The article “The Human Factor” in Vanity Fair is two years old, but since I can’t believe I missed posting it — here it is! It’s a riveting read with details of the Air France Flight 447 accident and intelligent discussion of the impact automation has on human performance. Dr. Nadine Sarter is interviewed and I learned of a list of flight-specific “laws” developed by Dr. Earl Wiener, a past-president of HFES.

“Wiener’s Laws,” from the article and from Aviation Week:

  • Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.
  • Exotic devices create exotic problems.
  • Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.
  • Invention is the mother of necessity.
  • Some problems have no solution.
  • It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
  • Whenever you solve a problem, you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.
  • You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful about what you put into a digital flight-guidance system (Wiener).
  • Complacency? Don’t worry about it.
  • In aviation, there is no problem so great or so complex that it cannot be blamed on the pilot.
  • There is no simple solution out there waiting to be discovered, so don’t waste your time searching for it.
  • If at first you don’t succeed… try a new system or a different approach.
  • In God we trust. Everything else must be brought into your scan.
  • It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
  • Any pilot who can be replaced by a computer should be.
  • Today’s nifty, voluntary system is tomorrow’s F.A.R.

Kudos to the author, William Langewiesche, for a well researched and well written piece.

So you want to go to school for Human Factors: The Approach Email

This is Post 3 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1 & Post 2)

Your initial email communication is your first impression and should be managed carefully. Address all communications formally and you may want someone to proof-read before you send it. That means:

1. Address everyone by their proper title

  • Bad: “Hi Rich…” or, “Hey” or just launching into the message
  • Good: “Dr. McLaughlin,” or “Professor McLaughlin,”

2. Be specific.

  • Bad: “I am very interested in your research on X. It is very interesting. The more I read about it, the more I am interested in it. It seems very interesting and important.”
  • Good: “I recently read a collection of your papers on X. It was very interesting to me as I saw connections with the topics I have been studying, such as Y.”

3. Be succinct! Omit needless words.

4. Stay on topic/avoid excessive personal anecdotes:

  • Bad: “After my house burned down and I lost everything, I sat back and thought about what I really wanted in life and discovered it was to work in your lab.”
  • Bad: writing a wall of text (e.g., one giant paragraph with no line breaks)
  • Good: “I was fortunate to learn about the field of human factors when we had a special topics course in Ergonomics at my university. For that class, I did [describe project] which lead me to your work on X.”

5. Avoid inadvertently selfish language

  • Bad: “Your lab would help me in my interests and my career. It would be the best thing for me.”
  • Good: “I have experience in multiple statistical programs, including SPSS and MATlab. As a research assistant in Dr. X’s lab, I have experience with data entry, cleaning data, and analysis. Although I have not yet gotten to run participants through a study protocol, I have been allowed to observe the graduate students in that task.”

6. Proofread for grammar and typos

  • Bad: your vs you’re, any misspelled words, and so on.

7. Avoid carelessness: Sending an email to Dr. A but writing your emails addressed to Dr. B.

Below is a sample “approach email” to the professor you are considering as an advisor. Yours will differ, but this is an example of the level of formality and what to include.

Dear Dr. FutureAdvisor,

I am a senior psychology major at My University and interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology after graduation. I came across your research when I was collecting articles for a literature review on user trust in automated systems and am interested in applying to your lab to work on similar topics.

In the past two years, I have worked as a research assistant in a lab here at My University and spent a summer in an NSF REU program at Bigger University. In the MU1 lab, I worked with Dr. So Andso on research into motivation changes across the lifespan. I learned to enter and clean data for analysis with SPSS and SAS, follow a research protocol to run participants, and write SPSS syntax. One specific project I worked on was investigating whether people over 65 reported different motivations for performance and whether they responded differently than younger adults to reinforcement schedules on an implicit learning task. This gave me an interest in aging but more generally an interest in individual differences.

I am excited by the prospect of continuing in a research program after graduation and believe I would be a good fit for your lab. Please let me know if you will be accepting applications this year.

Thank you for your time,
YourName

The optimal time for sending this email is the fall semester of your senior year. This gives you time to communicate, perhaps plan a visit, and let the faculty member know you’ll be applying to their program.

