Welcoming the Fireproof Elevator


NPR ran a story earlier this week on an intriguing new human factors problem: fire-safe elevators.

The fall of the World Trade Center made it painfully obvious that stairs in skyscrapers do not function adequately in emergencies. We’ve always been warned away from elevators in case of fire, and I would go so far as to say it part of our collective knowledge from a young age. With the advent of elevators you should use in a fire comes a host of difficulties.

1. Training the zeitgeist: Not all elevators will be replaced, though new tall buildings will all have fireproof elevators. There may be new rules requiring older buildings over a certain size retrofit at least one elevator as fire safe.

  • This still makes fireproof elevators the exception instead of the rule. A great research question would be how to train people for a small-percentage case? You want the public, of all ages and experience levels, to know “In case of fire, use stairs, unless there is a fireproof elevator around, which you may or may not have noticed while you were in the building.”

2. Warnings and Information: The symbol in this post is probably familiar to all of you. I’ve occasionally seen it in Spanish, but not often. How will we indicate the difference between fire-safe elevators and other elevators?

  • Decals, signs and other indicators will not only have to indicate which elevators are safe and their purpose, but whether other elevators in the building are safe or unsafe. My building is square, with elevators on mirrored sides. If one were safe and the other not, I am sure I could remember which was safe, especially under the cognitive demands of an emergency.

3. Wayfinding and luck: Use of the elevator may depend on the location of the fire.

  • One of the original problems was that elevators opened onto smoke-filled or fire-filled floors. The story did not specify how the new elevators would avoid this. If there is a sensor that prevents them from opening onto such a floor, what if there are people desperately waiting for the elevator on that floor (as they have been re-trained to do)?
  • Should the system be even more complex, with people gathering on certain floors to await the elevator rescue? And then, if those floors are on fire..

In short, researchers start your engines! We have some training, warning, design, and way-finding work to do.

Electronic voting machines and misconceptions…

There was a report on electronic voting irregularities in South Carolina (during the Republican primaries last week) this morning on NPR.  The person that was interviewed,a representative of the State Election Commission, naively stated that the machines were fine, but it was the users who were not following operating procedures. Here is a quote:

“Any voting system is dependent on its user following the proper operating procedures and, in this case, Horry County election officials missed a step,” he says. That step was closing out tests performed on the machines before the elections, which left some test votes still recorded and any affected machine locked up.

Unfortunately, this widespread view of blaming the user prevents designers and engineers from coming up with easier to use voting machines. If the problem lies with the user, the manufacturer/designer is off the hook in terms of fixing the problem.

From a user-centered design perspective (which has roots in human factors), you never blame the user!  With the prevalence of voting system usability issues in the news, clearly, there are no usability or human factors people working within the manufacturers of electronic voting systems.

[link to NPR story; text or streaming audio]

However, there is some hope. Human factors researchers Tiffany Jastrzembski and Neil Charness, at Florida State University, examined electronic voting machines to improve accuracy among older adults. The article, published in Ergonomics in Design, is a good example of applying the science of human factors to human-machine problems.

[link to press release and full text article]

‘Mind-reading’ car keeps drivers focused

A “smart” dashboard that reduces the amount of information displayed to drivers during stressful periods on the road could be available in just five years, say German engineers.

A team from the Technical University of Berlin found they could improve reaction times in real driving conditions by monitoring drivers’ brains and reducing distractions during periods of high brain activity.

They were able to speed up driver’s reactions by as much as 100 milliseconds. It might not sound much, but this is enough to reduce breaking distance by nearly 3 metres when travelling at 100 kilometres per hour, says team leader Klaus-Robert Müller.


Surgeons Hone Skills on Nintendo Wii

wiinew_art_200_20080118072726.jpgImprovements in simulator performance didn’t come from just any Wii (see image), or any game. Marble Mania is good, for example. Tennis (astonishingly fun to play on the Wii, which uses a motion-sensitive wireless control) isn’t so helpful. “The key is to have subtle hand movements,” Kanav Kahol one of the authors of the study, told the Health Blog. “You can’t hit a tennis swing and expect to become a better surgeon. You need fine motor control.”


Automation, Consumer Products, and Energy Usage

Interesting article on the use of automated decision aids on consumer devices. The researchers used a vacuum cleaner that indicated when an area needed more cleaning or not. They wanted to determine if users would use less energy if they were told that an area was clean. They found that energy consumption was not reduced. This is contrasted with some research (I can’t think of the exact citation) that showed that when users saw their household energy consumption, they tended to be more mindful about reducing their usage.

Sauer, J., & Ruttinger, B. (2007). Automation and decision support in interactive consumer products. Ergonomics, 50, 902 – 919.

Abstract. This article presents two empirical studies (n = 30, n = 48) that are concerned with different forms of automation in interactive consumer products. The goal of the studies was to evaluate the effectiveness of two types of automation: perceptual augmentation (i.e. supporting users’ information acquisition and analysis); and control integration (i.e. supporting users’ action selection and implementation). Furthermore, the effectiveness of on-product information (i.e. labels attached to product) in supporting automation design was evaluated. The findings suggested greater benefits for automation in control integration than in perceptual augmentation alone, which may be partly due to the specific requirements of consumer product usage. If employed appropriately, on-product information can be a helpful means of information conveyance. The article discusses the implications of automation design in interactive consumer products while drawing on automation models from the work environment.

50th Anniversary of the Eames Lounge Chair

The chair has three upholstered pieces, each attached to a curved plywood shell. The larger one is the seat; the smaller two are back supports. All three are strategically angled to maximize your comfort. Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife design team behind the chair, had a remarkable understanding of ergonomic principles long before these were developed into a science in the 1970s.

[washington post]

“Continuous partial attention” vs. Multi-tasking

Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert. We reach to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities, and if we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? How many emails? What’s on my list? What time is it in Beijing?

Sounds an awful lot like “vigilance” + some kind of personality trait.

[huffington post]

Too much trust in automation…

 Wonder if he was distracted (being in a rental car) and was not able to pay attention to his surroundings while using GPS.  Not much detail in the story.

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. – A Global Positioning System can tell a driver a lot of things — but apparently not when a train is coming. A computer consultant driving a rental car drove onto train tracks Wednesday using the instructions his GPS unit gave him. A train was barreling toward him, but he escaped in time and no one was injured.

[yahoo news]

USNews Best Careers in 2008: User experience specialist

Usability specialists make sure that products, especially technical ones, are easy and pleasurable to use. How? First, they observe and interview potential users to identify their needs and preferences. After a prototype is developed, they watch and interview potential users again and suggest revisions. Not surprisingly, the job outlook for usability specialists is strong. The number of new, complex products is proliferating, and many of them demand a usability specialist.

[link to USNews]