Sunday, May 11, 2014

Interrogation and Experience Design

I recently read a manual of interrogation tactics, as a means to consider whether a structured conversation can improve information gathering in digital media – the kinds of fill-in-the-blank forms that predominate interaction design, which have not changed very much at all in almost two decades, and which seem particularly clumsy to mobile and other emerging interfaces that don’t provide (or poorly include) a keyboard interface.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get what I was looking for: it turns out, as could be expected in the first place, that a human interrogator has capabilities that the digital media do not presently provide: the ability to interpret information from an open-ended question, the ability to recognize when details are being withheld, the ability to adapt questioning to draw out significant detail where needed and avoid asking redundant questions, and the like.   If anything, the manual confirmed how primitive technology still is, and how far it must evolve before the digital channels can be as natural and effective as human beings in responding to another person.

In spite of periodic interest in “artificial intelligence” computer systems remain painfully unintelligent.   They are formulaic, and their “conversation” consists of reading from a script that, while not totally on rails, have very little ability to adapt to a flow of information in a logical way.  For the most part, they are unable even to respond to a simple question: consider Apple’s “Siri” technology and the frustrating experience of dealing with a voice interface that doesn’t pay attention to your questions and doesn’t remember what you told “her” five seconds ago.   The human user has to learn to speak to technology, because technology has not learned how to speak to human beings.

So the notion of designing a user interface that uses natural language and follows a thread of conversation in communicating with a user is still years or decades away – barring some leap of innovation, they will remain limited to being able to accept only that information that is anticipated, and a gangly and halting manner.   Until the capabilities are there, designing as if they were is an exercise in futility.

If there’s any value to be salvaged from the field of interrogation, it is this: a good interrogator should interrogate himself first.   It’s not a matter of strolling into a conversation with a random person and trying to figure out, on the fly, what it is you want to know.  To be effective, a good interrogator must ask himself several questions before approaching a subject.
  • What am I trying to achieve in this conversation?
  • What is the other person trying to achieve (or avoid)?
  • Where are our agendas at odds with one another?
  • What do I really need to know?
  • How will knowing this information enable me to take action?
  • Can I take action without knowing this information?
  • Does this question tell me what I need to know?
  • Does this person even have the information I need?
  • Why might they be reluctant or unable to answer?
  • Is there a better way to obtain that information?
  • Is there a better source from which I can obtain this information?
That seems entirely applicable to experience design, and it’s likely that the questions that you ask, even through a clumsy medium that permits only formulaic kinds of questions to be used, will be improved.

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