Blogging APA Division 21: The Cost of Automation Failure

Arathi Sethumadhavan, currently of Medtronic and recently of Texas Tech, was this year’s winner of the George E. Briggs dissertation award, for the best dissertation this year in the field of applied experimental psychology. Her advisor was Frank Durso.

Her work was inspired by our need to increase automation in aviation, due to increases in air traffic. However, automation does not come without costs — what happens the performance of air traffic controllers and pilots when the automation someday fails? At what point is the operator so “out of the loop” that recovery is impossible?

Sethumadhavan addressed this question by giving people different levels of automation and observing their performance after failures of the automated system. The more automated the system, the more errors occurred when that system failed.

She also measured the situation awareness of her participants in the different levels of automation — results were similar. Those who had more of their task automated had less situation awareness, and even after a system failure their awareness continued to be lower. In other words, they weren’t shocked out of complacency, as one might predict.

Sethumadhaven’s work directly contributes to understanding the human in the loop of the automated system, so that we can predict their behavior and explore design options to prevent errors due to putting the controller out of the loop.

You can read more on Dr. Sethumadhavan’s work here. Congratulations to her on this award!

Photo credit isafmedia under a Creative Commons license.

Too standardized? – The problem of tube identification in hospitals

When it comes to efficiency, creating standard sizes and connections saves money, production efforts, and makes for easy substitution when one runs out of an object. For example, I was delighted that lid for one brand of pot perfectly fit my new frying pan. Unfortunately, there are times when we do not want parts of one object to fit another because it can encourage dangerous errors.

The New York Times ran a recent article on the similarity between the many tubes used in hospitals for different purposes. These purposes include:

  • Intravenous use
  • Inflating blood pressure cuffs
  • Feeding tubes

Obviously, very different materials pass through each of these tubes, and mixing one with another can be deadly. The article discusses several cases where food or air was passed into patient veins. The tubes entering the patient are often compatible with multiple sources of input, with no guard besides notoriously fallible human attention to prevent a mistake.

From the NYT article:

…the F.D.A. has issued three alerts to hospitals and manufacturers warning about tube mix-ups, the most recent of which was sent out last month after The Times began asking about the issue. Ms. Pratt said she persuaded one manufacturer, Viasys, to produce neonatal feeding tubes that are incompatible with other tubing. Viasys’s tubing is now used in Sharp’s neonatal intensive-care units, but they are expensive — $13 compared with $1.50 for regular tubes.“The regulators have been waiting for the manufacturers to come up with a solution,” Ms. Pratt said, “and the manufacturers won’t spend the money to design and produce something different until the regulators force them to. And now the international standards organization is taking forever to get the whole world onto the same page.”

Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association, agreed, “These things are hard to change when you have to get so many different organizations to act in concert.”

Blogging APA Division 21: You’re Looking Harmless Today

I‘m on a plane writing this post and I look harmless, or at least not threatening.

According to work presented by Poornima Madhavan from Old Dominion University, being a female in the screening line means I am less likely to be hassled by a false alarm of a screener seeing a threat in my bag.*

In work done with her graduate student Jeremy Brown, Dr. Madhavan found that participants in their studies consistently reported more false alarms (detecting a threat that was not there) when the passenger was male. Both genders showed this bias.

Because this bias affects a perceptual task (detecting a knife in a baggage x-ray) it is called a “Social Cognitive Bias.”

This project is a wonderful example of an applied experiment that gives us information on the effects social and cultural structures can have on cognitive ability.

Photo credit Wayan Vota under a Creative Commons license.

*No matter what gender you are, carrying climbing gear guarantees a search!

Blogging APA Division 21: Maximizing Stimulus-Response Compatibility

Kim-Phuong L. Vu was this year’s winner of the Earl A. Allusi Award for early career achievement. Her presentation covered maximizing stimulus-response compatibility to optimize human performance.

Vu reported on her studies of people’s performance under different levels of stimulus-response compatibility. For example, high stimulus response compatibility occurs when a blinking button needs to be pressed. The blinking is the stimulus and the button press is the response. They become less compatible as the signal for pressing the button moves further from the button itself. In the worst case, a well learned response is reversed – imagine if moving your computer mouse to the right moved the cursor left. This would be terribly incompatible, but would be even worse if you were already well experienced with the mouse moving in a compatible manner.

Vu gave some great examples of how stimulus response compatibility is much more than common sense. In coal mining, the controls for a mine transport operate in one direction (a compatible one) going in to the mine and reverse when leaving. When controlling military drones visually (UAVs) or any remote controlled object, the input controls must be reversed when the machine is flying toward the controller. In my mouse example, it is not common sense for a mouse to work as it does — there is no universal compatibility that moving a mouse forward should move it upwards on the screen. Indeed, many flight input devices work in the opposite way, so that a forward movement makes the plane descend. This compatibility was learned, but nonetheless is disrupted when changed.

