Personalized User Interfaces

Researchers at the University of Washington have created a system that can tailor a user interface to the motor and visual abilities of the user.  After a short assessment, the system presents a user interface with presets for the user based on the assessment.  I remember reading about adaptive interfaces quite a long time ago.  Could something similar be built to accommodate age-related cognitive differences?  Perhaps a spatial abilities assessment could be given to change the structure of the user interface to make it easier to use?

[from Slashdot via The Future of Things]

Interface aid for hyper-milers

I have at least one friend who admits to “hyper miling,” or watching the MPG gauge at all times and trying to keep his average as high as possible. In one way I find this to be a fascinating task that one could use to study multiple-cue learning, pattern recognition, or adoption of superstitious behavior. (After all, was it kicking the car to neutral that saved you that .0005 gallons or the slow acceleration after the stoplight?) In another way I find the amount of attention dedicated to monitoring an in-vehicle interface alarming.

As far as I know, the only display that allows hypermiling shows the current MPG and an average MPG. You have to experiment and learn for yourself what speeds under what conditions change your MPG, and you learn this via the numbers shown. This requires you to remember previous numbers and compare your current performance to past performance.

Honda will augment their normal speedometer with a new display that can give faster (and pre-attentive?) information on your MPG. Called the Ecological Drive Assist System, it gives you a green background when you achieve high MPG, blue for middling, and red for “stop driving like a maniac.”

But that’s not all.

A portion of the dash display is dedicated to a game. Instead of depending on the intrinsic reward of keeping up with your MPG, the Honda will grow you a tiny electronic tree as you cumulatively save gas while driving. I think this is an incredible idea that will create hypermilers out of normal people and absolute fanatics out of hypermilers.

Aesthetically, I’d have made this a little seed that grows into a pretty tree, but I’m sure Volkswagen will eventually run with an idea like that for their implementation.

Remaining human factors questions:

  • What kind and amount of attention is dedicated to this display?
  • Green AND blue are fatiguing colors for night driving. You can turn the display off, but who will actually recognize it is the colors that are making night driving more difficult?

Thanks to Rose Marie Yagoda for sending me the original post from Engadget.

Crowdsourced Usability Testing?

Feedback Army is a new service where you submit your website, $7, and you receive 10 comments.  I wonder how effective such ultra discount usability evaluation would be.  I guess if some is better than none, this is a pretty good service.  However, who exactly is offering the feedback, what are their qualifications?  And is it more than, “your website sucks”.  Hopefully, this kind of service won’t further marginalize the importance of “usability”.

[Feedback Army via Google Blogoscoped]

StickySorter from Office Labs

Card sorting is a popular usability activity to help determine intuitive menu structures.  There are several options for doing a card sort on a computer but for one reason or another I haven’t been satisfied with any of them (too expensive, too limited, too buggy).  When I need to do a card sort, I still use an old and buggy (but free) program from 2001 (IBM’s now discontinued Usort and EZcalc).

Finally, there is a new application for affinity diagramming (conceptually similar to card sorting):  StickySorter from the people who make Microsoft Office (Office Labs).  It looks like the developers are looking for active feedback.  I haven’t played with it extensively yet but one thing missing seems to be any way to analyze the data (which IBM’s application does).

Feedback is a valuable brand “differentiator” for mobile phones

Here’s an interesting story about how Verizon eliminated a tiny feature (a checkbox indicating a successfully sent SMS message) and discovered that users apparently relied on that feedback.  This video clip is from AdAge so they don’t discuss the human factors angle but it’s there!  I can’t embed the video so check it out:

NEW YORK ( — A tiny check-mark box on Verizon’s text-messaging screen has taken on new sorts of meaning in the last month. For one thing, its removal sparked a customer outcry.

Who Watches the Watchers?

Testing products can be a dangerous job, even when you are well aware of the potential hazards. Thanks to The Consumerist for pointing me to this blog entry at Consumer Reports.

Believe us when we say we are unapologetic sticklers for safety here at Consumers Union. We think about it and talk about it all the time, but that doesn’t mean that folks on our staff don’t make the occasional safety blunder….

…”I read with great envy our story on pressure washers a few years ago—this was before I even worked here—then ran out and bought one. The story explicitly said make sure you don’t point it at yourself. Our video even had a guy who had really hurt his foot that way, as I recall. “I’ll never do that,” I said confidently. And, sure enough, the first time I used the device I managed to just brush the edge of my wrist with the stream. No skin left. Scar—small one—still there today to remind me always to wear hand and eye protection and never point it at yourself!”

I just wish they wouldn’t keep saying “blunder”. However, in opposition to my usual diatribe about not blaming the user, I have to admit I laughed at this story:

“About 15 years ago I was finishing my basement. I put in the rough wiring for above-the-sink lighting, but didn’t tape off the end. A few nights later I was standing on a stool hammering close to the exposed wire. Make that too close. The metal cheek grazed the wire, tripped the circuit breaker and sent a numbing wave down my arm. I walked in the dark and reset the circuit breaker. Then, to distinguish myself from so many other do-it-yourself homeowners, proceeded to demonstrate to my wife exactly what happened. Exactly being the optimal word.”

Keep checking back at the Consumer Reports site, as they state this is only the first in the series.