Heatmapping the Keyboard

David Hill over at DesignMatters has an excellent post on how Lenovo collected data for a keyboard redesign.  Below is an excerpt, but please visit his site for the entire tale.

We thought that taking an updated look at key frequency of use would be a good place to start in order to uncover innovation opportunity. Things do change over the years. Who would ever have predicted the increased use of the @ and tab keys prior to the internet. To gather this kind of critical information we solicited agreement from several dozen internal users to install a special keyboard tracker on their ThinkPad.  The request to install a keyboard tracker on peoples’  laptops sounded a bit odd at first,  but eventually volunteers lined up once they understood exactly what we were trying to accomplish. We really didn’t want to peer into their lives, we just wanted frequency of use data. After an extended period of time the data was translated into what we call a “heat map”. The more frequently used the key, the more red we used to color it. This visual mapping technique quickly revealed patterns that suggested design changes.


Portion of the heat map based on collected data

I would love to see the data for the entire keyboard. What I like about their technique is that the frequency of key use did not entirely drive the re-design. They took into account the trajectory of fingers while typing, emotional use of certain keys, and observational data to come up with whys instead of just thats. This allows for more of a theory-based redsign rather than simple problem solving.

HF/Usability Potpourri

  • bing-vs-goog-heatmapStudy Suggests People Prefer Bing’s Design To Google’s
    “The study was an intense focus group in which 12 subjects were monitored with eye-tracking cameras as they conducted searches. Afterward, they were interviewed and completed a survey.” (TechCrunch with usability report)
  • Nielsen recommends abandoning password masking in online forms2658612625_75be65cbfb_o
    “Usability suffers when users type in passwords and the only feedback they get is a row of bullets. Typically, masking passwords doesn’t even increase security, but it does cost you business due to login failures.”  (Useit via Slashdot)

Smartphones as Event-based Prospective Memory Aids

The calendar functions of devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and  smartphones have always been types of time-based prospective memory aids.  An item to be remembered in the future (e.g., go to meeting at 4 pm) is entered into the calendar and when that time arrives we are reminded with a notification or alarm (hence the term time-based).

Prospective memory is remembering to perform an action in the future.  Whereas retrospective memory is remembering something from the past.  In many ways, prospective memory is much more important, from a human factors prospective, than retrospective memory.  For absent-minded people like me, prospective memory failures (like missing a meeting) is of low consequence (depending on who I am unintentionally blowing off).

But imagine the situation where a nurse forgets to carry out a procedure, a doctor forgets to remove gauze in a patient, or when a patient forgets their medication instructions.  The consequences for prospective memory failure are much greater (and potentially deadly).

Prospective memory events can be “fired” by two main types of cues or “reminders”:

  • The first is time-based (like the example above): At 3 pm, call cable company, or in 30 minutes call Chris.
  • The other way is event-based: When I see Anne, let her know that the paper is due, or drop deposit check when I pass the ATM.

Android App Electronic calendars are great at aiding time-based prospective memory tasks but only recently do they now cue event-based tasks.  For example, phones using the Android operating system can download a program that tracks your location (using the phone’s GPS unit) to fire off a reminder based on your current location.  So if you are near the grocery store it can remind you to pick up bread (event-based cue).

I recently discovered a feature in Palm WebOS phones (like the new Palm Pre) that can fire off reminders based on who you are communicating with (via phone conversation, instant messaging, or I think email). When I contact Anne (or she contacts me), a notification will remind me of what I needed to tell her.

Say that I need to tell Anne of an upcoming deadline when I see or hear from her.  I select her contact entry and type in a note to myself to remind her.  Next time I call her or we instant message I will receive this reminder:

contacts_2009-16-06_234845 contacts_2009-16-06_234921

Again, this is an event-based cue (communicating with Anne is the event) and not a time-based cue (there is no specific time when it might happen).  Cool!  More information about prospective memory can be found in this book (Google Books link) and countless articles.

Electric Scooters and their Warnings: A Guest Post by Kim Wolfinbarger

Electric shopping carts are common in large grocery stores. Essential for users with mobility impairments, they are also helpful for pregnant women, elderly shoppers, and other who have trouble walking long distances.

A few months ago, my grandfather overturned such a cart in a parking lot and broke his hip. Interested in what might have caused the accident, I examined a similar cart at my local store.

in-storeWhile the cart appeared stable, red-and-white signs affixed to the inside and outside of the basket read, in large letters, “IN-STORE USE ONLY.” Two others warned, “INTENDED FOR USE INDOORS ON LEVEL SURFACES ONLY!” and “DO NOT TAKE THIS CART OUTSIDE THE STORE.” An instruction manual I found online had similar statements in several places.

instructionsHere is the problem: A customer who uses the cart while shopping will surely want to use it when taking groceries to the car. My grandfather lived independently and drove himself to the store, but rheumatoid arthritis made walking difficult. Using an electric cart made it possible for him to do his own shopping. While he most likely saw the warning, he may have dismissed it as a statement written to merely to discourage lawsuits. (This is speculation–he could not converse following the accident and died a few weeks later–but it is consistent with his personality.)

Clearly the manufacturer had anticipated that people would use the carts outside and thought this behavior might be hazardous.  But did the store share this concern? Since the cashier loaded the bags into his cart following the purchase, it appears that, despite the warning, the store expected him to drive the cart to the parking lot.


