC) have been working with both the developers and the users of various systems to better understand user needs and how to design for them. For example, work with the London Ambulance Service showed that key information about incidents was difficult for controllers to access. A simple design change brought that information to the main control screen, improving both efficiency of emergency responses and the controllers’ experience of working with the system.

“Continuing on the medical theme, a newly funded project undertaken with the Royal Free Hospital – CHI+MED – will be studying the use and usability of interactive medical equipment such as infusion devices, for which patient safety is a major concern. Reliance on interactive medical devices is growing, both in clinical settings and, increasingly, for patients without direct clinical supervision.

“The usability and reliability of such devices is critical. For example, decimal points are a well-known source of error (e.g. .5mg misread as 5mg), yet few devices detect decimal keying errors. Considering the broader context of use, a nurse familiar with one kind of infusion pump may be distracted and use the same set-up procedure on a similar one, leading to incorrect dosage. Such errors may cause patient deaths.

Even when devices are programmed correctly, interaction difficulties raise workload and stress, increasing overall system vulnerability. Better interaction design, which is the focus of CHI+MED, will improve safety by understanding and designing out latent errors of these kinds.”

Image: Handling incident information at the London Ambulance Service (pixellation has been used for identity protection)


Dr Claire Warwick, Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and Vice-Dean for Research for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities

“The INKE project (Implementing New Knowledge Environments) aims to design new digital environments for reading and research in the humanities, and for the general public.

Reading from an ebook

It seeks to:

  • document the features of previous textual forms
  • advance our understanding of how reading texts and using information is affected by digital and multimedia delivery
  • develop tools to produce accessible, flexible information architecture, and
  • create dynamic interface prototypes for new knowledge environments.

The project is funded by the Canadian Social Science Research Council Major Collaborative Research Initiatives Program, and involves 35 researchers and 20 industry partners.

“I am lead researcher of ‘user experience’, one of the four research areas within INKE. My group aims to understand how people read in various different environments, both digital and in print. We are currently conducting a study to help us understand how people prefer to read, what technologies they like to use, and how they feel about the experience of reading in physical and digital environments.

“To inform our research, we are examining people’s everyday reading habits, especially concerning reading for pleasure. We do this by asking volunteers to keep a diary for a few days of what they are reading, for how long, where, and how they feel about it. Our researchers then carry out a short interview with the volunteers to find out more information about their reading behaviour.

“We will share this knowledge with the rest of the INKE group, and as a result we hope to be able to produce new prototypical environments for digital reading that take into account what users prefer to do, rather than simply being led by what technologists find easiest to produce.

“If you would like to find out more or take part in a reading study, please contact me.”