“Please don’t touch the touchscreen”

A bleakly-amusing example of what can go wrong when we focus too much on the technology rather than the whole context…

“Please don’t touch the touchscreen” – okay, they didn’t actually say that, but in practice it’s pretty close. And some of the consequences of people touching the touchscreen could be quite severe, too. A pity, then, that that no-one seems to have thought enough about those unintended-outcomes before they put the touchscreen-system in place…

About a year ago, my local doctors’-clinic at last decided to do something about the long queues for check-in that tended to build up at busy times at the reception-desk. So they commissioned, or bought, a system where patients could check-in by themselves, without needing to go to the reception-desk. Nice idea.

It sort-of worked, I’ll give them that. It used a simple touchscreen-interface: we first had to select one of six options – in essence, why we were visiting the clinic – then use a virtual-keyboard to enter our name, and then part of the address and a few other items, to confirm that we (probably) were who we said we were. All a bit tedious, on a somewhat-temperamental low-sensitivity touchscreen, with about half a dozen different screens to wade through, but it got there in the end – though it was usually a lot quicker to go to the reception-desk anyway as long as the queues weren’t ridiculously long.

But when I dropped by at the surgery for a routine blood-test last week, I noticed a new addition there. Just to the right of the touchscreen was a wall-mounted pump-bottle of sanitiser, and a new notice: “Please clean your hands after using the touchscreen”. Someone had evidently at last realised that there was an infection-hazard there – especially in a public clinic where people could well be visiting precisely because they had infectious illness or injury to their hands.

Ideally, of course, we would want people to sanitise their hands before using the touchscreen. But that might well mean that infection would be embedded even more on the touchscreen-surface – and every use would likely leave great smears on the screen itself, too. Oops…

So maybe the touchscreen was not such a good idea? Or, maybe, not even the auto-check-in at all – rather than an in-person check-in, allowing the reception-staff to build up a better in-person knowledge of the clinic’s clientele? Hmm…

Interesting from an enterprise-architecture perspective, yes? Or from a process-design or system-design perspective, for that matter?

I must admit I’m somewhat conflicted about touchscreens in general, as a user-interface and user-experience. I love the immediacy of a touchscreen, on a well-designed tablet or smartphone – the almost-if-not-quite sense of ‘being in touch’ with what’s going on in the system. Yet the blunt fact is that blunt fingers are a kind of blunt-instrument for many user-interface purposes: we end up having to design interfaces with very large touch-targets, and, quite apart from the problem with smears, the fingers get in the way of the view anyway.

And I’m even less sure about how well-suited a touchscreen-interface really is for some other types of tools and technologies. For example, I have a new Kindle Paperwhite e-reader, and whilst its backlit screen itself is much better than the old one, I actually don’t like the touchscreen interface at all: among other concerns, it’s just too unpredictable and unresponsive. And that whole business of reaching over to prod the screen with a finger every time, in the hope that the view will move to a new page? – well, call me a Luddite if you will, but I much prefer the edge-buttons that worked so well on my old keyboard-type Kindle. Oh well.

So how do we get better at making user-interfaces and user-experiences that are a better fit for the whole of the context? I don’t have an easy answers – but I’d be interested in yours.

Over to you for your comments and suggestions, perhaps?

4 Comments on ““Please don’t touch the touchscreen”

  1. I have two examples of a better system:

    1) One clinic has barcode readers, you just show your social security card and you are registered and the computer tells which room to go to. And you can book the time on the internet.

    2) The local public clinic gives you the room number when you book the time and they send the invoice home, no need to visit anybody else but the doctor. You just go and wait outside, they call you by name.

  2. The system in our clinic identifies patients in 2 questions. It just asks for sex and part of my date of birth. I’ve not yet experienced a case where that doesn’t identify me uniquely. I’ve never felt that interacting with the receptionists added a lot to the process, but I guess it’s different when you are more infirm or sick.

    It’s very hard to get a user interface that fits a whole context, and personally I feel that the increasing pervasiveness of tablets is leading down to a general dumbing-down of user interfaces that makes them less pleasant to use in a work context. I think that Steve Jobs got it completely wrong for example in his loathing of the stylus.

  3. Most doctor’s offices in my area have made no attempt to move to self-check-in. Exception is our orthodontist. Note that Orthodontists usually see healthy patients, so the germ thing is less.

    Plus, for his office, you use a fingerprint scanner to check in, so you can use the hand gel before or after you check in with very little effect on the scan.

    When you ask them to check you in personally, they ask for the last four digits of your phone number and then their screen get photographs of the handful of people that match. They look at the photo, look at you, and say “Welcome Tom”. It’s a great deal more personal.

    You see, not everyone is a klutz when it comes to technology. 🙂

  4. The receptionists in my doctors office look at me and say “welcome Stuart” without needing to know my phone number. Amazing really. Wonder how they do it without gadgets.

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