Category Archives: academia

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!

Revisiting an academic’s use of the iPad

With the introduction of “the new iPad” (i.e., iPad 3) I thought it would be a good time to update one of the most popular posts on this blog. That post was about incorporating an iPad into my daily work and play routine. It was written when the iPad was first introduced in 2010 and was mostly an exploration of some initial impressions and app suggestions from the perspective of an academic (non-student, higher education).

Based on the incredible popularity of that and the updated post it’s clear that many academics would like to incorporate the iPad into their workflow. My work is probably very similar to a generic office worker: lots of reading (mostly scanned journal article PDFs, writing, light note-taking, presentations, & data analysis.

In the years since I got first got the iPad, I’ve slowly learned what tasks can best be accomplished with the iPad and which should be left to the computer. I’ve also downloaded and deleted a large variety of apps whittling down until I find one (or three) that works best.

I’ve also since moved on to the iPad 2. It was a nice upgrade because it was dramatically thinner and lighter than the original iPad which made holding it more comfortable. The increased speed also made reading the scanned PDFs more pleasant. This is why I can’t wait for the iPad 3: more speed and higher resolution screen will significantly affect my most frequent tasks (see below).

This post is organized around my common work tasks and the apps I use most frequently. I don’t discuss the built in mail program, calendar, or web browser (which are heavily used).

Reading PDFs

Most of my library of thousands of PDFs are scanned journal articles. A smaller but growing portion of the newer articles are non-scanned PDFs that were created by the publisher. The difference is that the scanned PDFs are usually bigger and slightly fuzzier.

My original suggested app was iAnnotate mainly because of its ability to directly annotate PDFs with notes and scribbles. But I kept Goodreader for just plain reading because it seemed faster and more intuitive. Fortunately, Goodreader has kept improving and it’s now my most-used PDF application. The best feature is integration with Dropbox; so I only have to point it to a folder to download a semester’s worth of PDFs.

As good as Goodreader is, there are times when I need to move between PDF pages quickly and would like an alternative to page flipping. In that case I use PDF Expert since it has a nice birds-eye view of 9 pages but it just seems slower in page rendering.

Light Note-taking

I still use the iPad for light note-taking in meetings or by myself. I find it sufficient for most of my needs especially if you add a few accessories. In my previous post, I mentioned Evernote. I don’t really actively use Evernote much anymore. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet but it’s just not the right app/service for me. I notice that I tend to just dump things into it that I think i’ll need later but end up not needing.

Instead, I use a few note taking tools; none of which are preferred yet. The software keyboard is still sufficient for 80% of my needs. I’m able to type relatively fast and error free. For typewritten notes, I’ll use the built-in Notes application (which syncs to cloud services).

Simple, clean, and free!

When I’m traveling light (and I always am) but I know i’ll need to type out some e-mails or do some other writing, a great hardware accessory is the low-cost Amazon Bluetooth keyboard. It’s only about $35 (half the price of the metal Apple-branded accessory keyboard) and has a relatively nice feel for such a small keyboard. The great thing is that I only take it when I REALLY want a hardware keyboard which is not all the time.

Very thin, very light, about the same height as the iPad. It's slightly smaller than Apple's bluetooth keyboard.

On the rare occasion that I need to capture handwriting I don’t have a favorite app; instead there are 2 or 3 that each have something the others do not. As an aside, some people think they want hand writing but I’m not one of them. My handwriting is horribly mangled and unreadable unless I concentrate. Plus, handwritten notes are not usually text-searchable.

First, my usual app is called Notes Plus. It recently underwent a major upgrade with some pretty amazing features like split-screen viewing of a web page while you take notes and audio recording:

But I really hate the silver/metal look. I sometimes alternate and use Ghostwriter for handwritten notes or if I need to make a drawing:
Ghostwriter; zoom mode to write more precise text. The shaded zoom window moves automatically.

Both of these applications export their notes into Evernote, Dropbox, or plain PDFs. When I am handwriting (again, which is probably less than 5% of the time) I use a cheap stylus from Amazon.


Finally, I’ve been editing presentations more on the iPad since switching to the Keynote presentation app on my desktop. When I need to organize my lectures or work on a presentation, the Keynote iPad app is surprisingly powerful but easy to use. I’m amazed that so much functionality could be built into a touch-only app:

I still use my laptop to actually give the presentation because I like to view the upcoming slide and the iPad currently just mirrors the current slide. I also use in-class clickers which require a laptop.

Other Useful Utilities

Finally, there are a few add-ons or apps that I find useful. The first is Wikipanion (yes, it’s OK to use Wikipedia). Wikipanion is a nice app front end to Wikipedia:

Wikipanion view of Wikipedia

The second, Offline Pages, is an app that allows you to download full web pages or websites for off-line viewing (e.g., on a plane).

Finally, there are times when you want to send a link or snippet of text from your desktop computer to your iPad. A useful app/service is Prowl. When you sign up for and then install the Prowl app and browser extension, you can send links directly from your browser to your iPad.

Another bonus is that once you sign up for the Prowl service and install an app on your desktop computer, you can also send text snippets from anywhere on your computer (e.g., a telephone number, address, paragraph of text) to your iPad.

What I Don’t/Can’t Do

Data analysis/Programming

Based on the number of hits the iPad posts have received from the following search term: “SPSS and iPad” there seems to be a bit of a demand…are you listening IBM?

