Category Archives: affordances

Haikuman Factors

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the seriousness of our work and find new focus. H(aiku)man factors is the brainchild of my colleague Douglas Gillan. Each summarizes a concept in the field while following the haiku form of 5-7-5 and an emphasis on juxtoposition and inclusion of nature. Enjoy and contribute your own in the comments!

H(aik)uman Factors3

H(aik)uman Factors2

H(aik)uman Factors

H(aik)uman Factors6

H(aik)uman Factors5

H(aik)uman Factors4

All of the above are by Doug Gillan.

Other contributions:

Inattentional blindness by Allaire Welk
Unicycling clown
Challenging primary task
Did you notice it?

Affordances by Lawton Pybus
round, smooth ball is thrown
rolls, stops at the flat, wing-back
chair on which I sit

Escalation by Olga Zielinska
headache, blurred vision
do not explore Web MD
it’s not a tumor

Automatic Processing by Anne McLaughlin
end of the workday
finally get to go home
arugh, forgot groceries

Automation by Richard Pak
Siri, directions!
No wait, I’ll get it myself
Drat, I forgot how

Prospective Memory by Natalee Baldwin
I forgot the milk!
Prospective memory failed
Use a reminder

Working Memory by Will Leidheiser
copious knowledge.
how much can I remember?
many things at once.

Worst Mobile Interface Ever

I was reading articles the other day and came across a site that, as many do, reformatted for my phone. Almost all reformatted-for-mobile sites are terrible, but this one is my favorite.
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You cannot scroll through the 21 page article by moving your finger up and down, as would happen on a website. The only way to change pages is via the horizontal slider at the bottom. Good luck trying to move it so slightly it only goes forward one page! And yes, moving the slider left and right does move the page up and down.

Brilliant guard against accidents in indoor rock climbing

For those who don’t follow news of climbing accidents as closely as I do, there has been a spate of accidents associated with the automatic belay devices (autobelays) installed at climbing gyms.

These devices are handy to have around as they negate the need for a climbing partner, allowing one to exercise and train alone. The climber clips his or her harness into the device at the bottom of the wall, and it automatically retracts (like a seat belt) when you climb upward. At the top, you let go of the wall and the device lowers you slowly back to the ground. You are probably imagining that the accidents had to do with failures of the equipment – while that is not unheard of, the most recent issues have all been with climbers forgetting to clip into the system at all.

The most recent tragedy occurred this past September, where an experienced climber died after a fall in a Texas gym, and it’s been listed as so common it happens at “every gym,” though not always resulting in a fall. Here is the facebook page with members of another gym discussing a similar accident.

fb

If you talk with climbers or read accident forums you will invariably be faced with a large contingent bent on blaming the victim. I’ll grant that it is hard to imagine forgetting to clip into a safety device and climb 30 feet up a wall, but that’s because I hardly ever do it. One characteristics these accidents share is that the victims were experienced and used the auto-belays frequently.

When a procedure becomes automatic, it becomes more accurate and less effortful, but it also becomes less accessible to the conscious mind. When a step is skipped, but all other steps are unaffected, it’s especially hard to notice the skipped step in an automatic process. If caring more or working harder or “being more careful” could actually prevent this type of problem, we wouldn’t have any toddlers left in hot cars, perfectly good airplanes flown into the ground, or climbers falling because they didn’t clip into the autobelay.

That brings me to the device I saw installed at a climbing gym last night.

guardAbove: The guard in place, clipped to the wall and ready to go. Notice how it blocks the footholds of the climbs.

photo 2Above: Nikki shows how to unclip the guard before attaching to her harness.

 

photo 4Above: Clipped in and safely ready to go. Guard is on the ground and out of the way (it is ok to step on it!)

Let me tell you why I think this is brilliant.

  • It’s highly visible.
  • It functions as a guard. This adheres to the hierarchy of safety: First, try to design out the hazard. Second, guard against the hazard. Last, warn. These are in order of effectiveness. Prior to this device, I had only seen signs on the wall saying “Clip in!” (And a year ago, even those didn’t exist.) This device physically blocks the start of the climbing routes, demanding interaction before one starts climbing.
  • Using it properly does not add any additional time or mess to climbing a route. If it weren’t there, the climber would still have to unclip the autobelay from an anchor close to the ground, etc. With it there, the climber does the same thing and once done, the guard becomes a flat mat that doesn’t get in anyone’s way.

Is it perfect? No. You can also climb with a belayer on the same or nearby routes, and then it’s also blocking your way at the start of the climb. Some adaptation should be made by the route-setters at the gyms to minimize this. But overall, what a great and simple solution.

