Technology, people and paradoxes

As a cognitive psychologist, brought up on a diet of strictly controlled lab experiments,  I love the “totally out of control” nature of technology trials (although not always at the time!).

However well you plan the trial or design the artefact in question, novice users will surprise you. They’ll use the device for things you’d never thought of (and certainly didn’t design for), they’ll extol the virtues of things you considered incidental whilst taking for granted the features you were most proud of. And finally, they’ll develop their own idiosyncratic model of how the thing works (however good your Technical Guide).

Women are the most rewarding in this regard because, if you can persuade them to take part in a technology trial in the first place (not always easy),  they are excellent at discovering what the technology is most useful for – partly, it seems, because they take little interest in the technology itself but only what it enables them to do.

And then there are the paradoxes which emerge.

When we ran trials of simple information appliances, we found that the less any appliance did, the more uses people found for it and vice versa. That was a tough lesson to convey to a lab full of eager feature-focused engineers.

In our current b-bug trial, we are loaning two electric, road legal buggies to holiday makers in the Brecon Beacons. Two paradoxes are emerging so far from this trial:-

1. People remark that recharging the electric b-bug (which takes about 6 hours) is “quicker and easier“(sic) than filling their car at a fuel station (which takes, say 10 minutes).

We think this is because (a) charging the b-bug just requires a 13 amp socket and everyone has got one of those and (b) people tend to charge the b-bug (or any electric vehicle for that matter) overnight – i.e. whilst you are busy doing something else whereas filling your car at a fuel station is always 10 minutes out of your time. Here in rural wales, the nearest fuel station can even require a 30 minute diversion.

2. People (on holiday) remark that with the b-bug “they don’t need to drive so far because the journey is more interesting“. I’m not quite sure what the psychology is here. It needs some thought.

I am reminded of someone we interviewed some years ago about why they were planning to swap their motor boat for a sailing boat (even though they didn’t know how to sail). Their explanation was that motoring was pointless without a destination whereas “people sailing seemed to have a lot more fun going nowhere“!

About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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