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Designing an innovative radio

Gulmina Rextina, Jayashree Sathyanarayanan and Lim LiShiang were one of the teams of Computer Science Masters Students who took part in a role-play to design a new easy to use mobile digital radio as part of a role-play team project on an Interactive Systems Design course at Queen Mary, University of London. Each team had three months to design a prototype and evaluate it to ensure that it really was easy-to-use. They then had to give a final presentation of their design. A final vote was then held as to which design team would be the winners of the Dragon's Den style competition.

Gulmina Rextina, Jayashree Sathyanarayanan and Lim LiShiang

Whereas most other teams designed fairly conventional looking radios that were just designed to be easy to use, Gulmina, Jayashree and Lim came up with an innovative headset radio that was also designed for partially sighted people to use.

Here they tell us about the experience.

How did you end up as a team?

"We had worked as part of a larger group before and really enjoyed it. We gelled as a team so knew we wanted to form a team this time. We worked well as we all have different strengths so we could all contribute equally: one of us focusing on graphic design aspects, one coding and one the html for the prototype, for example. We worked mainly in the ITL [the lab dedicated for Computer Science Student use] including on Saturdays when it was quieter. We also sent emails back and forth a lot. All three of us really enjoyed it. We wouldn't have worked so well together as a group if we hadn't.

When we ran into problems we would send out 'help' emails and then we would all work on the problems together. Every one played a part sorting out the problems. We've worked in groups before where some of the team didn't pull their weight, and just expected us to sort out the problems. When that happens it is really hard to get the work done and it ends up being a rush at the end. Because we all played our part this time we weren't in a panic. In fact we finished way before time, so we spent the last few days just sorting out details that made it all look more polished rather than rushing to get the core parts done.

Where did the idea come from?

It was Lim that first suggested the headset idea. We didn't originally think we could fit all the controls on - we assumed we would need some other control, like a device on a wristband with a screen of some kind and more controls. It seemed like it was too complicated to do it all with audio and it still be easy to use. Then we joined Tony Stockman's [a Queen Mary Lecturer] group to do our final year projects. He was telling us that with no sight he found iPods hard to use - he had to rely on listening for the clicks. That was when we decided to do it with audio alone - though we still thought we might need an optional visual component that people could use if they wished.

How did the evaluation phase help?

Doing evaluation with potential users was really helpful. We had fallen in love with our design from the start, but we weren't sure others would. It was important we didn't let our feelings get in the way if we had to change it because of the users comments or other things we found from the evaluation.

One of the things that came out of the evaluation was the importance of putting buttons that were related together on the same side of the headset. We had originally been focussing too much on it just looking good, but doing the evaluation made us think about how it would really be used and that made us realise we needed to move those buttons together.

We found that IT people who acted as volunteers for user testing came up with a lot of good suggestions for new features. That is a way designers work - adapting ideas from other designs to fit the new context. We had to balance new features with the need for making it easy to use. That meant that some of the suggestions had to be rejected. A lot of the other groups' radios ordered the stations by most frequently used first. We stuck with the idea of just having favourite buttons though, as actually it keeps the design simple. We found that the younger people it is designed for wanted to be in control. Also when everything is done with audio, as our design, you needed to be clear where things were.

With some things being "usable" just depends on what you are used to. One user suggested having "press and hold" to store something in a favourite. That would be hard to use on our headset design though. It would also be very hard for a first time user to work out if they hadn't come across it before. Instead we went for a separate button and made the design store it in the next free space. The device then tells you where it has stored it. Our design always tells you what it is doing, which we thought was an important principle.

Were you happy with the way the non-visual interface came out?

It was a surprise really that we didn't need a visual interface at all. We were sceptical at the start, but then it started to make sense to us, though we still weren't sure other people would accept the idea. When you think about it, the normal visual interfaces are bombarding you with information constantly, but you don't really care about that information most of the time. Our design gives you information just when you want it. In most mobile situations, like when you are walking down the street, you can't really look at the information anyway, so most of the time it is useless.

We made a physical model as well as the computer prototype and that turned out to be really important as people could then understand the design. Understanding the physical shape of it, including the way you can feel the different shapes of the buttons, and the way you wear it is important to understand how the design works. So is seeing how it also stands on the table when not being worn, so can then be used just as a normal radio. It is important to see that to take a view on whether it works as a design or not.

It's not just a gadget. It is intended as a piece of fashion too - which is why we included in the design the different colour choices so they could be personalised.

We kept our design secret from the other groups because we knew it was special. Most of the other groups were just doing designs of radios similar to those in the shops in looks. We didn't want any industrial espionage!

What was the hardest part to get right?

One of the hardest parts was getting the audio of the music in the prototype to pause when we wanted to insert some information (such as when the information button was pressed) but then continuing the music from where it left off. The course lecturers told us that that was one of the features they were impressed with. In the early stages of the design they were sceptical about whether having audio information when the person was listening to music would work. They were impressed that we solved the technical problems to actually make it work in the prototype, but even more impressed that our prototype proved that the idea was really natural in practice.

Did the competition role play help?

The competition part of the coursework really motivated us. We set ourselves the aim of winning the competition from the start. After the first class we decided we were going to win, though it was still a surprise at the end when we actually did win. It was the class that decided rather than the lecturers. The whole class were able to vote and could vote for as many groups as they liked. At the end everyone voted for us. That was amazing.

We are really happy we took the course. It has been a really good experience and we have learnt things that will be really useful for real work. Our families are also very proud that we came up with the best design and won the competition.

You can evaluate the prototype of Gulmina, Jayashree and Lim's design yourselves.