User experience without interface

When I came to Munich I got to know the automatic escalators at the subway stations, which can go in both directions. They are a good example of machines which do not require the active participation of humans to do their job, even though humans are an integral part in what they are doing. To find out more, read the whole article.

Subway escalator in Munich

As an intern coming to Munich from a city that has no subway, going through the underground each day and the customs connected with it were new for me:

Deciding which staircase to take up to not end up on the false side of the street or even block; train conductors making funny jokes during the station announcements; and that you can’t reach every point in the city in five minutes if you go by subway (what I had believed in the past).

Well, I have been to other cities with underground trains before, so at least I knew you had to stand on the right side of the escalator in order to let the busy or late part of humanity hurry past you.

But it wasn’t until now that I saw escalators that would stop if no one is using them and restart if one enters. Great way to save energy, I thought, especially because some subway stations are deserted most time of the day.

However, that was only the tip of the iceberg. It took me several days until I realized that those escalators are not only taking a break every once in a while.

My dear reader, if you are not by any chance from Munich, you won’t believe this:
Some escalators here go in both directions!

How can that possibly be?, you may ask. Of course they aren’t going in both directions at the same time. But as I have mentioned before, they stop if nobody is on them and then they start again if someone enters, choosing their direction depending on whether the person entered at the top or the bottom end. Carrying the human just where it intended to go. Miracle!

(It isn’t actually a miracle, they have sensors at both ends and once they have stopped, the sensor which is triggering first decides the next direction. I tried it myself and the woman on the other end didn’t look happy when I entered the escalator only a moment before she would have and she had to take the stairs.)

So what has all this to do with user experience and interfaces? Well, at last an escalator still is a machine and people are using it. Yet normally if people are using a machine they are operating it, and they need an interface in order to do so. So most machines have buttons, handles, switches, touch screens and similar equipment to tell them what they should do or at least to switch them on.

Those escalators however don’t need any operating effort, not even thinking in fact. You only walk towards the stairs as you would with a traditional staircase and they just start doing what they are supposed to.

Feels creepy? Or like a very, very convenient way of using machines? The intelligent escalator is just an example. We already know this mechanism from automatic doors, most often seen at supermarkets. But it is still a seldom encountered feature on other devices and machines.

Maybe this is, because we are not used to machines predicting that independently what we are up to and how they can help us with it. After all I needed more than a week to find out the escalators worked that way. I knew escalators and I used the bi-directional escalators every day like I would have used normal ones. Probably because it felt so natural that they were only doing what I wanted, I never noticed that those basic transport machines did have two ways of operation and an input device for controlling them. Only that the input was me myself.

Imagine a shop where you just have to put all the things you need into your pocket and walk out without stopping at a checkout. The automated cashier detects the products and your bank account automatically.

Imagine you stopping your car alongside an empty parking spot and the car takes over and does the parking itself.

Imagine coming home and your home recognizes you, lets you in, adjusts the light and music according to your detected mood.

All those examples are technically possible today or even have been partly realized already.

Of course not all machines can be changed to work autonomously and we have to be careful that no misunderstandings occur, but with increasing progress in artificial intelligence more and more complex work could be done without a user engaging consciously in near future.

Kategorie: Allgemeines, Interface Design Kommentieren »

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