Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chapter 5 Homework: What is Interaction Design

This assignment was taken from the fifth chapter of the book Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interactions, written by Helen Sharp, Jenny Preece, and Yvonne Rogers.

Assignment Questions
This assignment requires you to write a critique of the persuasive impact of a virtual agent by considering what it would take for a virtual agent to be believable, trustworthy, and convincing.

Question A: Look at a website that has a virtual assistant, e.g. Anna at Ikea or one of the case studies featured by the Digital Animations Group (DAG) at http://www.dagroupplc.com, who specialize in developing a variety of online agents, and answer the following:
  • What does the virtual agent do?
  • What type of agent is it?
  • Does it elicit an emotional response from you? If so, what kind?
  • What kind of personality does it have?
  • How is this expressed?
  • What kinds of behavior does it exhibit?
  • What are its facial expressions like?
  • What is its appearance like? Is it realistic or cartoon-like?
  • Where does it appear on the screen?
  • How does it communicate with the user (text or speech)?
  • Is the level of discourse patronizing or at right level?
  • Is the agent helpful in guiding the user towards making a purchase or finding out something?
  • Is it too pushy?
  • What gender is it? Do you think this makes sense?
  • Would you trust the agent to the extent that you would be happy to buy a product from it or follow it guidance? If not, why not?
  • What else would it take to make the agent persuasive?
Question B: Next look at an equivalent website that does not include an agent but is based on a conceptual model of browsing, e.g. Amazon.com. How does it compare with the agent-based site you have just looked at?
  • Is it easy to find information?
  • What kind of mechanism does the site use to make recommendations and guide the user in making a purchase or finding out information?
  • Is any kind of personalization used at the interface to make the user feel welcome or special?
  • Would the site be improved by having an agent? Explain your reasons either way.
Question C: Finally, discuss which site you would trust most and give your reasons for this.

Assignment Answers

Question A
Site selected: ikea.com 

What does the virtual agent do?
The virtual agent inhabits a pop-up window and is comprised of an avatar of a young blond woman who blinks and moves here head. The interface is primarily text-based, both input and output are provided in this format. The output can be enhanced with audio that sounds computer generated.

The primary function of the virtual agent is to provide help to visitors on the Ikea website. This help encompasses supporting users in all aspect of their shopping experience (it provides essentially a new interface for users to interact with the site). The agent provides support by enabling users to search for answers to common customer service queries using natural-language questions. These questions are posed through a text box. The response is provided via text and, optionally, audio (audio is available on the UK site but no on the US site). When appropriate the agent will load a relevant page on the main screen of the browser.

What type of agent is it?
The agent is a customer service representative. It is a friendly female avatar that offers a stylized representation of a human female that does not attempt to provide a realistic image of a female Ikea employee.

Does it elicit an emotional response from you? If so, what kind?
I must be upfront about my general dislike for avatar-based interfaces, with the notable exception of videogames. I often feel as though I am being patronized when I interact with an agent on a website, the Ikea agent was no exception. One of the few online agents that I found successful was Ms. Dewey [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ms._Dewey], a search-engine prototype developed by Microsoft. I can understand why it did not scale but it was pretty damn cool.

What kind of personality does it have? How is this expressed? What are its facial expressions like?
The agent has a friendly and relaxed personality. This is expressed through her facial expressions and the movement of her head. The agent is smiling all the while she opens and closes her mouth. Her large eyes blink at a natural while pace while she moves her head from side to side in a relaxed manner.

Where does it appear on the screen? What is its appearance like? Is it realistic or cartoon-like? What kinds of behavior does it exhibit?
The agent is situated in a pop-up window. Its appearance is stylized and cartoon-like. Her behavior seems for the most part fluid and natural until she responds with audio and her lips do not move. The computer-generated voice that is used only detracts from the experience because it is cold and is neither cartoon-like nor human sounding.

How does it communicate with the user (text or speech)?
The agent accepts questions via text input and is able to provide response via text and audio output.

Is the agent helpful in guiding the user towards making a purchase or finding out something? Is the level of discourse patronizing or at right level? Is it too pushy?
The Ikea agent can be helpful in guiding users towards making a purchase, or finding a product or retail location. One of the strongest features of the Ikea agent was its ability to load content that is relevant to the user’s query onto the main browser window. For example, when I searched computer desk it took me to the Ikea website’s computer solutions category.