Dr. Vu is currently an Associate Professor at California State University, Long Beach, and working on incorporating stimulus-response compatibilities in 3-dimensional interfaces.

Congratulations to Dr. Vu on her award!

For some fun reading by Kim-Phuong Vu and Robert Proctor, see their review chapter on the state of our art:

Proctor, R. W., & Vu, K.-P. L. (2010). Cumulative knowledge and progress in human factors. Annual Review of Psychology (vol. 61). Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.

Designing Displays for Older Adults: Chapter 1 (excerpt)

Below is the preface and excerpt of Chapter 1 from our forthcoming book.  The book is available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.  Until January 31, 2011, you can get 20% off the cover price when you purchase directly from CRC Press using this link and this code: 810DE.

Preface

Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398

This book is focused on the design of displays for the older user.  Why does this topic deserve a book?  Aging leads to a complex set of changes both mentally and physically that can affect technology acceptance, adoption, interaction, safety, and satisfaction.  Design with an understanding of these changes will result in better products and systems for users in all stages of the lifespan.  Conventional wisdom (possibly informed by personal experience) is that getting older leads to a decline across a broad set of skills and abilities; however, the reality is that as some capabilities decline with age others remain stable or increase.  For example, although a sixty year old man may not be able to beat his granddaughter in the computer puzzle game Tetris, the elder will invariably beat the youth in games of knowledge such as the board game Trivial Pursuit or the television quiz show Jeopardy.  Design of displays and technology can capitalize on these capabilities to ameliorate the limitations that can come with age.

As human factors professionals, we have often been frustrated at how little research makes it to practice.  This is why the target audience for this book is a usability engineer, or user interface/user experience designer who is tasked with creating an interface that might be used by older adults.  Literally hundreds of papers have been written about interface issues experienced by older adults, but how many actually influence the designs older adults use? We believe the challenge comes in part from the sheer number of articles available.  Design and usability evaluation are fast-paced activities with little time allowed for literature review.  Many professionals do not have the time to sift through thousands of papers to determine: a) which are related to the question at hand and b) whether the design or study has merit.  Another reason may be that academic papers typically target other academics and may not stress the application or design implications of their findings.  Finally, another barrier to knowledge transfer may be that academic publishing moves slower than the design and usability industry.  The time it takes for journal articles to reach the audience, from submission time, can be months to years.  As such authors may be loathe to nail down concrete design guidelines opting for the conceptual and general (but often vague and hard to implement) because their research may be published a year in the future.  This book distills decades of published aging research most relevant to the design of displays.

We believe this book offers a benefit beyond individual research studies.  The first half of the book is a primer of age-related changes in cognition, perception, and behavior.  Theory can be used to organize examples from the literature into meaningful principles that improve understanding.  Using theory backed up by evidence provides an understanding of why we see certain problems with many displays and often predicts solutions.  This understanding surpasses an individual interface and provides the practitioner with ways to plan for older users on multiple display types.  We then apply these theories in real design exercises.  In all chapters we provide specific guidelines for display examples to bridge theory and practice.

1.  ­­Introduction

Age is simply an indicator of how long one has lived, but is not a complete indicator of a specific individual’s capabilities and limitations.  One can easily imagine how a physically fit 55 year old tri-athlete could out-perform a 34 year old in a marathon, personified by Cliff Young, the sixty-one year old winner of the 1983 Sydney ultra-marathon (544 miles).  Similarly, with respect to cognitive capacity, there is wide variety in capabilities and limitations that are linked with age.  Thus the definition of “old” and “older” can be a tricky issue.  The issue is further complicated by the sheer variability in any given ability as we get older.  Generally, for younger and middle age groups, capabilities vary but this variability widens as people get older: the older adult age group (defined as those aged 65 and over) are more different from each other than people in other age groups differ from persons in their own age group.

One way to think about the older user is via their familiarity with current technologies and interface conventions.  Jakob Nielsen reported that “Between the ages of 25 and 60, the time users need to complete website tasks increases by 0.8% per year.” But does this time increase come from a rapidly changing technology or declines in the human body? Both culture and the physical aging process play a role.  Such dual causes for the same symptom exemplify why designs should be carefully analyzed as to the difficulties they produce.  It is important to know how much of a role the display plays in increased time to complete tasks versus slowed completion times due to the user’s inexperience with that type of task or any number of other variables.

