Careers in Human Factors & Aging

A graduate student contacted me with questions about career paths for those of us in HF with an aging background.  This sounded like a great opportunity for discussion so I’m posting it here.  If you can contribute responses to any or all of these questions, please leave a comment!

I am giving a presentation on the Aging Technical Group [of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society] in my Human Factors Professional Issues course and the focus is on potential career options in this area. I am gathering information from past ATG newsletters and publications within HFES Proceedings in recent years.

I am emailing you to ask if you could provide any additional career-related information. Some questions that I thought might be relevant are listed below.

  1. What are the most common areas of research within human factors in aging?
  2. What are some of the largest changes in research trends within this area?
  3. What are the most common types of careers that individuals working in aging within the realm of human factors typically hold?
  4. What are some unexpected places that one may find hf aging professionals employed?
  5. Is there anything in particular that sets careers in aging apart from working within other areas of hf?
  6. Any other information you can provide about careers in this area

Also, if you could provide any additional suggestions for resources where I might find more information (other than what I listed above), I would very much appreciate it.

Redesigning Toyota’s Keyless Ignition System

The LA Times reporters Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian recently wrote a story about keyless ignition systems and the associated HF issues (we blogged about it here).  In a follow-up story, they report that Toyota is considering redesigning the system so that instead of requiring a single 3-second press to shut off the engine, it now requires 3 consecutive presses.  This is to address the fact that drivers, in emergency situations, don’t readily know how to stop the car:

Amid its widening recall crisis, Toyota Motor Corp. said it had moved closer to adopting changes to its push-button ignition system to give drivers an added margin of safety if their vehicles accelerate out of control.

Executives at the company’s headquarters in Japan are considering redesigning the keyless ignition system, known as Smart Key, to allow drivers to shut off the engine by tapping the button three times in a row, company spokesman Brian Lyons said.

But it might be a hasty fix since very little research has gone into how users expect it to operate:

Paul Green, a human factors expert at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said Toyota and other carmakers have designed push-button start systems with very little research about how consumers naturally expect such systems to operate.  Green said that if Toyota now rushes a redesign into production without any new research, “it is really risky.”

I was quoted too:

According to Richard Pak, a professor of psychology at Clemson University who studies human interaction with technology, the safest kind of ignition switch is one that works in an intuitive manner. That’s because in a panic situation, humans “revert to [very well] learned behavior.”

“When you’re out of control at 80 miles per hour, you’re not going to remember complicated things,” Pak said.

Visual Search and Airport Security Screening

Funny I should have mentioned conjunction search the other day, since this post is all about new research by Jeremy Wolfe who has and continues to contribute to the visual search literature.

In this new work, already mentioned on i09, Wolfe and his former research assistant Michael van Wert investigated complex visual search as it applies to baggage scanning at airport security. When the target being searched for (i.e., weapons) does not appear frequently, detection rates go way down. Even if it is detected, people have a hard time inhibiting the motor response of saying “no, I didn’t see anything.”¹

Of course, human difficulties in searching for rare events is nothing new. The big contribution of this work was to determine that we go through two decision criteria when searching and each affects our response time and our accuracy.

¹I’m liberally translating; these aren’t the specifics of the study method.

The primary sources mentioned in this post can be found:

Wolfe, J. M, & van Wert, M. J. (2010). Varying target prevalence reveals two dissociable decision criteria in visual search, Current Biology, 20(2), 121-124

Another good article with implications for the TSA:

Warm, J. S., Parasuraman, R., & Matthews, G. (2008). Vigilance Requires Hard Mental Work and Is Stressful. Human Factors, 50, 433-441.

Dissecting the iPad’s User Interface

This Flickr image set does a nice job of pointing out the unique UI elements of the iPad.  Much of the interface is adapted from Apple’s extensive work on the iPhone but there are several unique elements.

Say what you will about Apple (positive or negative) but their tight reign on software and hardware and extreme focus on details really shows.

On a separate note, while I probably won’t be getting an iPad, the use cases illustrated in the keynote video are very compelling (e.g., imagine using this as a data collection device in the field).  I just can’t see myself lugging around a third device.

[Via TechCrunch]

HF Graduate Programs: North Carolina State University

This is the second post in our 2-part look at some HF programs.  Rich’s post about Clemson’s program can be found here.

The psychology graduate program at NCSU in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A, boasts eight faculty in the Human Factors and Ergonomics specialization. This is in addition to the faculty in our sister program in Industrial Engineering and related faculty in areas as diverse as Industrial Design and Education.  Graduates of the program can be found both in academia and industry (e.g., Virginia Tech faculty, IBM, HumanCentric, Dell).

A sampling of the kinds of research we do here:

  • Warnings – when are they appropriate, how to create them, how they can be misunderstood
  • Medication adherence – when do people share their prescriptions with others?
  • Methods of knowledge acquisition for collecting data from experts to be used to create artificial intelligence, training programs, and display formats
  • Designing instruction and feedback for diverse cognitive ability levels
  • Controlling robots
  • Spatial math
  • Visual spatial perception, auditory spatial perception
  • The intersection of technology and human aging

We also have an active Human Factors and Ergonomics Society student chapter.

