Looking for Expertise in Physical Interactions

This is the paper I presented at OZCHI in Adelaide (get the paper from QUT’s ePrints service).

In this paper, we describe the methods we have used to investigate expertise in interaction with physical interfaces. This paper covers the background of the interfaces (compression bandages), describes the methods used and presents findings on the use of tacit and explicit knowledge during interaction. Due to the increase in interest in interfaces that cross between the physical and digital, this method may be of interest to researchers who are involved in similar projects

Complex physical interfaces, for example compression bandages (which Professor Vesna Popovic and I studied), or other sophisticated tools, are interesting because few of the existing usability rules apply. Complex physical interfaces require long-term engagement to master. They are not designed, or intended, to be easily understood by novices, or even by people who are relatively competent. They are, in short, really hard to use well without a great deal of practice.

Complex interfaces are also really hard to understand from the users point of view because they are, almost by necessity, experts. Normal ways that you might go about accessing what a user thinks about when they’re using the artefact or interface don’t work (as well as they might) because they have been developed for use with novices. For example, talk-aloud protocol only sort of works for experts because much of what they do is tacit — they’ve become so expert that they can no longer verbalise their thought processes.

What we did in this research was see if we could identify how users were thinking about a complex interface/artefact.

We were able to show, qualitatively, that just through observation you can identify times when people are using more tacit knowledge, that is they are acting like experts, and times when people are using more explicit knowledge, that is they are acting like competent non-experts.

This is a big deal because we’ve shown that existing theories of expertise (continue to) scale across tasks, activities and disciplines. Also, we think we’re able to scale our approach to other physical interfaces. And that means that we’ll be better able to understand the actual use of physical interfaces, or indeed interfaces that are a mix of physical and digital, in the real world not just in a lab. And if we can get closer to understanding what people think and do, we can design better artefacts.

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One comment on “Looking for Expertise in Physical Interactions”

  1. [...] to be able to see the processes of how they work at a glance). For more on the project, check out Krall’s blog or look at the OZCHI [...]


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