Discussion of Human Factors on “Big Picture Science” podcast

You all know I love podcasts. One of my favorites, Big Picture Science, held an interview with Nicholas Carr (a journalist) on over-reliance in automation. The entire podcast, What the Hack, also covers computer security. To skip to the HF portion, click here.

  • +points for mentioning human factors by name
  • +points for clearly having read much of the trust in automation literature
  • -points for falling back on the “we automate because we’re lazy” claim, rather than acknowledging that the complexity of many modern systems requires automation for a human to be able to succeed. Do you want to have that flight to NY on the day you want it? Then we have to have automation to help that happen – the task has moved beyond human ability to accomplish it alone.
  • -points for the tired argument that things are different now. Google is making us dumber. Essentially the same argument that happens with every introduction of technology, including the printing press. We aren’t any different than the humans that painted caves 17,300 years ago.

For more podcasts on humans and automation, check out this recent Planet Money: The Big Red Button. You’ll never look at an elevator the same way.

*While looking up support for the claim that people have always thought their era was worse than the previous, I found this blog post. Looks like I’m not the first to have this exact thought.

So you want to go to school for Human Factors: General Sequence of Events

This is Post 2 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1)

In this post, we discuss a general to-do list for those considering graduate school in Human Factors. Comments from other faculty welcome!

1. Get Involved in Research as Early as Possible

  • This can be through a senior project, a class at your university where students do a research project, or (optimally) by working as a research assistant in a lab.
  • If your university does not have these opportunities, look around (nearby universities). Many professors will take volunteer research assistants, including in the summer, and train you in their lab. This gives you both experience and a potential reference letter.

2. Start Looking for Departments/Mentors and Evaluate Fit

  • Many programs or labs have information on their alumni. Do they have the kinds of jobs you want? Do their alumni work at places you would like to work?
  • You will work mainly with a single advisor in an apprenticeship model. However, it’s a good idea to consider programs where you match more than one professor.
  • Check out the research interests of potential advisors by reading some of their recent publications or look at their curriculum vitae (the academic term for resume; often found online). We often have an area of expertise but work in other areas as well. You don’t want to choose an advisor based on work from 20 years ago that isn’t being continued today.
  • It is highly unlikely that a potential advisor will initiate a new research area to fit your interests–be flexible in your interests.
  • Create a spreadsheet listing department, contact information/web address to apply, potential faculty (and their major research areas), application fee, deadline, required materials, and your rating of fit.

3. Contact Prospective Mentors

  • When you have identified some potential programs, check their website to see which faculty are affiliated with the program and taking students.
  • Not all faculty take students every year. Some faculty list on their website whether they are taking students. If unsure, a short, formal email to the professor asking if they are accepting new students is appropriate.
  • Just because they are on a departmental website does not mean that they are affiliated with the HF program (that department may have other graduate programs) or that they are taking students that year. If it is unclear, email and ask. It isn’t helpful if, for example, you are applying to a psychology program but list an industrial engineering professor as your preferred mentor.
  • If you would like to evaluate potential fit between you and your potential mentor, you can ask if they are willing to meet with you in-person. Opinions vary, but Skype/video conference meetings may work.

Our next post will give an example of the kind of formality expected in contacting a prospective advisor.

Human Factors Psychology Dominates Best Psychology Jobs

Edited because it’s even more awesome than I first thought…

A recent Buzzfeed article listed the “8 Awesome Jobs That Will Convince You To Be A Psychology Major.” I clicked, despite my oath not to read articles that have either numbers in the title or include the word “actually.”

Turns out… three (edit: FOUR) of the eight jobs are held by human factors psychologists.* Of course, if you want any of these jobs you’ll need a Ph.D, not just a psych major.

Get your graduate applications ready for next year, folks. (And use our handy guide to give yourself a leg up).

*One is officially I/O, but I think HF can claim him since he’s been President of HFES, an HFES Fellow, and Editor of the journal Human Factors.

So you want to go to graduate school in Human Factors?

This is the first post in an upcoming series about human factors graduate school.

