Back in the 20th century, I got fed up with poor presentation of IT product tests and specifications.
Scanning through tables of numbers, looking down a column for each product or across the row for each of the several criteria—it took too long to figure out which product was best overall.
For that matter, it also took too much effort to figure out which tests actually revealed substantial differences, enough to make those tests worth the effort of performing or interpreting.
In search of a better way to look at those numbers, I wrote a spreadsheet script.
The script computed averages for each row, then colored the background of each cell in a table on a spectrum that ranged from red (half of the row average or worse) to green (twice the row average or better).
I made the colors light enough that the number in each cell could still be read, but the overall import of the data suddenly jumped out at a glance.
A row with little color meant a test that was not differentiating products; a column all in various shades of green highlighted a product that was superior across the board. It was a matter of using the right sense to convey the right kind of information.
I thought about that exercise when I saw this months item in the journal Nature concerning a musician who has a specific sensation of taste when she hears a particular musical interval.
For example, the sound of a minor second (a half step or semitone) tastes sour; a major second (full step) tastes bitter.
I didnt put quotation marks around the word “tastes” in that previous sentence because, to that musician, the sensation is just as real as if it were coming from something being eaten instead of heard.
The smell of user
I found myself thinking that people with this kind of sensory cross-linkage—synesthesia, the neurologists call it—should be getting involved in user interface design.
As users are increasingly tasked to look for patterns or find similarities and differences—in data sets of increasing volatility and complexity—it seems as if people who already have different styles of perception might do a better job of thinking outside the box about data presentation.
Im not just talking about variations on haptics, the field of force-feedback interactive design.
The game designers and their compatriots in controller devices are already doing some interesting things with that kind of sensory fusion.
Companies such as Logitech and AVB offer joysticks and other devices with actuators to produce appropriate effects linking on-screen actions to controller-force sensations.
Im happy to have them and their customers funding the R&D to make that hardware cheap and reliable.
To be sure, Id like to see haptics go beyond adding bumps and clicks to conventional knobs and levers.
Todays typical touch-screen devices are too hard to read in the sunlight and give insufficient feedback to confirm that input has registered.
Id like to see a head-up display combined with a force-feedback touch-pad; that display could then project a view of any kind of control panel over my view of that general-purpose pad, with haptic feedback so that I actually felt as if I were typing or sliding a control knob or whatever.
But thats not nearly enough.
We need much more original thinking in helping network operators, financial analysts, software developers and other people deal with large systems that combine high complexity with low intrinsic difference among data items.
One line of code looks much like another, but in running my finger across a source code view, I might literally feel a hot spot or rough spot where a line or a module is creating a bottleneck or failing tests.
Would this just be a stupid user interface trick, compared with using color-coded editors and other approaches already being pursued?
I dont know, but my brain is probably too plain-vanilla to think of many things that Id find useful if someone else devised them.
Im sure we need more ways to let someone detect or even diagnose a problem without staring at a screen all day. Bring on the synesthetes.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.