History of Multi-touch Research (Bill Buxton)

BusinessWeek has an article on the veiled threat that Apple has made to competitors regarding multi-touch technology.  But the interesting part was a link to a whitepaper written by Bill Buxton.  It’s a great historical overview/crash course of touch and multi-touch research that preceeded Apple’s work back almost 30 years.

Multi-touch technologies have a long history. To put it in perspective, the original work undertaken by my team was done in 1984, the same year that the first Macintosh computer was released, and we were not the first. Furthermore, there was a significant body of prior art on which multi-touch was built.

Game Players as Future Warriors

I heard an interview over the weekend on the use of robots in war. A fascinating bit from that story was that as modern warfare moves to soldiers manipulating robots from afar, the military leveraged the existing research and development of game companies in the design of hand held controllers (at 13:43 in the streaming interview).

So the predator drone remote control probably looks very similar to your PS3 or Xbox controller! It makes sense as both tasks are nearly identical (as far as I can tell).

It was also interesting that the 19-year old Army specialist who trains remote operators honed his skill by playing video games (at around 14:30 in the interview).

Related, the Designing for Humans blog has a great, multi-part series on the ergonomics for interaction designers.  Part 3 is very relevant to hand held controller design.

Usability of Electronic Health Records

Electronic health records are computerized versions of those old paper files you see at your doctor’s office.  In an effort to trim the cost of health care, President Obama has pledge to support EHR use among more doctors.

In the course of other research, I had the opportunity to see the kinds of EHRs that are used in a major hospital.  I was quite frankly appalled at the usability and wondered what kinds of mistakes, errors, and inefficiencies might occur with the wide scale use of such systems.  This opinion piece from the Huffington Post agrees.  The introduction of new technology to replace a well-used method is complex.

This is partially because the products are complex and require a great deal of training as they are built now. The worst are the industry leaders in use by many hospitals.

I completely agree.  The system I saw was made by one of the biggest healthcare companies in the world, which of course I won’t name.

To make it more complex, the turnover in medical support personnel, front office and back office, is often frequent, so the training on these complicated products is ongoing and expensive. Support, services and training are the model by which some of these software companies increase their revenues.

Whenever I see the issue of Health care IT discussed, it is always about the nuts-and-bolts engineering issues such as interoperability (will the systems work and communicate together?).  This is obviously important, but hopefully some discussion will be devoted to usability.

Usability Affects Use: Police make fewer arrests due to struggling with software

Australian police in Queensland are asked to provide information to a national database, which should help communication between departments about offenders. Sounds great, right? Not if it’s poorly designed. From the News.au article:

“There was an occasion where two people were arrested on multiple charges. It took six detectives more than six hours to enter the details into QPRIME,” he said. “It would have taken even longer to do the summary to go to court the next morning, so basically the suspects were released on bail, rather than kept in custody.”

He said jobs could now take up to seven hours to process because of the amount of data entry involved.

“It’s difficult to navigate because it’s not a matter of following steps in a logical manner. You go from A to G then back to A, then C, then H,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”

The website for QPRIME (created by Niche Technology of Canada) lists objectives that are amusing in light of the above .

QPRIME Objectives:

  • To reduce the administrative burden for operational police;
  • To improve the effectiveness of operational policing;
  • To improve the efficiency of operational policing;
  • To enhance the targeting of operational police time and resources;
  • To improve system availability, flexibility and support costs;
  • To reduce crime;
  • To increase public confidence;
  • To provide a strategic platform for future initiatives;
  • To improve value through quality integrated incident information; and
  • To improve service delivery to the community.

Niche Technology describes their product, but I was unable to locate any screenshots or interfaces.

Tasking and workflow functions support the management of an incident in the system: tasking an officer to take a statement, submit a report, etc. An overview of tasks being undertaken in relation to any particular incident, by an individual or a team, offers multiple options for understanding and reviewing progress on specific investigations or individual workloads. Workflow automates the movement of information within the application, automatically creating tasks, changing data security and performing other actions.

I don’t feel comfortable judging the usability of software from a single newspaper article. It would be very helpful to have more information and a good understanding of how the QPRIME system functions.

Crowdsourced Usability II: Mozilla Test Pilot

Interesting distributed/crowdsourced usability effort from Mozilla, the makers of Firefox.

Enter Test Pilot. It’s a still-in-concept platform for a new user-testing program for Mozilla that aims to build a 1% representative sample of the Firefox user base for soliciting wide participation and structured feedback for interface and product experiments.

From Wired:

Raskin notes that the project was initially intended to provide feedback for Mozilla’s own products — Firefox, the Thunderbird e-mail client and add-ons like Weave and Ubiquity — with a 1% sample of active users. That’s a huge sample size for usability testing, so the distributed model makes sense.

It’s also this level of scalability that makes Test Pilot special. Not only will the collected data be made open to the public, but the testing platform will as well. Any research institution that needs usability data can draft a request to query the hive mind of worldwide Firefox users [emphasis added]. Tests can be conducted in a matter of hours with virtually no overhead — a dream compared to the hours and days spend recruiting, screening and testing participants in traditional usability studies.

This sound like a great idea but I wish this was a downloadable framework to allow me to collect this data on my own, local website with my own participants for experimental purposes (without having to get another level of approval).  Whenever I do a web study, I have to get a programmer to create a tool that collects data (e.g., location of clicks, times).

Test pilot via Wired

Return of the Checklist!

Paper to the rescue again!

