BMW Radio: “WHAT CODE! Where do I find the CODE?!”

Recently a friend posted this frustration with the system that supposedly keeps car stereo thieves from using a stereo. Unfortunately, it kept the owner from using it as well.

Driving home last nite suddenly the dash lights up like an xmas tree. Lights turn off, alarms go off, etc. Climbing partner & I: “This is not good”. 1/2 second later everything’s normal. Next time I start her up: no radio. It just says: “code”. No tunes in my car. She’s a wonderful car; gets 26 MPG and will run down almost anything. But WHAT CODE! Where do I find the CODE?!

Indeed. Our poor car owner may be in for an expensive and time consuming search. This comes from a FAQ on the vehicle:

Q. Where can I find the radio code if I don’t have it?
A. First check your radio manual to see if the code has been written in it. If not, contact your local BMW dealer. With your radio serial number (for Harman Kardon units see the volume question below, otherwise, you may need to pull out the radio) and VIN they should be able to look up your radio code.

I think this is an interesting study in the ratio of security offered to user time required. It’s going to take Luke some trouble to get his radio working, but he can rest easy that if it is stolen the thieves won’t enjoy it! Well, unless they grab the radio manual when they steal it and the code is written there.

It reminds me of the anti-copying security that frustrates many users when their legitimate copy of something is suddenly taken from them by mistake. I have heard the argument that, as a user, it makes more sense to steal because then what you own cannot be repossessed by mistake when it has no copy protection.

The situation is also evidence that the study of signal detection should be alive and well in industry – BMW certainly chose time consuming consequences for a false alarm.

Photo credit: abdultaiyeb from Flickr Creative Commons

Almost Here: Designing Displays for Older Adults

After a long process and over a year of work, Anne’s and my book on user interface design for older adults is almost available!  The cover of our book has been finalized (shown below).  The book will be released September 21st, 2010 and will be available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.

Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398, Publication Date: September 21, 2010, Number of Pages: 232

We’ll give away a few copies of our book and in a future post provide an excerpt when we get permission.  Unfortunately, the book is not scheduled to be available in electronic format but we hope that will change. An ebook will also be available (thanks Peg!).

Here is our description of the book:


  • Contains state-of-the-art aging research written in an accessible format
  • Includes four chapters of worked examples that put design suggestions into practice
  • Focuses on designing for the aging population
  • Explores the “hows” and “whys” of designing for an aging population


A distillation of decades of published research, this book is a primer on age-related changes in cognition, perception, and behavior organized into meaningful principles that improve understanding. It explores the complex set of mental and physical changes that occur during aging and that can affect technology acceptance, adoption, interaction, safety, and satisfaction. The authors apply these theories in real design exercises and include specific guidelines for display examples to bridge theory and practice. It opens the way for designing with an understanding of these changes that results in better products and systems for users in all life stages.

Unusable Signs – Biking

I took a snap of this sign while on a bike ride yesterday. It appears to be a map of the bike trail. But there are a few problems…

  1. The sign clearly points to the right. The paved bike path continues straight ahead (and turns left in about 200 feet).
  2. That little green triangle in the upper left says “North.” Such a shame that the arrow is pointing to the south, so you have to completely reverse the map in your mind to use it.
  3. Of all the street names listed on the map, none are for streets within viewing distance. I can see 4 street signs from the sign, and none of them are represented ON the sign.

In short, I have no idea what this map is trying to show me, and even if I did, it’s unlikely I’d be able to mentally rotate it with no mistakes.

This is the second municipal sign I’ve seen where the direction you are looking when you read the sign is 180 degrees opposite of what the map displays.

    The Human Factors of Weapons

    James R. in California sends along a tragic story of police officer confusing his taser with his firearm.  The news story can be found here.  Here’s what James says:

    An example taser

    Here in CA there is a big to do over the shooting death of a young man (Oscar Grant) by a BART police officer Johannes Mehserle.  Apparently, Mr. Grant was being detained by Mr. Mehserle.

    At some point Mr. Mehserle felt that Mr. Grant needed to be tasered (tased?). The police officer drew his weapon and fired, killing Mr. Grant. Mehserle had drawn his pistol instead of his TASER.

    As you can see [ed: example taser on right] it is remarkably like a pistol in design and form.

    The question now becomes “should non-lethal weapons look and act like lethal ones?

    Mining Tragedy Update

    There is new information on the West Virginia coal mine tragedy where the methane detectors were disabled to prevent automatic shut down of the machinery. This comes from NPR:

    Methane monitors are mounted on the massive, 30-foot-long continuous miners because explosive gas can collect in pockets near the roofs of mines. Methane can be released as the machine cuts into rock and coal. The spinning carbide teeth that do the cutting send sparks flying when they cut into rock. The sparks and the gas are an explosive mix, so the methane monitor is designed to signal a warning and automatically shut down the machine when gas approaches dangerous concentrations.

    Because the monitor continually shut down the machine:

    On Feb. 13, an electrician deliberately disabled a methane gas monitor on a continuous mining machine because the monitor repeatedly shut down the machine.

    Three witnesses say the electrician was ordered by a mine supervisor to “bridge” the automatic shutoff mechanism in the monitor.

    There is some discussion as to whether the monitor was malfunctioning and shutting the machine down when it should not have or whether it was shutting down due to actual methane in the air. People in many industries willfully disable aids meant to keep them safe and malfunction is only one of the variables that affects the behavior (granted, it’s likely a big one). Here is one example from agriculture, collected for NIOSH through the FACE database program*:

    A 26-year-old Hispanic male knitting machine operator died when he was crushed by moving parts within the knitting machine as he tried to make an adjustment.  The victim opened a safety gate and jammed a needle in the “on” button that allowed the machine to operate with the safety gates open.

