Monday, 29 June 2009

Man and Machine, in perfect harmony

Keen drivers may have experienced the feeling of their car becoming an extension of their body. It’s as if the mind’s eye expands its viewpoint to incorporate the car, and it becomes like extra limbs of the body. I imagine the same can occur for a musician and their musical instrument, or a surgeon and their medical implements, or perhaps even a rider and their horse. Psychologists probably have a name for this phenomenon...?

Of the two cars that I’ve driven recently, one exhibited this phenomenon more readily than the other. (I’m attributing it to the car, but of course it’s a trick of the mind, not of the car.) The reasons for the difference are quite subtle, but I believe it comes down to things such as this – in the car I prefer, it’s easier to control the engine speed during a gear-change, and therefore achieve a smoother, more controlled gear-change, because the accelerator pedal operates over a more useful range of movement. In the other car, the engine goes from idling speed to the red line with comparatively little movement of the accelerator, which makes it harder to match engine speed to road speed.

The key is this: for the body-extension phenomenon to occur, you have to feel fully in control which means it must have the right set of controls, and be responsive and provide feedback. If any of these are missing, then the mind trick fails, and you and the object remain separate entities.

I reckon the same principles apply to consumer electronics interfaces. If the UI provides controls that fit the tasks you need to perform, it reacts in a timely fashion when you instruct it, and you can always tell what state it is in, then there’s a good chance that your mind’s eye will expand to include the interface and you’ll feel you are interacting directly with the tasks.

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