From the January 14th New York Times:

“Surgical complications are a considerable cause of death and disability around the world,” the researchers wrote in the online edition of The New England Journal of Medicine. “They are devastating to patients, costly to health care systems and often preventable.”

But a year after surgical teams at eight hospitals adopted a 19-item checklist, the average patient death rate fell more than 40 percent and the rate of complications fell by about a third, the researchers reported.

We always recommend the primary source at the HFblog, so you can read that for yourself here.

Right-click to download the (PDF).

This is their brief summary of the results:

Results The rate of death was 1.5% before the checklist was introduced and declined to 0.8% afterward (P=0.003). Inpatient complications occurred in 11.0% of patients at baseline and in 7.0% after introduction of the checklist (P<0.001).

I was personally impressed at the scope of this study. They didn’t just look at one hospital, or even several US hospitals. They found these effects in Toronto, Canada; New Delhi, India; Amman, Jordan; Auckland, New Zealand; Manila, Philippines; Ifakara, Tanzania; London, England; and Seattle, WA.

One caveat was the possible presence of the Hawthorne effect. It’s possible, though their data collection spanned 6 months, which sounds long enough for people to relax back into their normal habits.


Haynes, A.B., et al. (2009). A Surgical Safety Checklist to Reduce Morbidity and Mortality in a Global Population. New England Journal of Medicine, 360(5), 491-499.

You can now follow us on Twitter

In addition to being notified of new posts by RSS and E-mail, we are now on the Twitter bandwagon!  If you are an existing Twitter user, you can now “follow” our Twitter feed and get notified of new posts.  What is Twitter?  Well, here is what Wikipedia has to say:

Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that allows its users to send and read other users’ updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length.

Updates are displayed on the user’s profile page and delivered to other users who have signed up to receive them. Senders can restrict delivery to those in their circle of friends (delivery to everyone being the default). Users can receive updates via the Twitter website, SMS, RSS, or email, or through applications such as Tweetie, Twinkle, TwitterFox, Twitterrific, Feedalizr, and Facebook. Four gateway numbers are currently available for SMS: short codes for the United States, Canada, and India, and a United Kingdom-based number for international use. Several third parties offer posting and receiving updates via email. Twitter had by one measure over 3 million accounts and, by another, well over 5 million visitors in September 2008, a fivefold increase in a month.

It’s a two-way street, however!  If you direct tweets to HFBLOG, we’ll receive them.  For example, if you have a crazy human factors-related picture or funny story send it our way!

Milk Jug Usability

Picture: David Maxwell, NYT

A square milk jug has lots of benefits; because of its square shape, they stack more efficiently compared to existing milk jugs.  The shape makes it so that cartons of milk won’t require milk crates.  The net result is reduced transportation costs.

However, it seems they are not so easy to pour. According to the NYT article, training was required to show shoppers how to pour without spilling.

Mary Tilton tried to educate the public a few days ago as she stood at a Sam’s Club in North Canton, about 50 miles south of Cleveland, luring shoppers with chocolate chip cookies and milk as she showed them how to pour from the new jugs.

“Just tilt it slowly and pour slowly,” Ms. Tilton said to passing customers as she talked about the jugs’ environmental benefits and cost savings. Instead of picking up the jug, as most peopletend to do, she kept it on a table and gently tipped it toward a cup.

The fact that training is required makes this jug seems like a lazy design.  There must be a simple design solution that keeps the benefits of square milk jugs but makes pouring “intuitive”?

Solution, or Mess? A Milk Jug for a Green Earth – NYTimes.com

User Perception of Automobile Brands

I often hear people in HF say their users “don’t always know what they want” or that users want something that isn’t good for them. (One example might be a touch screen when a touch screen is not appropriate.) Consumer Reports lists the top automobile models by perception of a brand in certain categories.

The categories they used were:

  1. safety
  2. quality
  3. value
  4. performance
  5. environmental friendliness
  6. design
  7. technological innovation.

As far as I can tell, each brand got a point every time they were mentioned as the example brand for a certain category by 1,745 randomly surveyed participants via phone. They don’t list the question, but I imagine it was something similar to “What brand do you think of when you think ‘safety’?” Here are their findings.

Toyota – 193
Honda – 149
Ford – 109
Cadillac – 102
Mercedes-Benz – 100
GMC – 98
Lexus – 95
BMW – 95
Chevrolet – 94
Volvo – 88

Here are the 5 weakest:

Jeep – 21
Hummer – 19
Saab – 18
Mazda – 17
Suzuki – 7

Obviously, the numbers are smaller than you would expect. This is because they are an index. The numbers beside each brand reflect the number of times participants mentioned the brand as an example of one of the 7 categories, then divided by the number of “unaided” mentions. Consumer Reports states that this division corrects for awareness level, so the most popular brands don’t get artificially bumped up. I admit I don’t understand exactly what they are getting at there. I assumed an “unaided” mention of a brand was one not in conjunction with a particular category, but again I’m not sure how that is a correction for brand popularity. Jump in if you have an idea about this.

The Consumerist blog pulls a number of Consumer Reports sources together nicely into one post, which I recommend reading. It also provides a lengthier discussion of pure reliability rankings for automobiles.*


Consumer Reports – Overview and list of the top perceived brands

Consumer Reports – Top 5 in each category

*One caveat: the rankings listed here (and on The Consumerist) are a combination of the seven factors. Consumerist lists them only as “reliability” in order to compare them to the list of actual reliability rankings. The lists don’t match up, but I suspect it has more to do with the top 10 ranking coming from 7 factors (including factors like “environmental friendliness”) and the top 10 reliability ranking coming from only factors linked to reliability.