User Testing for Interplanetary Expeditions

I was listening  to the Big Picture Science podcast on my way to work this morning when I heard  a great example of how to test equipment prior to a mission. Hosts are Molly Bentley and Seth Shostak.

The interview was with Dr. Jennifer Heldmann, an astrobiologist who studies “Mars analogues” on earth – the Atacama Desert in South America and the very cold, very dry “dry valleys” in Antarctica. Her main purpose is to investigate whether (and what kinds of) microbial life can survive in these conditions, but she also tests the methods we might use to collect samples from other planets. Here is a transcript describing a usability test in  “A Martian Curiosity”:

(11:51)

Bentley: Well Jennifer, I was looking at a picture of you in a spacesuit. And you were standing in an alien land, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Mars, and it wasn’t even the moon. Where were you?

Heldmann: That could have been a number of places, I’ve worn spacesuits in a variety of places. All on Earth, I might add. Because we do a lot of work here on Earth to study and learn how to go and operate on other planets. So, for example, I would love love love to send people to Mars, so we can explore that planet, it’s really hard to do that, though. And we have to learn “how do you live on Mars?” “How do you work on Mars?” “How do you talk to people back on Earth from Mars?” And so, to answer those really important questions, we go out and we test it. We go to places on Earth that are like Mars. Mars is really really cold and Mars is really really dry, and so we go to cold and dry places.

Bentley: Can you share with us a story about what it’s like to walk around in some of these environments with a spacesuit on? Anything that surprised you?

Heldmann: Yes, there was one time out in Utah, we were at the Mars Desert Research Station, wearing a spacesuit, and we had a camera crew with us, because there was a group doing a documentary about Mars analogues and working out in Mars. So we said “sure, come with us, we’re going to do an EVA, an Extra Vehicular Activity, which means we’re going to wear our spacesuits and walk around, and get some rocks, and get some samples, great, come out with us. So we had little sample bags, and we had them in our backpacks, and we had our spacesuits on, and we get to the rock outcrop, and we pick up the rocks. And these are great, these are just what we were looking for, we’re all excited, and then we go to put the samples in the bag and we couldn’t get the bags open. Because we’re wearing these big, thick gloves.. you don’t think about this ahead of time! You just think “oh I’ll open the bag, and I’ll put the rock in. How hard is that?” It’s really hard when you have a spacesuit on.”

Bentley: What were they, like a ziplock bag or nylon mesh? Velcro? What was it?

Heldmann: Yes, it was a ziplock type of thing. You just had to pull it apart. Really simple, we do it every day in the kitchen, right? But with those big, thick gloves on we could not get our sample bags open. It was very embarrassing to have a film crew watching you for hours try to open a ziplock bag. It would have been really simple to just take the glove off and open the bag, but on Mars you can’t do that.

Bentley: And it would have been a bummer to go to Mars and find great rocks and then not put them into a bag and bring them back.

Heldmann: Exactly!

 

Then, to my delight, later in the podcast the hosts took it upon themselves to make an analogue of the equipment used in the Mars mission analogue and do a think-aloud. (18:01)

Bentley: Seth, could you put on those oven mitts that I set down in front of you, please?

Shostak: Why, are we getting some pizza out of the oven? What’s the deal?

Bentley: Ok. So you see what else I put down there, in front of you?

Shostak: Yeah, this giant ziplock bag.

Bentley: Yes, this may be the largest ziplock back I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a body bag size.

Shostak: I was almost going to say “Did you order this from ‘Mafia supply company'”? What do you want me to do with this bag?

Bentley: It’s closed, right now. Jennifer was trying to open a ziplock bag, she said, while she was in the desert, and she wasn’t able to do it for the cameras. What I want you to do is open it and describe what you’re doing. Now, you have oven mitts on .

Shostak: Well, actually it isn’t too hard to open this, if you want to know the truth, because it’s so big that even with oven mitts.. watch. (crinkle sounds) Maybe it’s not so easy. Pull it!

Bentley: C’mon, Seth! The Martian rocks are waiting for you. (struggling sounds)

Shostak: Well, those Martian rocks are safe from me because I cannot get this bag open!

Bentley: Ok, Jennifer is vindicated.

Oven mittens or something similarly cheap could be a nice lab-based pre-test for any manual equipment, before it even gets to the spacesuit test.

So.  In closing…  Human Factors isn’t rocket science.

Or is it!?!?