Another way to think about the older user is by the appearance of perceptual and cognitive changes that we usually associate with aging.  This may include far-sightedness, the need for bifocals or reading glasses, hearing aids, and an increased reliance on notes rather than memory for everyday tasks.  An understanding of these changes and the effects they can have on display use is critical, because these changes often interact with each other.  Thus, understanding a single age-related change, such as vision, can lead to designs that adversely affect other senses and cognitions such as the high working memory requirements of audio displays or creating the need to scroll larger text, which can require precise movement.

1.1 What Do Older Adults Want from Technology?  What Do They do with Technology?

Across a wide range of everyday activities users encounter electronic technology.  Technology, for the purposes of this book, is broadly defined as any tool or artifact that helps the user accomplish a task, limited to electronic displays for the purposes of this book.  Even with this limitation, consider how ubiquitous technology is for most people.  Table 1.1 shows everyday technologies located in typical environments.

Many of these technologies are either specifically for or related to communication with others.  Mobile communication occurs commonly with all age groups, though use of mobile communication technologies can vary by age (Table 1.2).  Those over age sixty-five are less active users of the full range of advanced mobile services, but they are enthusiastic users of mobile voice communications, especially in emergency situations (Table 1.3).  The need to communicate is enabled through cell phone use and thus the product has been adopted by older adults.  Indeed, this adoption occurred in spite of the fact that many cell phones are not well designed for older users.  These design problems can partly explain the lower use in older age groups compared to younger.  When a user group is excluded from these everyday technologies by designs that do not accommodate them, both the quality of life of those users and the market share of the product companies can suffer.

Similar to cell phones, use of the internet as a tool beyond information seeking is becoming more common among older adults.  According to a 2006 Pew survey, 41% of internet users are over age sixty-five.  Online banking is a popular activity and 43% of internet users engage in some form of online banking.  However, only 27% of users aged sixty-five or older regularly banked online.  This is a fairly typical finding when relating age and technology use, but there are many potential reasons as to why.  These reasons range from usability issues with the interface to unease in accessing financial information over the web (mistrust).  These are two different reasons for avoiding online banking and one would take different paths to overcome them.  The lesson from investigating reasons for non-adoption of a technology is that it is important not to conclude that older adults avoid technology for any stereotypical reason, as avoidance is often affected by context, needs, and experience levels.  Understanding the barriers to the adoption of potentially useful services and products is crucial to overcoming the problems and increasing adoption.  Stereotypes of older users should be avoided in favor of evidence-based analyses.

1.2 Stereotypes of Older Users

A common stereotype of older adults is that they do not and will not use technology.  If this were true, there would be no need for this book: all displays and interfaces would be translated to disinterested older adults by their children and grandchildren.  However, this stereotype could not be farther from the truth.  Adults over sixty-five want to keep up with technology and take advantage of what a technological world has to offer.  About half of persons aged sixty-five to seventy-four are cell phone subscribers, and a third over seventy-five pay for service.  The Center for the Digital Future found that in 2009, 40% of persons over sixty-five in the United States were internet users.  Participants in our research studies frequently mention that understanding new technologies makes them feel connected to others and the world in general.

Use of the internet is one microcosm of older adults’ perception of technology.  Though the statistic of 40% using the internet seems impressive, it is paltry when compared to the nearly 100% of younger users who take advantage of the web on a daily basis.  A common stereotype of older users is that they are unable to learn to use complicated technological systems.  However, when older adults reject technology it tends to be due to not perceiving a benefit of the technology, not necessarily because it is too difficult or time consuming to learn.  The end result may be the same, fewer older adults use new technologies, but the reason is important.  When older adults perceive a benefit, they are willing to invest the time to learn.  However an unusable interface is more likely to tilt the scale in favor of “not worth it.”

Email provides another useful example to illustrate these points.  Email is form of communication, both business and personal.  Imagine someone having only this knowledge about email.  Would one understand that email allows instant communication? Would one know that they could send and receive pictures of the people they care about the very day the pictures were taken? Would they know that email is free?  Would they understand the asynchronous nature of email; that the person they are communicating with did not have to be available at the instant the email was sent, but that the message would be there waiting for the recipient(s), or even that the same message could be sent to more than one person at the same time?  If potential users do not know these things there is no reason to prefer email over a letter or a phone call.  It should not be assumed that “everyone” understands these benefits of email and if a person does not know of these benefits there is little reason to adopt the technology.

continued

This book is part of the Human Factors & Aging Series. The first volume in the series is Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches by Fisk, Rogers, Charness, Czaja, and Sharit and is available now. Forthcoming titles are: Aging and Skill Acquisition: Designing Training Programs for Older Adults (Czaja & Sharit) and Designing Telehealth for an Aging Population (Charness, Demiris, & Krupinski).

Blogging APA Division 21: “Who are we?” (how did we get here, and who do we want to be?)