 

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

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.

Lack of human factors = more of your tax dollars at “work”

I live in Raleigh, NC. Our area code has always been a little problematic for the nationwide 911 emergency system – it is 919. But at least until now, dialing the 919 for a local call was optional. Looks like we’re finally big enough for ten digit dialing and we can expect to pay the price in our public safety system.  Check out this email from the Director of Emergency Communications, particularly the part about dispatching officers every 7.5 minutes to investigate hang-ups:

I am sure by now that you have seen or heard about some of the impact that the new 10 digit dialing requirement has made upon our 9-1-1 center. Unfortunately, we are almost three weeks downstream from this implementation, and are seeing few signs of improvement.

Neither the 9-1-1 center, the city, or the local telephone carriers are responsible for selecting area codes. They are distributed according to a national plan. “Overlays” are added when a region begins to run out of numbers in their original pool; in this case 9-1-9. Unfortunately, with the similarity between 9-1-9 and 9-1-1, our agency has seen this issue in the past, as some of our citizens have utilized 10 digit dialing for some time. The current impact on our staff – and on law enforcement – is that on our peak days we are dispatching officers to investigate hang up calls once every seven and a half minutes. Of course, this is a daily average, meaning that at peak times the impact is even more severe. Plus, we only dispatch calls that we can’t resolve another way. Many people who misdial don’t realize they have until we answer. Others hang-up, but answer when we call them back. In such cases sending an officer is not required, so the total number of calls we receive in error far exceeds those dispatched.

As Director of Emergency Communications, I am asking for your help. We have identified that a majority of such calls come from either senior citizens or business telephones. In the first case, confusion over the proper procedures seems to be the norm.  After 40 years, folks now have to dial 10 digits just to talk to their neighbor. We’ve had callers tell us they thought they had to now dial 9-1-1 before calling in our area, and others ask if they needed to dial 9-1-9 before they called 9-1-1. If you have an elderly friend, relative, or neighbor, I’d like to personally ask you to take the time to make sure they understand to carefully dial “9-1-9” when required. I believe that with some patience and understanding we can make significant inroads.

With regard to business telephones, the issue is a little more complex, and may in some cases even involve the need to dial “9” to get an outside line, followed by the unnecessary “1” before dialing the area code. Whatever the reason, it really boils down to just taking a few extra seconds to make sure of the numbers you’re dialing. Whether you work at a local business, or own one, can I please also count on you to assure that your co-workers use due care when calling? This is a very serious issue and takes resources away from dealing with actual emergencies.

So, to summarize:

  • There is a lack of understanding when to use 10-digit dialing.
  • Being “careful” is not going to fix this problem.
  • The added traditions for businesses to dial “9” to get out adds to the problem (NC State moved to a dial “7” system, presumably for this reason).
  • Those with a lifetime of 7-digit experience, and presumably the least likely to have numbers pre-programmed into a cell phone, make the most errors.

The issues here are fascinating, yet predictable. I don’t know if there is a perfect answer, since changing the long-term ill-chosen area code would be confusing (although my home town in Alabama has gone through 3 such changes in the last couple of decades – from 205 to 334 to 251!). But it is clear that we are penalized by the similarity of our numbers to a national standard for emergency calls. I applaud the tone of the email, which is not blameful – just desperate for a solution. However, I have great skepticism that advising “due care” in dialing will make any difference at all.

Older adults and Windows 8

In an earlier post we discussed how illuminating simple user testing can be. The video below is computer blogger Chris Pirrilo who put his dad in front of the new Windows 8 Preview. The dad seems to be relatively sophisticated and knows about Windows 7 but is completely flummoxed by Windows 8 new “Metro” interface.

Note that this is the reaction of just one person but we shouldn’t discount it. Plenty of users (both young and old) are not as sophisticated as you and I. I guess Anne and I (and other human factors & aging researchers) will still have lots of work!

(via Daring Fireball)

Looking down the barrel of a gun

Here is a design that requires disobedience of the fundamental rule in a sport: don’t point your gun at someone you don’t plan to shoot. Blogger Mark Shead posits it might be due to a lack of domain knowlege by the designer and extends the analogy to software design.

Mistakes in software design aren’t always as easy to spot, but often it comes down to the same thing. To design something you must have at least a basic level of domain knowledge.  That doesn’t means you have to be a world famous chef in order to write a recipe webapp, but you need to make sure you at least know the basics.

Read the full post discussing this design.