The $12,000 Design Mistake

Paying bills online may be a time saver to some, but it can adversely impact older users.

Last week, 73-year-old Arthur Simmons decided to pay his home phone bill online for the very first time.

He was supposed to put in $124.14, but he forgot to enter the decimal point. He didn’t notice that the Qwest website added the decimal point and two zeroes for him, so his payment actually went through for $12,416.00.

Simmons and his wife live on a fixed income, and $12,000 is more than they get from social security in an entire year.

The instantaneous withdrawal of $12,000 from his account sent checks bouncing, and left him with nothing to live on.

“I had to get a loan to cover the overdraft, so now that’s costing us,” Simmons said.

One of the benefits to online billpay is convenience, but designers sometimes ignore the other benefit: technology allows for guards against common mistakes.

The designer should ask: “Is there any case where someone would pay 100x their monthly bill? No? Maybe we shouldn’t allow that.”

Of course, the first step would be for the company to have accountability to its customers:

When he called Qwest, he was told it would take six weeks to get him a refund. “They say I can E-Pay them, but they can’t E-Pay it back,” Simmons said.

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“Internet radio so simple that even an old, stupid idiot can use it”

The title of this post is a tongue-in-cheek quote from a post about a new internet radio, called Ira, that seems to be designed with older users in mind.  The primary design feature seems to be its simplicity.

In fact, so simple is the Ira that it apparently needs no instructions. The site is empty of any kind of technical information. We guess that the kind of moron who would buy it is the kind of moron who probably couldn’t work out how to get to a website and read it anyway.

The simplicity, however, seems to be deceiving as the following graphic shows:

ira_whatyouneedThis situation reminds me of the Ergonomics in Design article from a few years back looking at blood glucose meters (BGM) for diabetics.  In their paper titled, “Analysis of a ‘simple’ medical device”, Rogers et al. discovered that a BGM that was marketed “as easy as 1, 2, 3” actually took 52 steps, not 3.

The short paper is located here.

Consumer RFID technology–The Mirror by Violet

Violet has introduced an interesting computer peripheral called the Mirror that is an RFID reader for home users.  You apply RFID tags to everyday objects, program their actions, and when waved over the mirror, the actions are run from the computer.

When I first saw the following video, I was skeptical–their initial use cases in the video seemed silly.  But around 3:10 in the video, it starts to look really useful, especially for certain populations like older adults.  Imagine a tag on a medication bottle that tells you when you last took your medication and when you next need to take it.

[via Crunchgear]

“Smart” devices may help dementia sufferers remember to shut off stove, live at home longer

From Peter Squire (of The Daily Human Factor) another interesting story on using technology to support aging in place:

smarthome“The whole objective is to enable people to stay at home as long as they can,” says Bruce Carey-Smith, a BIME design engineer. The system reports the wealth of information it collects—from potential problems to successful interventions—to health care providers. “It’s about supporting—not about replacing—the role of care staff,” Carey-Smith says.

He says the system has been installed in the assisted-living residences of two U.K. dementia patients about a year ago—and both trials report good results.

In addition to reminding people to switch off potentially dangerous appliances (and actually shutting them off and contacting help if need be), the system is designed to help people avoid other hazards, such as nighttime wandering and incontinence issues. The system, for instance, senses when someone gets out of bed in the middle of the night and automatically turns on the bathroom light to help them find their way. Or, if the bed senses a prolonged nocturnal absence, the system will play voice recordings that gently remind people that, “it’s awfully late, perhaps you should be getting back to bed,” says Carey-Smith.

[Scientific American]

Lighting up the lives of the elderly – adaptively

From Peter Squire (of The Daily Human Factor):


Artificial light affects us in subtle ways. At its best, ambient lighting can relax, soothe or excite, but used poorly it can drain us of energy and disrupt sleep. What if lighting could adapt automatically to meet our individual needs?

The result, say a team of European researchers, would be an improvement in the general wellbeing of anybody who spends long periods in artificially lit buildings, particularly the elderly and the infirm, but also factory and office workers.

The system uses information from biosensors worn by the occupants of a room or building to determine what users are doing and then changes the lighting accordingly. The researchers’ goal is to use the technology to improve the wellbeing of the elderly, people suffering from age-related illnesses and people with reduced mobility, many of whom spend a lot of time confined indoors.

Click for more information and video.

In 2019 I will be 44…

Here is a neat vision of what 2019 will be like courtesy Microsoft Office Labs.  This concept video was produced by Microsoft and shown at the Wharton Business Technology Conference.  Two things that caught my attention were the prodigious use of touch interface and gestures (which I am not crazy about; my finger/hands get tired using my iPod touch to make exaggerated moves), and the importance of information visualization.

Data is being displayed and interacted with in creative ways in the following examples.  Video is after the images below:

Home energy monitor

Touch interface on a plane; viewing dynamic tables