 

 

Photo credit veggietothemax @ Flickr

No one wants to touch the gas pump

pump

The above is from a gas pump in a large metro area. Can you guess the most common zip code number? How about what object people use to to press the keys?
But you’re probably missing my favorite part – look in the lower right. Do you see the black electrical tape? Under that tape is the START button for the gasoline. The instructions on the screen say to “press the start button to begin fueling.” As the most commonly pressed button it was the first to be destroyed, and the station attendant’s tape solution earned it a humor tag in this post. I’m also willing to bet that hiding the START button is why the “No/Cancel” button has been furiously destroyed as well.

I’ve come across some of these where the soft keypads were entirely destroyed by keys for the common zip code numbers. Once I had to leave to find another gas station, since it wouldn’t accept my card without a zip code entered and the buttons no longer worked.

Photo credit Maribeth Gandy Coleman

Prescription Smartphone Apps

I recently published a study (conducted last year) on automation trust and dependence. In that study, we pseudo-wizard-of-oz’ed a smartphone app that would help diabetics manage their condition.

We had to fake it because there was no such app and it would be to onerous to program it (and we weren’t necessarily interested in the app, just a form of advanced, non-existent automation).

Now, that app is real.  I had nothing to do with it but there are now apps that can help diabetics manage their condition.  This NYT article discusses the complex area of healthcare apps:

Smartphone apps already fill the roles of television remotes, bike speedometers and flashlights. Soon they may also act as medical devices, helping patients monitor their heart rate or manage their diabetes, and be paid for by insurance.

The idea of medically prescribed apps excites some people in the health care industry, who see them as a starting point for even more sophisticated applications that might otherwise never be built. But first, a range of issues — around vetting, paying for and monitoring the proper use of such apps — needs to be worked out.

The focus of the article is on regulatory hurdles while our focus (in the paper) was how potential patients might accept and react to advice given by a smartphone app.

(photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

The Incredible Hulking Factor

As I was watching the pilot episode of the 70s TV series “The Incredible Hulk” (thank you, Netflix), I realized the entire premise of the show depended on a poor interface (and lack of workplace communication). To set this up, Dr. Banner has recently self-administered gamma radiation to see if he can make himself stronger.

“How many units of gamma did you say you injected into yourself?”

“Three hundred thousand.”

“How do you know it was three hundred thousand?”

“I turned the calibrator up to uh, the last click. Three hundred thousand.”

“Little piece of white tape on it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well it’s like the electronic microscope that Ben modified for higher strength.”

“Are you saying that Ben modified the radiology unit in excess of three hundred thousand? But there was no marking on the tape.”

“Well, he hadn’t calibrated it yet. He was going to work on it this morning. He didn’t know how high he could get it to go.”

“(sighs) Well, how high did he get it?”

“Almost two million units.”

“I took a dose that high?”

“Probably.”

Result?

 

(I’d also like to point out that the pre-tape dial has no units on it. But if I started doing that with this TV series, I’d never stop.)

 

Everyday Automation: Auto-correct

This humorous NYT article discusses the foibles of auto-correct on computers and phones. Auto-correct, a more advanced type of the old spell checker, is a type of automation. We’ve discussed automation many times on this blog.

But auto-correct is unique in that it’s probably one of the most frequent touchpoints between humans and automation.

The article nicely covers, in lay language, many of the concepts of automation:

Out of the loop syndrome:

Who’s the boss of our fingers? Cyberspace is awash with outrage. Even if hardly anyone knows exactly how it works or where it is, Autocorrect is felt to be haunting our cellphones or watching from the cloud.

Trust:

We are collectively peeved. People blast Autocorrect for mangling their intentions. And they blast Autocorrect for failing to un-mangle them.

I try to type “geocentric” and discover that I have typed “egocentric”; is Autocorrect making a sort of cosmic joke? I want to address my tweeps (a made-up word, admittedly, but that’s what people do). No: I get “twerps.” Some pairings seem far apart in the lexicographical space. “Cuticles” becomes “citified.” “Catalogues” turns to “fatalities” and “Iditarod” to “radiator.” What is the logic?

Reliance:

One more thing to worry about: the better Autocorrect gets, the more we will come to rely on it. It’s happening already. People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic will soon forget how to spell. One by one we are outsourcing our mental functions to the global prosthetic brain.

Humorously, even anthropomorphism of automation (attributing human-like characteristics to it, even unintentially)! (my research area):

Peter Sagal, the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” complains via Twitter: “Autocorrect changed ‘Fritos’ to ‘frites.’ Autocorrect is effete. Pass it on.”

(photo credit el frijole @flickr)