Computing Profession

Interface Design For New Mothers

Judy Robertson

Why is there so little research into interface design for new mothers? As a mother of a 10 week old, I can assure you that we are an user group with specific needs. Yet, a quick
ramble around the ACM digital library reveals lots of articles with metaphorical references to mothers (as in the mother of all algorithms) or babies (baby steps towards solving an excessively dull problem) but very few actually about the puke filled reality of being a parent. There are honourable exceptions in projects for recording baby’s developmental progress, and for supporting mums to socialize with their families abroad—let’s have more of these.

Interface designers—hear my cry! Heed the following advice. Remember that you too were once a baby with an infinitely patient mother who indulged your newborn whims. Also consider there are lots of mothers around: 63 births per 1000 women of childbearing age in England and Wales last year (that’s 706248 mums in the south of the UK alone who could be struggling to use your technology).

Have you any idea how much time mothers spend feeding babies when they are very little? At least 2.5 hours per day, split into short 20 minute or so sessions. My son often feeds for longer—up to 1.5 hour sessions if he is on a growth spurt, sometimes for 30 minutes every hour during an evening. Not to mention the time babes spend asleep on their parents who daren’t move them unless they start crying again. My point is that us mothers spend a lot of time trapped on the sofa. (New fathers are often trapped too, but are less likely to be breastfeeding, I imagine).  With well designed interfaces to support us, we could be profitably writing papers, or at least shopping for groceries. So what constraints should designers take into account?

1.  Design one-handed interfaces. I am typing this with one hand on an iPad which is positioned on a pillow to my right. My left hand is supporting a sleeping baby. I am breastfeeding the baby which means one hand is usually free to type but it may not be my dominant hand. I am not sure whether it is possible to bottle feed and type. Maybe another new parent could enlighten me? These physical constraints have implications for all kinds of routine tasks on the interface. Old versions of windows where you log in with cntrl alt del are out. Capital letters and punctuation are slow to do so I have to be careful with passwords I type often. The iPad on screen keyboard works pretty well for me until I need more obscure punctuation like slashes or square brackets which are buried two levels down the interface. Just as well I am writing, not coding. It also means that keyboard shorrt cuts can be tricky, and editing is torturous.

2 . Device size and viewing angle. There is an issue of physical space. Can you fit a laptop close enough to you so you can see the screen without frying the baby with laptop heat? Can you tilt the screen so you can see it behind the baby’s head? I have an iPad stand which balances it at a reasonable viewing angle on a pillow behind the baby when I am reading. If I use the bigger laptop, the fonts are too small and there is a glare on the screen. Plus, the wretched thing is too big to fit on the pillow and I get a crick in my neck from reading when the screen is to my side.

3 . Quick configuration and start up. When the baby needs fed he typically doesn’t politely wait until I  have my hardware set up and ready to use. Searching for a power cable while holding a screaming baby and then bending down to plug it in without dropping the little angel is harder than you’d think.

I need a laptop which is ready to use as soon as I pick it up,which means long battery life and instant recovery from stand-by. Macs seem much better at this than Windows in my personal experience. My blue-ray player is immensely frustrating in this respect as it is very slow to start or eject discs and forces me to sit through unwanted adverts before it loads the menu.

4 . Interface support for interruptions. It’s quite rare to get a chance to finish a task at one sitting when looking after a baby. He might decide he has finished feeding, puke everywhere, have a nappy apocalypse or simply insist on being walked around instead of sitting still. "Just wait a moment until I have finished this email" doesn’t work. So what I need is an interface which can help me pick up the threads when I do get back to it to avoid wasting precious time. Sites which time out are irritating.

Especially if they have annoying two handed log in screens, like the university library. My evil blue-ray player’s habit of losing the place in the disc when it is switched off is not appreciated. It is possible that an automatic reminder of tasks which still need completed would be beneficial, but it would require very careful design to counter the next design constraint.

5 . Your user may be grumpy. She will certainly be sleep deprived, leading to possible forgetfulness and confusion. She may well be ferociously impatient to complete an essential task such as paying a bill before the baby next demands her attention. You don’t want your UI design to thwart her anymore than you want to stand between a bear and a river of salmon.

6. Demanding secondary user. I suspect this constraint gets more and more pressing as the baby grows. For now, having a touch screen which doesn’t respond to small flailing feet, a speech interface which automatically filters crying and a white noise generator built into every app would suffice.

7 . Moisture resistant hardware. Let’s not dwell on this one, but your device needs to be waterproof. If they can do it for watches, why not laptops? They wouldn’t even need to withstand such depths unless the baby has some kind of gastronomic disorder. More so than usual I mean.

8 . Specialist applications. I think there is a gap in the market for both software which supports mothers in mundane tasks and software to help entertain babies. For example a decent app to record feeding and sleeping cycles or weight gain and growth would be handy. I’m not suggesting that babies should be abandoned in front of laptop screens, but simple software with amusing sounds and bright patterns would be nice for me to use when playing with the baby. It doesn’t need to be specifically educational because as far as I can see babies learn from most things they do!

Of course, many of these design constraints apply to ordinary users too. Lots of people are in a hurry, or are forgetful, or need to use the device one handed, particularly if they are on the move. Getting the design right for this demographic group will probably benefit users in general. Consider it cosmic payback for the time your mother spent rearing you. 

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