Balance between low-tech and high-tech

I just received a newsletter from Jakob Nielsen, a well know User Interface and User Experience expert. In it, he describes his experience a the National Museum of Singapore.

Sadly, the museum is an example of mobile technology run amok. All information about the exhibited objects is provided on a tablet that you borrow when entering the history exhibition. The good news is that this allows for more in-depth information than traditional museum labels, and it’s also easier to provide the text in multiple languages that would crowd a printed label.

But the tablet fails to support the actual museum-going experience. You pause by a wall or display case with maybe 10-20 objects, each only marked by a number. And then you’re supposed to enter all these numbers into the tablet to find out what you’re seeing. No way: much too slow.

Nothing beats the roaming human eye in terms of quickly taking in volumes of information, especially when glancing around a large physical space. In a second or two, you can scan a big wall and focus on the label for the object that interests you the most. A few more seconds suffice to scan the label for the most pertinent information (what is it? how old is it?), and then you can either read more or move your gaze to the next object. All in much less time than it takes to type in a 3-4 digit number on a tablet.

You can easily imagine a more efficient retrieval user interface: for example one that utilizes location and direction to display information about an object simply by being pointed in the direction of that object. While faster, this would still be slower than simply glancing at a label next to the object.

Let’s stick to old technology when it works better. Then for sure use tablets to provide supplementary information, multimedia, and other elements that utilize its strengths and provide sufficient added-value to justify the interaction cost.

The take away message is

  1. If basic information can be provided by a traditional museum label placed by the exhibited object, this is the superior way of providing it.
  2. Use tablets to provide supplementary information.
  3. Don’t force the users to use high-tech to gain simple information.

The same thing can be said of conferences. Basic information such as which talks are being given at a certain room should be displayed by the door on paper. There should also be a map of rooms hung on the wall of each floor. Don’t force participants to pull out their smartphones or tablets.

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