Though I find agent-based interfaces patronizing in general, this one is much less so than most. The agent provides straightforward and short answers coupled with additional information on the main browser window. I actually found this agent to be useful, a fact that helped me overcome my initial aversion to this type of interface.

What gender is it? Do you think this makes sense?
The agent is a female. I think this makes sense largely based on my assumption that Ikea online shoppers are mostly women. I suspect that most men also prefer to deal with a female agent – especially since even the shiest guy would not be intimidated by an online agent. In the US there is a tradition of portraying customer service representatives as friendly females with a girl next door look.

Would you trust the agent to the extent that you would be happy to buy a product from it or follow it guidance? If not, why not?
I would trust the Ikea agent because she is informative, helpful and non-intrusive – she never initiates interaction with the user. The Ikea agent helps shoppers to find things and get answers to frequently asked questions regarding store and website policies.

What else would it take to make the agent persuasive?
Though I did find the agent useful, there are several things that can be done to improve its persuasiveness: improve interaction and visual design; enhance functionality; and upgrade audio interface.

Improve interaction and visual design: from an interaction standpoint the conversation with the agent should be recorded in a manner that enables the shopper to scan the queries and responses in search of answers (or a new chair). The look and feel of the agent should be upgraded to better reflect the design sense of the Ikea brand. Additional details should be added to enhance the enjoyment of users (e.g. have the rep read a book while she is waiting for the user). Since many shoppers like to go back and forth when they shop, the agent should help the user find products that they’ve looked at during their visit to the website.

Enhance functionality: additional functionality that could enhance the agent’s usefulness includes the ability to provide tips regarding other Ikea products that match pieces of furniture being viewed by the shopper. These recommendations should be provided in a non-intrusive manner.

Upgrade audio: The last thing that I would change is to upgrade the audio quality. This was one feature that I found to be very poor. Currently, the agent “speaks” in a computer-generated voice with a slight British accent. For the US version of the agent they should consider adding sound functionality, as if it is done right it can add to the user’s interactions with the agent.

Question B
Site selected: cb2.com (US furniture retailer akin to Ikea)

Is it easy to find information?
The cb2 website is pretty well organized, which makes it easy for the user to find information. Aside from the standard categorization of products by furniture type and context, they also provide lists of new and most popular products. These elements of the site help people find products through browsing. The search feature provides users with a way to shortcut the browsing process in an attempt to find a more direct route to the information they seek.

What kind of mechanism does the site use to make recommendations and guide the user in making a purchase or finding out information?
The CB2 site actual does a better job at making recommendations, though it is only equally effective at guiding users to find information regarding products, and features less compelling interactive guides. From a recommendation standpoint, the CB2 site provides shoppers with tips on other products that work with any piece that is being viewed. Though both sites differ in the way they categorize their product offerings, from a findability standpoint both the CB2 site and the Ikea site (including the agent and general information architecture) are equally effective.

Is any kind of personalization used at the interface to make the user feel welcome or special?
The CB2 site does not offer any personalization. Shopper’s are not asked to register and log-in during their visits to access special recommendations or offers. The Ikea site does provide a log-in feature, however, it has been down since I have been working on this assignment.

Would the site be improved by having an agent? Explain your reasons either way.
I don’t think an agent would have a big impact on the experience at CB2. The reason being, content on the site was easy to browse and find without the help of an agent. I believe that an agent would only improve the experience of a very small segment of the shoppers on the site. If voice-based interaction becomes more common on computers then there would be value in adding an agent to the CB2 experience. This is not an unlikely phenomenon considering that many applications now-a-days are striving to become voice-enabled to facilitate use via mobile phones (check out the new google search on iPhone and Android, cool stuff).

Question C

Finally, discuss which site you would trust most and give your reasons for this.
Both experiences were on par for one main reason: on the Ikea website the agent provides users with a supplementary interface that does not replace the traditional browsing paradigm on which the rest of the site is built. The Ikea and CB2 websites both provide well-designed information architectures that make information and products easy to find. Also, both companies have strong and respected brands that stand for modern and affordable design. I guess I have officially copped out of answering this question.

** What the hell is ID-BOOK ? **

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