My Big Mouth and what my PC wants to do to help me

I think it is the dream – or has been the dream, at one point – of nearly everyone in the media to work for the BBC. For me, that dream may now be over.

I was on the radio this evening, on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Drive show. Someone who freelances for Custom PC also works for the Beeb and needed a person to talk about a news story. I ended up being that person. Very exciting. First time on radio, on a show with 1.6 million listeners. That’s 1 in every 75 people. I know more than 75 people. Odds are, at least someone I know heard me.

The story concerned a German research institute who were experimenting with a computer that would respond to the emotional state of the user – partly by using facial scanning technology, and partly by the user wearing a glove, so the system could read temperature and heartbeat. The idea is that the computer would become easier to use when you got annoyed with it. When asked about this, I replied that “the glove would make typing difficult. It’s not skiing.”

From there on in, I just couldn’t get out of the nervous jokes vain. Towards the end of the extremely brief two minute segment, the presenter said “you’re not taking this seriously! Are you saying I’ve wasted my time with this story?” and then something like “Normally I make the jokes around here.” I must stress, this is the BBC, so it was all good humoured, not angry at all, but still…. I got told off on national radio…!!

Earlier in the week, I watched the excellent Ricky Gervais meets Larry David programme, in which both comedians complain that interviewers never listen to them and have a proper conversation, and just blindly zip through their questions. I sort of have an idea how they feel now – a radio “conversation” is so different from a normal face-to-face or even phone conversation. The pacing, the interaction, it’s all different.

Listening to the show on the web just now (yes, the BBC keep an archive!), there’s not a lot of connection between my responses and the presenter’s comments/questions. While he takes one tack, I take another, so it almost seems like I’m taking part in a different conversation to him. I think this is because everything goes *so* quickly – I didn’t don’t want to sit there umming and arrrring, so came out with responses before my brain really vetted them. Because you’re aware beforehand of the limited time you’re going to have, you go into the conversation with either pre-scripted questions or responses, and these don’t really mesh in the way that responses in a normal back-n-forth conversation go.

And of course, now that the radio has moved on to another show, my head is filled with far more sensible responses.

Ultimately, I do still think a computer that responds to the user’s emotional state is a silly idea. After all, a computer shouldn’t require you to get angry and frustrated before getting easier to use. It should be easy to use all the time. If an interface to a piece of software is not clear to the point that it induces frustration in the user, the design of the interface is not very good. It doesn’t need sensitivity training, it need a re-design so that it does make people angry. Any piece of software that requires you to read a manual is not intuitive enough.

Every recent IT success story is built on the back of simplicity and usability: Google and the iPod, the two that most obviously spring to mind, attract users from across the spectrum of technical knowledge because they’re easy to figure out. The experience can go very deep if you’re technically adept – Google offers extensive personalisation services, the iPod some nifty smart playlist ideas – but equally, at point of first entry, it’s very easy to get Google and iPod to perform their main task. Both have few buttons. Neither has a little camera to check how pissed off you are.

Update: Post edited/ammended for clarity and to add a bit more consideration. Heard back from the Beeb, apparently they didn’t think I was too bad, which is a relief!

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