To be honest, I don’t know if I want to be analyzing data on the iPad anyway. However, most data analysis is pointing and clicking so knows; who maybe some creative developer will create a data analysis application perfectly suited to a touch only interface.

I do a fair amount of programming and it would just be unbearable to do that on an iPad.

Intuitive Interfaces for Software Developers

Here is a link to some neat new research being done by my colleagues at NCSU.  It’s about the development of a tool that instantly changes the look of software code as it’s being developed, allowing for different ways to investigate bugs and features, but without changing the code in any way that might introduce errors. Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill developed the interface for this “refactoring” of code and published on it this past semester.

From the article:

Making Refactoring Tools More Attractive For Programmers

“The researchers designed the marking menus so that the refactoring tools are laid out in a way that makes sense to programmers. For example, tools that have opposite functions appear opposite each other in the marking menu. And tools that have similar functions in different contexts will appear in the same place on their respective marking menus.

Early testing shows that programmers were able to grasp the marking menu process quickly, and the layout of the tools within the menus was intuitive.”


Humans and Automation on the Colbert Report

Look! A human factors colleague on the Colbert Report! Does this mean we’re cool?

Dr. Missy Cummings, Associate Professor at MIT
Director of the Humans and Automation Lab

Website Usability Success Story – Bethel University

The Chronicle of Higher Education has posted a great “interactive graphic” about Bethel’s re-design of their admissions page. It includes their metrics of success, an important but often difficult to quantify validation of usability.

Special problems they faced:

  • A large number of specialized programs with different application methods
  • Including financial aid information appropriately and early in the process
  • Managing multiple accounts within a single system
  • Tracking time to complete and number of students who started an application but did not complete it

Hopefully such attention to usable university sites will become more common and this cartoon will no longer be funny.


Profiles in Human Factors: Dr. Elizabeth Blickensderfer, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

This post is from our series of human factors career profiles. Check them all out if you’re curious about what kinds of careers you can have in this field!

Dr. Elizabeth Blickensderfer received her Ph.D. in Human Factors & Organizational Psychology the University of Central Florida and is currently an Associate Professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL.

Anne: Hi Beth, thanks for agreeing to an interview. Would you tell me a little about your job and what you like most about it?

Beth: I am an associate professor in the Human Factors and Systems department. I teach 2-3 classes each semester (undergraduate and graduate), and work on various funded and unfunded research projects. For example, I am currently working on two FAA funded projects. The first one is examining human-machine interface issues related to certifying Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to fly in U.S. airspace. The other FAA funded project is testing the efficacy of a training course which teaches pilots to better understand weather technololgy tools. Some other projects that I am involved with focus on human error in aviation maintenance and weather related issues in Helicopter Emergency Medical Service flights. I also oversee master’s theses on a variety of topics at Embry-Riddle.

One aspect that I LOVE about my job is that I am able to balance teaching with research. I love my students and interacting with them in the classroom and mentoring them as they develop their human factors/erogonomics knowledge and skills. I also love staying involved in sponsored research projects that involve interesting questions about a variety of human-machine interaction issues.

Anne: One of the commenter on our blog wanted to know why people would choose to work in academia versus industry. How did you decide on your career path and what pros and cons do you think there are for an academic job?

Beth: Again, I love teaching and my students. While most jobs involve the mentoring and coaching of junior colleagues, my position in academia allows me even more opportunities to mentor and also to instruct in the classroom. I am fortunate to be a faculty member at a teaching university that also values research. That way I am able to do both. Not all universities have the same culture, however. Another reason I enjoy academia is that I have considerable flexibility in where and when I do my work. This allows me to balance my career with having a family. A potential con to my position at my university is that I do not manage large scale research programs. That would be extremely difficult to do effectively with my teaching course load.

Anne: What kinds of jobs do your graduates, both undergrad and graduate, usually end up with when they leave your program?

Beth: Our alumni work everywhere! A few examples are the United Space Alliance, Rockwell-Collins, Symantec, Microsoft, Northrup Grumman, the FAA, NASA, various organizations within the Department of Defense, Boeing, and the list goes on.

Anne: Many universities never teach their psychology students about the field of human factors. If you had the opportunity to guest lecture to introductory psychology courses, what would you tell them about the field of human factors to get them interested?

Beth: Working in human factors and ergonomics means you get to combine many interests in one field –  you are working at the cutting edge of technology and seeing your work make a difference in the world, all while earning good money!

Anne: That’s true. We can have fun while being practical. So, who was the last speaker that you saw present and what did he or she talk about?

Beth: Yesterday I saw Ms. Anousheh Ansari, a successful engineer and entrepreneur. Ansari established the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million cash award for the first non-governmental launch of a reusable manned spacecraft twice within two weeks. In 2006, she participated in an 8 day expedition aboard the International Space Station. Ansari has published her life story in My Dream of Stars: From Daughter of Iran to Space Pioneer, a book coauthored with Homer Hickam.

Anne: Wow, that must have been fascinating! Speaking of books, what book are you currently reading?

Beth: “The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir” by Katrina Kenison. It is all about treasuring the ordinary, unremarkable moments of everyday life the most.

Anne: So true. Well, here is one last question that I already know the answer to… What are you doing on April 7, 2011?

Beth: Ha! Hosting the 2011 Student Conference on Human Factors and Applied Psychology! All students interested in human factors are welcome, even if they do not wish to present and there is no need to pre-register.

Anne: Thanks so much for your time — I hope the conference goes well!


Background Image Photo Credit: iagoarchangel