For average smartphone users, doing something like emailing a photo to a friend, adding an event to the phone’s calendar, or bookmarking an article to read later have almost become second nature. But ask someone who has never used a smartphone to complete such a task, the experience can become so frustrating it may lead to serious distress. Not only is the non-smartphone-using person navigating a completely unfamiliar landscape, they do not often share the same vocabulary necessary to pinpoint their issue or to understand the correct steps.
"How can we improve the human experience of learning an unfamiliar smartphone?" That question was asked to Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) students by HTC, an HCDE Corporate Affiliates Program member.
HCDE Master’s students Luke Easterwood, Aaron Lynch, and Nikki Pete accepted HTC’s challenge for their HCDE Capstone Project, seeking to understand the process of learning a smartphone and design solutions for an improved user experience. “By the time we answer this question (which we will certainly answer), our clothes may be tattered, our faces soiled, our hands callused–but! We will continue through the arduous process we have agreed upon with our heads held high,” Easterwood writes in the team’s process blog.
The students began their research by informally interviewing novice phone users to determine how they learn functionality on their smartphone and what methods they commonly use to problem-solve. They found that most of the time these users preferred turning to other people for help—friends, family, and other phone experts were usually able to understand and describe the problem and could help guide them to a solution.
The team brought their initial observations to HTC. Yihsiu Chen, User Experience researcher at HTC, suggested the team frame their future research around two different groups: people that need help, and people that provide it. “I am happy that the students took the dyad approach because it led to a deeper understanding of the big picture,” Chen said. Thanks to recruitment incentives sponsored by HTC, the team enlisted both novice and expert smartphone users for a usability test, studying pairs of two novices and pairs of one expert and one novice. They filmed the pairs completing a series of tasks on a smartphone and noted interactions between the two people as well as interactions between people and the phone itself.
“The biggest difference between this research and every other usability project I have worked on is the focal point. The technology is actually less important in this research than the personal interactions between the people…it is most important to understand how people work together to accomplish learning and teaching a mobile phone in real life,” Lynch writes.
Following the study, they asked the participants debriefing questions to gain more insight on the learning experience, and asked the novice users to attempt one of the tasks they had previously completed, to gauge how much was learned.
Pete reflected on the insight gained from observing the usability sessions, writing “Expert users have created multiple possible paths to a goal. If one path does not work on a given smartphone, the expert is able to backup and attempt another path. The novice is limited in the number of paths that they know to attempt and seeks help or abandons the goal.”
The team spent the next week consolidating findings and turning them into recommendations for HTC. To quantize their observations, they developed theme codes to use a consistent means of analyzing the data—to understand the prevalence and importance of interactions between participants and the device.
Their findings are as follows:
- Participants did not look at each other during the collaboration, but they used peripheral communication to stay in collaboration.
- Power dynamics emerged naturally within the pairs.
- Less knowledgeable users were the ones holding the smartphone, while their attention was directed by the expert users.
- Expert users ensured that novice users didn’t get off track during the interaction, and provided better ways to accomplish the desired tasks.
- The participants extensively referred to physical buttons and icons, which formed the common vocabulary.
Based on their observations, the students designed a mediated communication tool to provide a simple method for users to request help from people they trust—a real-time screen share concept, which they call HTC Phonetic. HTC Phonetic allows novice smartphone users to ask for help from their network and, through a screen sharing system, displays the “helpers” gestures on the novice’s screen.
To present their design to HTC and the HCDE community at the Capstone & Research Showcase, the team created a video prototype to demonstrate how HTC Phonetic works.
Is your company or organization interested in sponsoring a Capstone Project?
HCDE Corporate Affiliates Program members at the Strategic Partner level are encouraged to propose Capstone Project ideas for the 2014-2015 academic year. Capstone Projects are large-scale research, design, and engineering projects that encompass two quarters of student work.
Click the image below view a larger version of the Capstone Project, "HTC Phonetic: Improving the Smartphone Learning Experience."