If you have decided that you might want to further your education in human factors and ergonomics by going to graduate school, here is some useful information that Anne and I have collected over the years.  While there are many sources of similar information, this one is tailored to potential HF students and answers questions that we’ve received.

First, graduate school will be very different from undergraduate.  Yes, you take classes, but the most important experience is in conducting research–that is how you will be evaluated and ultimately what determines whether you are successful.

Most prospective students in HF are interested in the topic because they are interested in design or usability.  It is important to realize that graduate school will not be like working in a design studio.  Instead, it will be more like being in an experimental psychology program where you take courses in statistics, research methods, cognition, perception, etc.  

You will also take specialized courses in usability or other evaluation methods but it will be one of many.  The goal is to educate you on the fundamentals of human capabilities and limitations so that you can then use this knowledge in the design or evaluation of artifacts (for those going into applied fields).

In the rest of this series, we’ll discuss researching programs, contacting faculty, and various dos and don’ts.

Big Data and A/B Testing

I became interested in using “big data” for A/B testing after a speaker from RedHat gave a talk to our area about it a couple of years ago. It’s a tantalizing idea: come up with a change, send it out on some small percent of your users, and pull it back immediately if it doesn’t work or isn’t better than the original. Even more amazing when you consider a “small percent” can be thousands and thousands of people – a dream for any researcher. Certainly, this connects to last year’s news on the controversy over Facebook’s A/B testing adventures.

The only con I can think of is that if something works or doesn’t work, you may not know why. We are always fumbling toward success, but maybe it’s not good to encourage fumbling over development of theory.

NPR’s Planet Money did a great show recently on A/B testing their podcast and the surprising results. They were also willing to think further about how it could be taken to an extreme, audience testing every segment of the show. Certainly worth a listen.

Warning against overgeneralizing in UX

I enjoyed this article by Matt Gallivan, Experience Research Manager at AirBnB, about the tendency of experts to overgeneralize their knowledge. I try to watch out for it in my own life: When you’re an expert at one thing, it’s so easy to think you know more than you do about other areas.

Excerpt:

Because if you’re a UX researcher, you do yourself and your field no favors when you claim to have all of the answers. In the current digital product landscape, UX research’s real value is in helping to reduce uncertainty. And while that’s not as sexy as knowing everything about everything, there’s great value in it. In fact, it’s critical. It also has the added bonus of being honest.

Somewhat related, here is a fun page analyzing where and why AirBnB succeeds at usability.

Assistant Professor Position at Texas Tech

They are specifically looking for someone in Human Factors/Applied Experimental psychology.

MULTIPLE TENURE-TRACK FACULTY POSITIONS AT TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY

The Department of Psychological Sciences at Texas Tech University announces multiple openings for tenure-track positions at the Assistant Professor level. We seek applications in the areas of clinical (req. #4627BR), human factors/applied experimental (req. #4628BR), and counseling (req. #4626BR) psychology. We are particularly interested in applicants whose program of research, broadly defined, contributes to the department’s emphases on neuroscience, and health and safety. For candidates with an interest in neuroscience, the Texas Tech Neuroimaging Institute houses a research dedicated 3-T Siemen’s Skyra with simultaneous 128-channel EEG, and there are opportunities to collaborate with existing neuroimaging researchers in psychology and across campus.

Candidates are expected to conduct productive and programmatic research, compete for extramural research funding, teach undergraduate and graduate psychology courses, mentor graduate students, and provide service to the department, college, university, and profession. Candidates for our human factors position should have a strong psychology background and a commitment to integrating basic and applied research. Candidates for our clinical and counseling psychology positions must receive their Ph.D. from an APA-accredited program by August 2016 and should be able to supervise graduate students in practicum. The anticipated starting date for all positions is August 19, 2016.

