Preparing Users for a Future of Wearables (Part 2)

By Nicholas Bowman on September 1, 2015 in Web Design
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Communication technologies are no stranger to moral panic. People unfamiliar with new technologies often feel (at best) concern, and (at worst) outright fear that newer ways of communicating will irreparably damage human interaction. Consider Socrates’ fears of the written word—thought to damage our ability to communicate authentically—and more recent fears of electronic telephones—thought to invade privacy and encourage stay-at-home wives to communicate with ne’er do wells (Author’s note: I wish I were making this up … ). The public outcry over Glass’s inhuman and invasive presence seemed to spike almost from the start, only intensifying until the eventual hiatus of the Glass program. Observing this, our communication technology research team—a joint venture with West Virginia University’s Interaction Lab (#ixlab) and North Dakota State University—set out to analyze people’s real feelings and reactions to Google Glass.

In part 1 of this article, we explored the theoretical social implications and media reception of Google Glass in order to understand the budding wearable technology landscape. But theory only gets us so far. Let’s now dive into how augmented sociality presents itself in a (designed, near-to-)real-life scenario.

We can generally agree that wearable technologies are not gone. As recently as July 2015, Google coyly leaked plans for their newest Glass apparatus, and other technologies such as Apple’s iWatch generated pre-sale revenues topping $2 billion. As much as people expressed angst towards the idea of living in an augmented sociality—wearing Glass and interacting through a heads-up interface—today’s technology user is becoming increasingly comfortable with tools that integrate seamlessly into the human perceptual system.

The secret for UX designers working in the augmented sociality space will be to understand not just the experience of augmented sociality for the one using an interface, but also to understand the experiences of those being “augmented” by wearable technology: that is, the people that we Glassholes scan while we interact with them. Just as one cannot understand the concept of “social” without considering more than one individual, understanding how to successfully augment social interactions with wearable technologies will require UX designers to understand the experience of all of the social actors in an experience.

With this in mind, our team of communication technology scientists designed a series of faux interactions, some with Google Glass and some without, to compare and contrast how the individuals in these conversations might respond to each other—specifically, we wondered if the Glass device might impact (a) perceptions of the conversation, (b) perceptions of the conversational partner, and (c) perceptions of one’s self.

Designing a study on Glass

At the 2015 International Communication Association conference in San Juan, our communication technology research team at West Virginia University and North Dakota State University designed a simple study. We asked students to visit our laboratory at WVU to discuss campus transportation—namely, the campus’ lovable but aging transportation system. Students were assigned to discuss campus transportation with each other, but they did not know each other prior to the study; this was important to control for students having expectations about a casual conversation with a stranger rather than meeting with a friend or colleague. None of this, of course, appeared to have anything to do with communication technology or user interfaces.

However, our study had one important caveat: for half of the student pairs, one student was randomly assigned to wear a pair of Google Glass. None of the students were aware of this prior to the study. Moreover, this student’s pair of Glass were “programmed” to facially recognize the conversation partner, and then display that person’s last five minutes of social media activity—in truth, false information created by our research team to purposely cast the partner in a bad light. Following the conversations, all students were asked to complete open- and closed-ended survey questions about the conversations, including how much they recalled from the conversation and how they felt about the person they interacted with, as well as how they felt about themselves.

The findings

Our team had predicted that the the Glass interface would impact conversations because it represented precisely the sort of augmented sociality referenced in part 1 of this article: live face-to-face human interactions in which at least one person is able to access social media information about the other, without breaking their attention from the conversation. We hypothesized, for example, that the wearer might feel superior to their partner, as a result of all the extra-dyadic information they saw with the device—those (fake) social media cues, that is. We also hypothesized that the non-wearer might feel as if they are talking to a sub-human machine and feel uncomfortable. Broadly, our expectations were that Glass wearers would have a very different recollection of the conversation than their non-wearing partner.

Our full findings are online, but in general we did not find evidence for the Glasshole effect! The popular anecdote found in mainstream and social media coverage of Glass is that anyone wearing Glass will be seen as a “Glasshole”—uninterested in their conversation partner, and unaware of their rudeness. We did, however find both positive and negative effects. Specifically:

Non-wearers rated the Glass wearers as more physically attractive, and as being more socio-emotionally close in the conversation. Essentially, the Glass technology seemed to have a “cool kid” effect regarding others’ perceptions of the wearer.
Non-wearers felt that the conversation with a Glass wearer was more mentally and physically demanding, and they reported lower self-esteem following the conversation. When talking to somebody wearing Glass, participants didn’t so much feel uncomfortable about the conversation but rather, felt as if they had to work harder in order to pay attention.

Conversations in which Glass was present were less on-topic than conversations without Glass, in that the conversation participants did not recall any details of the campus transportation issue. Following the conversation, participants in the non-Glass conversations were able to recall more details about the discussion as well as about each other, while Glass conversations had fewer recollections in general.

Put simply, the Glass device somewhat distracted both people, although only two people explicitly referenced Glass in their recollections, suggesting that the device’s impact on the conversations was more implicit in nature.

Designing for Augmented Sociality

Other designers, such as the team at ELEKS have already described some of the more practical considerations regarding UX design and wearable technologies. As communication scholars and media psychologists, our team was particularly curious about some of the social and psychological determinations of the success of wearables such as Glass. For us—and this has been demonstrated by past research into technology acceptance—it is just as important to understand the individual and social experience of a technology as it is to understand specific interface design. The rapid rise and (temporary?) fall of Google Glass provides an excellent case study in a technology misunderstood by its creators as well as by eager developers and UX designers.

The device was not simply an interface, but rather a shift in the way in which humans interacted with each other. Shifting social information from our smartphones to our eyeballs represents a foray into cyborg face-to-face interaction—layering social information into spaces such as interpersonal conversations normally considered free from such content. This augmented sociality breaks many of the expectations that we have for human interaction, and these breaks—rather than any deficiencies with the devices themselves—might explain the vitriol directed at the devices.

Successfully designing for wearable technology will require a more reflective understanding not only in the social patterns of technology innovation, but also a more intimate understanding of what it means to mediate face-to-face reality. Specifically, UX designers should:

  • Understand the social and contextual factors of an interface, just as much as the technical factors. Superior UX design can’t overcome negative social perceptions of technology. Remember, at one point society feared that telephones would also steal our privacy and now there are more registered phone numbers than people on Earth.
  • Pay closer attention to the perceived usability of a technology. Potential users should know what a technology can and cannot do, and observers and social commentators need to know the same. For example, Google Glass does not have facial recognition software. Communicating the true scope of a technology’s capabilities can go a long way towards acceptance. Related to this, the possible benefits of a technology should be clearly communicated and for Glass, that this did not happen.
  • Consider how a technology, and its interface, influence the reality of those using it. Talking to each other through a heads-up display is not the same as talking through one’s eyes, but it’s not an inherently bad experience either. Designers must move past anecdotes and assumptions and instead, step back and understand the media ecology—the larger system of communication—that their interfaces exist in. This final point is perhaps most relevant to UX, because it might help aid in the creation of a more meaningful and useful design philosophy.

Author’s Note: None of this article would have been possible without the support of my colleagues Dr. Jaime Banks (West Virginia University) and Dr. David Westerman (North Dakota State University), my equal partners in our continued research and writings on the future of augmented sociality.

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