The signs and repeated warning statements in the manual suggest a mismatch between the design of the product and the expected behavior of users. So how should the problem be addressed?

  • If the carts are truly not stable outdoors, stores should not allow them to be driven into the parking lot. Instead, employees should carry out groceries for all customers who use a motorized cart.
  • Offering the service is not enough; some customers, not wanting to be a bother, will refuse assistance if asked. Instead, when the cashier begins checking out a customer with an electric cart, she should immediately summon a worker to load the groceries into a push cart and take the groceries to the customer’s vehicle.
  • Manufacturers should assume that customers will take electric carts outdoors and design them accordingly. Motorized scooters intended for outdoor use are widely available.
  • If they have not already done so, shopping cart manufacturers should implement similar stability features.  As human factors engineers have said for years, a warning is no substitute for good design.
  • Good warnings tend to have a “why” that informs the user about the hazard when that hazard is not immediately obvious. If you though the reason to keep the cart indoors was because you might be hit by a car, your decision to take the cart outdoors could be different than if you knew the cart were unstable.

Kim Wolfinbarger is the recruitment coordinator and an adjunct instructor for the School of Industrial Engineering, University of Oklahoma. Her research interests include usability, product design, industrial ergonomics and design for special populations.

Applied Decision Making Aids in the News

NPR covers ways psychologists have discovered to nudge irrational decisions  in a better direction.

An excerpt:

In the city of Greensboro, N.C., there’s a program designed for teenage mothers. To prevent these teens from having another child, the city offers each of them $1 a day for every day they are not pregnant. It turns out that the psychological power of that small daily payment is huge. A single dollar a day is enough to push the rate of teen pregnancy down, saving all the incredible costs — human and financial — that go with teen parenting.

Most of the article focuses on “economics,” but of course money is only a context for the decisions they discuss.

Invisible Lines and Laundry Detergent

Consumer Reports tackled a pet peeve of mine: the invisible fill lines for laundry detergent. Most of you are probably using too much.. I finally took a sharpie to mine. Some excerpts from the Consumer Reports article:

“If the lines aren’t clear or are hard to see, it’s easy to overdose and use too much detergent,” says Pat Slaven, a program leader in our Technical department who conducted the detergent testing. “Plus, for all the products we tested, the line for a medium load—the most commonly done load—is less than a full cap, which makes it easier to use too much detergent.” The line for a maximum load is also typically less than a full cap.

Even a textiles expert can face issues with detergent caps. “The salesman who sold us our energy-efficient washer emphasized that we should follow directions to the letter—or fill line, in this case. Of course, I have to stand under a floodlight in the garage to see the fill line,” says Margaret Rucker, Ph.D., a professor of textiles and clothing at the University of California at Davis. “If a study on cap design hasn’t been done, then it should be,” she adds.

Another manufacturer has taken a different approach to solving the problem. “We feel the best practice is to include a picture of the cap on the directions, where we call out exactly where the dosage lines are on the cap,” says Bill Littlefield, executive vice president and general manager of branded products of the Sun Products Corporation, which makes All and Wisk detergents. Littlefield admits, “It’s a struggle to find proper dosage.”

Procter & Gamble, whose detergents include Cheer, Era, Gain, and Tide, also shows images of the actual caps and fill lines on its labels. “We have specific fill caps that are clearly marked, and we feel people understand the product,” says Lauren Thaman, a chemist and head of U.S. external relations at P&G.

Although the companies “feel” that consumers know how to use their product, field testing might show otherwise. Using a picture of the cap on the box separates the information from the action, adding an extra step.

Consumer Reports was tactful enough not to mention that overuse of detergent benefits the companies making the detergent bottles and their indicator caps.

Emergency Checklists and Aviation

The recent water landing into the Hudson is still being investigated. This AP article focuses on whether flight attendants were trained not to open the back door of the plane during a water landing, but the most interesting bit comes at the end:

Another concern is whether the FAA and airlines need to revise emergency procedures for pilots in the event both engines fail. Those procedures usually involve a sequence of many steps called a checklist. There are different checklists depending upon the problem, but most are based on the expectation that the problem will occur while the plane is flying at a high altitude — airliners typically cruise above 20,000 feet, giving pilots time to identify and correct the problem.

Flight 1549’s first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, told a congressional panel in February that he only had time to make it part of the way through a checklist for restarting the engines when Sullenberger sent the plane into the river.

Sumwalt suggested it would be better for airlines to train pilots to remember one procedure for a low-altitude dual engine failure, rather than go through a long checklist of items while altitude rapidly diminishes.

Bad Astronomy on Usability

One of my favorite science blogs, Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy, recently touched upon a usability topic which gives me an excuse to link to his blog!  The story gets goofy from there (a rivalry between him and actor Wil Wheaton ensues).

He is complaining about an upgrade to Apple’s iMovie which reduced features but more important reduced the usability of the program.  Details are short and I don’t have access to iMovie to check out what he is referring to:

The old version (iMovie07) worked great, so of course in iMovie08 Apple added things that make it more confusing and took away all the good stuff, making it suck harder than a starving black hole.  So there you go. Feel free to use that image whenever Apple releases some new “upgrade” that actually reduces an app’s useability.