    Last, in at least this one case the safety cut-off contributed to an accident.

    On June 4, 2004, a 47-year-old co-owner of a recycling business was run over and killed by a Gradall telescopic boom lift (rough-terrain forklift) while he was working underneath it. He had been operating the Gradall, and had shut it down when he momentarily exited the vehicle. When he returned to the machine, he found it would not restart. The Gradall had a safety interlock that prevented starting from the ignition switch while in gear. The contractor was apparently unaware of this safety feature. He checked the batteries, and then crawled underneath the cab area and reached up into the engine compartment with a screwdriver. The screwdriver made contact between the two terminals on the starter, effectively jump-starting the engine and bypassing the safety mechanism that prevented ignition while in gear. The Gradall started and moved forward. The parking brake was not set. The back left tire rolled over the contractor.

    In short, I admire but do not envy the designers who have to create these dangerous systems. Their users are inventive, under pressure, and different from each other in countless ways. Designing safety sounds easy (one can imagine  “just make it shut off when they aren’t using it,”) but the answers seem far from being so simple. Many of the examples I have seen from other industries show quick and easy ways to bypass a safety system.

    • Machinery automatically cuts off after 8 seconds when there is no weight in the driver’s seat. Worker keeps a heavy tool bag nearby to put on the seat when the worker wants to check on things outside the cab.
    • Same system as above – worker tries to jump out of cab and complete task in less than 8 seconds.
    • Worker cannot reach objective with lap safety bar in place, a bar that must be down for machinery to operate. Worker lifts bar then puts it back down across empty seat and reaches for objective with machinery running.

    There does seem to be a difference in premeditation in the examples I’ve come across and the idea of hiring an electrician to specifically and more permanently remove a guard from a safety system.

    *I have posted on the FACE program before. It is a valuable repository.

    Photo Credit NIOSH on Flickr

    Human Factors and Health care: Tackling Inefficiencies

    I came across two examples of human factors angles in health care. The first is from the NPR show Planet Money.  The show focuses on how much inefficiency and waste there is in medical billing.

    The whole podcast is worth listening to, but there is one bit that made me laugh out loud (fast-forward to 10:35).

    Codes (NDC number) are used to represent drugs and other medical supplies.  However, two different types of codes are used with some systems only accepting one type.  One type of code is 8 digits long, the other is 11 digits long.  Here is how the user is left to translate one code to another:

    Three easy steps to a leaner NDC number.  First, if the NDC number begins with a 0, drop the 0, use the next 8 digits, disregard the last 3 digits.  If the leading digit is not a 0 but the 6th digit is a 0, use the first 5 digits, drop the 0, use the next 3 digits, disregard the last 2 digits.

    The second is a story from the New York Times about implementing processes and procedures from factories to the hospital:

    There are two bins of each item; when one bin is empty, the second is pulled forward. Empty bins go to the central supply office and the bar codes are scanned to generate a new order. The hospital storeroom is now half its original size, and fewer supplies are discarded for exceeding their expiration dates.

    The system is just one example of how Seattle Children’s Hospital says it has improved patient care, and its bottom line, by using practices made famous by Toyota and others. The main goals of the approach, known as kaizen, are to reduce waste and to increase value for customers through continuous small improvements.

    It’s not exactly clear from the article what CPI, the approach used, is:

    The program, called “continuous performance improvement,” or C.P.I., examines every aspect of patients’ stays at the hospital, from the time they arrive in the parking lot until they are discharged, to see what could work better for them and their families.

    Here is one specific outcome of CPI:

    Standardization is also a C.P.I. cornerstone. Last year, 10 surgeons at Seattle Children’s performed appendectomies, and each doctor wanted the instrument cart set up differently. The surgeons and other medical staff members used C.P.I. to come up with a cart they all could use, reducing instrument preparation errors as well as inventory costs.

    I can’t comment on CPI or the benefits/costs of such an implementation, but I would be very disoriented if someone made me standardize my office or desk!  Final point, just from what I gathered in the article, CPI seems to harken back to time-motion studies of Frederick Taylor.  Good or bad?

    Usability Potpourri

    HF/Usability Potpourri returns with two recent items.

    iPhone Reception Display

    Reports from some sites suggest that at least some of the cellular reception issues of the new iPhone 4 are due to improper display of signal strength.  This is a neat HF issue because it involves user’s trust in automation (the display of reception bars is actually a computed value, not a raw meter of actual signal strength), the design of information displays, and properly informing the user so they can set expectations.  Apple is planning to tweak the way in which those bars get calculated (presumably to be less optimistic) to bring user expectations in-line with reality.

    From an Apple press release:

    Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars.

    Mozilla Browser Visualization

    Next, Mozilla, creators of Firefox, present some interesting visualizations of what users are clicking in Firefox.  As expected, the back button is one of the most frequently clicked items (93% of all users).

    Interestingly, the RSS icon in the location bar (the orange square icon used to subscribe to blogs) showed some operating system differences.  Five percent of PC/Windows users clicked it, 11% of Mac users, and about 14% of Linux users.  Indicative of experiential differences?  PC users less aware of blogs/blog readers?

    Our own analytics show that the vast majority of our readers visit from PC-based Firefox installations.  As a service to our readers, here is the subscribe link to our blog 🙂