Our admissions process begins in the fall, when we start accepting applications for review in January. The current deadline for applications is January 1st of each year, but check the website to be certain.

I’m happy to answer emails from prospective students. Let me know what areas you are interested in and I can help connect you with the faculty here closest to those areas.

The director of our graduate program is the best person to ask about admissions and requirements:

Donald H. Mershon, Ph.D.

email: don_mershon at

The website for the Director of Graduate Programs

The Spatial Demands of Assembly Instructions

I purchased a “build it yourself” cabinet over the internet, naively thinking that it couldn’t be too complicated if they really expected me to assemble it. Boy, was I wrong.

Take these instructions for example:

“Tap in post with a hammer to start and screw down with a screwdriver or with a small allen wrench until the shoulder of the post hits the wood. Then unscrew until the hole is parallel with the groove on the bottom of the Drawer Front.”

  1. I don’t know what a shoulder is.
  2. When is a hole parallel to a groove? Is it when the hole is facing the groove making them both “face” the same way,  or when it is going along in the same direction as the groove? In retrospect this seems more obvious than it did at the time.

Next, I’ve posted before how “bugs”  are different than human factors issues. I would like to add that minor errors in the instructions for a very complex spatial task can make it nearly impossible. For example, the instructions end with “To understand how the bastion fastening system works see next page.”  I finally did find that explanation two pages previous to the current page, at which point I’d forgotten what I was looking for.

Last, hardware is referred to by size and a number. For example, a diagram would have a picture of a screw going into a board and have the callout “1 1/4 #8.” Because there are multiple screws included that are 1 1/4″ long, I needed to reference the second page of instructions that listed all the hardware. On the hardware page are pictures and diagrams of the tops and side views of the hardware with the label below. Unfortunately, the label is equidistant from the diagram above it and below it, so I had to keep reminding myself by looking at the top screw picture to see if the label was for the graphic above or below. On this list the name is followed by a number in ( ), which seemed to be the number included in the package. So, back to my search for the 1 1/4 #8, it turns out there are two different 1 1/4″ screws, two different Phillips Flat Head #8s, and one of those happened to have (8) in the package. At this point the conjunction search became too much for me and I had to take a break.

On returning, I decided to ignore the front of the instructions that told me “Assembly is very easy if you read and follow the instructions step by step.” Once I just started putting it together using the overall picture and clamps and screws from my own workshop it went much faster. I had a few instances where I needed to backtrack, but overall it a successful assembly. Was this the triumph of a good mental model over step by step instruction or do I just lack the mental resources to follow steps that depend on referencing other steps and pages?

I suppose I should also mention what was well done in the instructions. The pictures of each screw with the difficult labels included: 1) a top and side view 2) a box drawn to scale (so you didn’t need a ruler to measure if the screw you were holding was 1 1/4″). The instructions also divided the steps into small enough independent pieces on each page that they were not overwhelming. Good job on that!

This does not bode well for the on-device user experience…

Gizmodo reviewed the Nook e-book reader from Barnes & Noble. Unfortunately (for B&N), the process of opening the package was so cumbersome, most of the review dwells on that aspect:

In other words, the Nook packaging actually necessitates these lengthy instructions, as ridiculous as they are in their own right. Somehow, Barnes & Noble invented a box that’s every bit as complicated as their product.

Here is the instruction sheet to OPEN the package (via a 7 step process):

Instructions to open the Nook package. Note the toll-free number to call if you have trouble unpacking!! (from Gizmodo)

Another reviewer has even more negative things to say about the package:

Once the sleeve comes off, you are presented with what amounts to a clear acrylic puzzle box: pull of the plastic seal, pop the two parts of the box apart, and then release the nook from the death grip of the clear plastic holster it’s cradled in. I’ll admit, I was getting a little frustrated during the unwrapping, and I couldn’t help but be thankful I wasn’t filming it. Compared to the easy paper zip-cord on the Kindle’s packaging, unboxing the nook would be embarrassing to do live — especially for someone as klutzy as me.

Similar Medical Bottles Strike Again: Flu Shots and Insulin

One of this blogs most popular posts concerned the similarity of adult and pediatric containers for the blood thinner Heparin.  A story from 2008 concerns the mix up between “nearly identical” bottles of flu vaccine and insulin. When you don’t have high blood sugar, a shot of insulin is serious business and sends you straight to the hospital.

Five Bedford County elementary school employees were sent to the hospital Friday after a school nurse mistakenly injected them with insulin instead of flu vaccine, said Ryan Edwards, spokesman for the school division.

The flu vaccine, in packaging nearly identical to the insulin, had been stored in the same refrigerator, Edwards said, leading to the mix-up at New London Academy.

The employees, a mix of teachers and other staff, were taken to Lynchburg General Hospital. All were treated and released, Edwards said. A sixth employee also received an insulin shot but did not require hospital treatment.

I’d like to include pictures of the bottles for comparison, but the story did not mention the type of vaccine or insulin.

On a side note, it would be insult to injury if any of those receiving the insulin shot and hospitalization also ended up with the flu…