The Department of Psychological Sciences at Texas Tech (http://www.depts.ttu.edu/psy/) has doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, cognitive, human factors, and social psychology. The clinical and counseling programs are accredited by APA and the human factors program is accredited by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. We currently have 28 full-time tenure-track faculty, 120 doctoral students, over 1,000 undergraduate majors, our own building with labs and classroom space, and a Psychology Clinic. Our research programs encompass departmental, campus, community, and national/international collaborations. We have effective working relationships with the TTU Health Sciences Center, several large area hospitals, numerous clinics and psychological-service agencies, and other multidisciplinary groups in the region. Texas Tech University is classified as a doctoral “research-extensive university” by the Carnegie Foundation and as a “national research university” by the State of Texas. With a population of approximately 240,000 people, Lubbock is an ethnically-diverse community, with a low cost of living, temperate climate, modern airport and infrastructure, and good school districts.

To apply for a faculty position, candidates must submit a cover letter, vita, statement of research interests, statement of teaching philosophy, sample reprints, 3 or more letters of
recommendation, and any other materials that candidates think will be helpful, to our online application web site, at: http://jobs.texastech.edu, under the above requisition number corresponding to each specialty area. We will begin reviewing applications on October 1, 2015, and will continue to review applications until the positions are filled. Please direct questions about these positions to: Dr. Robert Morgan, Search Committee Chair, robert.morgan@ttu.edu, 806-834-7117. Texas Tech University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer and TTU has a sustained commitment to enhancing diversity. We strongly encourage applications from women, minorities, persons with disabilities, and other under-represented groups. We have a successful track record of accommodating the needs of dual-career couples.

Helmet Design and Environment Interaction

I wanted a new helmet that offered some side-impact protection to replace my trusty Petzl Ecrin Roc, especially after a helmet-less Slovenian climber mocked me in Italy for wearing “such a heavy helmet” at a sport climbing crag.

I now own the Petzl Meteor, but after one trip discovered a strange design flaw.

Most helmets clip together the way carseats or backpack buckles clip together:
clip

The Petzl Meteor helmet has a similar clip, but also contains magnets that draw the buckle together. Here is how it should work:

I was climbing at Lover’s Leap in California, a granite cliff. Those of you who know your geology might guess what happens when you combine magnets and iron-rich granite. I put the helmet on the ground while sorting gear, put it back on and heard the buckle snap together. A few minutes later, I looked down (which put some strain on the helmet strap), the buckle popped open, and the helmet fell off my head.

When I examined the buckle, there was grit stuck to the magnet.

Iron grit on magnet
Iron grit on magnet

Wiping it off seemed to work, except that it moved some of it to the sides rather than just the top. My fingers weren’t small enough to wipe it from the sides. So, the next time I snapped it shut and checked to make sure it was locked, I couldn’t get it off. The grit on the side prevented the buckle from pinching enough to release. I was finally able to get it off the sides by using part of a strap to get into the crevices.

Iron grit on sides

I made some videos of the phenomenon. It was pretty easy to do, I just had to put my helmet on the ground for a moment and pick it up again. Attached grit was guaranteed – these are strong magnets!

I am not the only person to notice this:

In one review of another helmet with a similar closure:

The only issue I had with the buckle came after wearing the Sirocco while bolting and cleaning a granite sport route. Some of the swirling granite dust adhered to the magnets, obstructing the clips. It was easy enough to fix: I just wiped the magnets clean, and it has worked perfectly since.

and:

Helmet review from Outdoor Gear Lab

What we found in our tests of both the Meteor and the Sirocco was that the magnet did not always have enough oomph to click both small arms of the buckle completely closed. About one in four times, only one of the plastic arms would fasten and the buckle would need an extra squeeze to click the other arm in. Another thing our testers noticed was that the magnet would pick up tiny pebbles which would prevent the buckle from fully closing. The pebbles can be easily cleaned by brushing off the exposed part of the magnet, but it adds an extra step to applying the helmet. The bottom line is, we prefer the simplicity of the old plastic buckle. We think that the magnet is a gimmick which potentially makes a less safe helmet.

Safety gear shouldn’t add steps to be remembered, such as making sure the buckle is locked, even after getting auditory and tactile feedback when one connected it. Some people may never climb in an area with iron in the ground, but the use-case for a granite environment should have been considered. You know, for little climbing areas such as the granite cliffs of Yosemite.

Not blaming the user since 2007!

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