According to Peter Hancock, we are our tools.  His 2010 presidential address “Mind, Machine, and Morality,” was as entertaining and wide-ranging as is typical of a Dr. Hancock talk. Two of his philosophical takes on our field are well suited to discussion, and I present them to invite comment.

Part I: Self-symbiosis – Uniquely human?

Self-symbiosis refers to our propensity to create artifacts that change (create) our future selves. Hancock’s diagram was similar to the one below, with the addition of the passage of time.

In self-symbiosis, we create tools that change our behavior, our options, and the course of evolution is affected. I found this idea interesting because I could see how it might generalize from long-term evolutionary change to individual change within a lifetime.

In the macro, the tools and opportunities of one generation slowly change the upbrining, opportunities for new tools, and even the brains of generations far, far, far in the future.

In the micro, we create tools that directly affect our own lives. We create sports and physical play, weight machines, and other physical activities that change our bodies, the length of our lives, and even our ability to think and reason (linked to blood flow in the brain.) My own interests are in studying (and eventually creating) artifacts that act similarly through “mental exercise,” specifically games. So, in the micro view we are still creating things that change us, allowing us to develop new things. Then these new things can also change us within our lifetimes.

Hancock referred to this control over our selves as a compromise between the chance changes that result in evolution and the idea that we were “designed.”  In some small way we might design ourselves through our tools and artifacts.

Part II: Morality in Human Factors Work

Hancock gave a call to action for our profession to work on the problems and discoveries that matter most to the human race. He gave as an example a well-designed ergonomic nose hair trimmer, followed by a noodle-cooler chopstick appendix. ‘Are we an ‘appliance science?’ he asked. “Do we want to give device advice?” Granted, these two examples are inarguably unnecessary to our ultimate survival and success as a species, but what about more ambiguous work such as well designed retail websites?*

Hancock concluded with a challenge to those in the human factors field: “We need a philosophy, not a profession. We need a moral compass,” for where to go in the future. What do you think?

William Blake photo credit  reproduced Naccarato under a Creative Commons license.

“Noodle cooler” photo credit bhikku under a Creative Commons license.

*Personally, bad websites might be taking years off my life, due to blood pressure, so their design is very important to me. 🙂

Blogging APA Division 21

I‘m just returning from APA 2010, where the Division of Applied Experimental & Engineering Psychology presented a number of cutting-edge human factors projects. I’m writing individual posts on many of these, so stay tuned!

Here is a teaser:

  • “How important is your HF work to the human race?”
  • “Get ready for the pat-down, males!”
  • “Too much help is a dangerous thing.”
  • “Our lack of compatibility makes me slow.”
  • “Why are you so stressed out? This is fun!”

Code Chartreuse – “Too many codes”

Enjoy memorizing this hospital sign!

How about just announcing the issue rather than matching it first with a color? For example: “Attention, tornado!” seems like it would be effective.

Elopement, by the way, means a patient with Alzheimer’s needs to be located. That makes “purple” a code within a code (and makes me want to watch Inception again). This is also one of the few I could understand wanting to disguise with a color.

“Shooter” is another candidate for obfuscation, although I imagine the shooter would quickly figure out that any announcements were about them, while hospital denizens look around and say “Huh, we’ve never heard code silver before. Sounds like something to do with Alzheimer’s.”

Photo credit Jason Boyles.

The Zero-Fatality Car

I ran across this fascinating article from ComputerWorld on Volvo’s goal of creating a zero fatality car by 2020.

As I read it, a number of human factors issues jumped out at me, but the focus is almost entirely on engineering issues. This does not mean Volvo will ignore the human factor. After all, I’ve previously posted on their well-done instrument panels. However, it would be fun to read about how they are including human reactions, expectations, and limitations in this work.

The focus on engineering solutions is typical in discussions of safety. Yes, it’s preferable to design out the hazard if you can, but the article even points out that “Another challenge is that wireless signals can be unreliable in moving vehicles” and “Of course, a looming challenge for cars that rely on computers for their safety is that computers are not 100% reliable,” which they would address by “warn(ing) the driver if it’s not working properly.” Sounds like some research on trusting automation might be helpful!

My favorite quote was “No amount of vehicle-to-vehicle communication will help when drivers make monumental mistakes, such as driving into a tree.” Since people do not often choose to drive into trees I think it would be useful to understand why they might make such a “monumental” mistake. Perhaps swerving to avoid a child in the road? Would the system disallow such a swerve to keep the driver safe, keeping the car on the original path?

We, the drivers, will still have to interact with our zero-fatality car to keep fatalities at zero and I hope we will be heavily included in this work beyond our heights, weights, and how much impact it takes to fracture our skulls.

Photo credit sidkid under a creative commons license.