The Automobile Fuel Gauge – a ‘failed’ pictogram

Nice post over on Humans in Design on the semi-universal icon that tells you what side of the car to fill gasoline. It’s a little triangle that can go on either side of the icon, and the gas tank opens on that side of the car.

The post is called Lessons from a Failed Pictogram, and it covers the more common icon used on dashboards that is simply a picture of an old-timey gas pump with no triangle. This icon is simply an indicator that the gauge is for fuel – it doesn’t help the user know how to drive up to the pump.

The post addresses the myths that grew up about the fuel pump icon – that the pump handle indicated obtusely that the tank was on the opposing side. Of course, this would be a terrible indicator, but the take home message was that if users come up with imaginary meanings for a pictogram, designers should take notice. The users are begging for that message. From the post:

If a myth exists it’s often a search for meaning that can be used to identify a design problem, which is the first step to a solution.

Indeed, most of the pictures I found in an image search were just the pump with no indicator about the fuel tank. The one below stood out since it uses TWO icons.

On a personal note, I was almost 30 before anyone told me about the fuel indicator arrow.


Photo credit gmanviz @ Flickr

Photo credit Strupy @ Flickr

Innate number sense changes with age

New research shows that our ability to rapidly estimate the number of things in a set (an ability called subitizing) peaks around 30 and declines with age.  Researchers posted an experiment online to measure this “number sense”.

This could have implications for the design of displays that require decision making based on judgements of the number of things.  A simple example might be comparing the star ratings on products when shopping online.

The team found that scores on the test improved gradually throughout the school years, peaking around age 30, then declining. Nonetheless, there were large individual differences in scores among people of the same age. Those differences appeared to be modestly linked to school performance: Those with the best innate number sense reported the highest ability in math in school. A subgroup of nearly 500 subjects were also asked to report their math scores on the SAT. Again, a higher innate numbers sense was associated with higher SAT scores.

What’s Good About Growing Old

In our book (link to introduction), we reviewed some of the research in cognitive aging that essentially shows that aging is associated with declines in some abilities but increases in others.

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.

This very short article in the Smithsonian reviews a few new research studies that show that aging is associated with more nuanced, perhaps better, emotional decision making.  It’s nice to see mainstream coverage of cognitive aging research especially when it conveys the complexity of the aging process.

People also learn how to deal with social conflicts more effectively. For a 2010 study, researchers at the University of Michigan presented “Dear Abby” letters to 200 people and asked what advice they would give. Subjects in their 60s were better than younger ones at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions and suggesting compromises.

One of the leaders in that area of aging and social cognition was Dr. Fredda Blanchard-Fields (my undergraduate mentor).  She was a contemporary of Dr. Carstensen (cited in the article) who studied social cognition and aging in great depth.

A little “inside baseball” story:  In one of my earliest publications (in 2001 when I was an undergraduate student and before I discovered human factors), we found that contrary to stereotypes, being older did not automatically equate to having “traditional family values” (i’m greatly simplifying):

Findings provide little support for common stereotypes regarding age and gender differences in traditionalism. Instead, 3 individual-differences variables predicted traditional family values: need for closure, religiosity, and verbal ability. Outcomes argue for the need to identify multiple mechanisms by which personal characteristics such as need for closure and religiosity influence traditionalism in social belief systems and argue against reliance on status variables such as age and gender as explanatory variables for these beliefs.

Blanchard-Fields, F., Hertzog, C., Stein, R., and Pak, R. (2001). Beyond stereotyped predictors of traditional family values. Psychology and Aging, 16(3), 483-496.

Right before the paper went to press, we were girding ourselves for a backlash from more conservative elements of the media.  Thankfully, there wasn’t a peep!

Pilots forget to lower landing gear after cell phone distraction

This is back from May, but it’s worth noting. A news story chock-full of the little events that can add up to disaster!

From the article:

Confused Jetstar pilots forgot to lower the wheels and had to abort a landing in Singapore just 150 metres above the ground, after the captain became distracted by his mobile phone, an investigation has found.

Major points:

  • Pilot forgets to turn off cell phone and receives distracting messages prior to landing.
  • Co-pilot is fatigued.
  •  They do not communicate with each other before taking action.
  •  Another distracting error occurred involving the flap settings on the wings.
  • They do not use the landing checklist.

I was most surprised by that last point – I didn’t know that was optional! Any pilots out there want to weigh in on how frequently checklists are skipped entirely?



Photo credit slasher-fun @ Flickr

Human Factors discussed on the “Big Picture Science” podcast

First off, I highly recommend the Big Picture Science podcast. It’s right up there with RadioLab. I’m sure my friends and family are getting tired of me starting conversations with “So I learned today…”

That said, I was listening to “Humans Need Not Apply” on the way to work yesterday, a discussion of the jobs and traits that machines can perform instead of a human. Basically, an overview of the future of function allocation.

Right in the middle of the podcast was an interview with Kathy Abbott, Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor for Flight Deck Human Factors at the FAA. (They even said “human factors” several times during the interview.)

One of the interesting points Dr. Abbott raised was that function allocation is not just a question of function and capability – it is a social question. The host asked her whether airplanes would eventually be flown without a human pilot and her answer was that even if the machine were capable, human passengers would likely not accept a plane without a pilot in the cockpit.

If you’re impatient, the interview with Dr. Abbott begins at 27:32.



Photo credit U.S. Army @ Flickr