Category Archives: automation

Welcoming the Fireproof Elevator


NPR ran a story earlier this week on an intriguing new human factors problem: fire-safe elevators.

The fall of the World Trade Center made it painfully obvious that stairs in skyscrapers do not function adequately in emergencies. We’ve always been warned away from elevators in case of fire, and I would go so far as to say it part of our collective knowledge from a young age. With the advent of elevators you should use in a fire comes a host of difficulties.

1. Training the zeitgeist: Not all elevators will be replaced, though new tall buildings will all have fireproof elevators. There may be new rules requiring older buildings over a certain size retrofit at least one elevator as fire safe.

  • This still makes fireproof elevators the exception instead of the rule. A great research question would be how to train people for a small-percentage case? You want the public, of all ages and experience levels, to know “In case of fire, use stairs, unless there is a fireproof elevator around, which you may or may not have noticed while you were in the building.”

2. Warnings and Information: The symbol in this post is probably familiar to all of you. I’ve occasionally seen it in Spanish, but not often. How will we indicate the difference between fire-safe elevators and other elevators?

  • Decals, signs and other indicators will not only have to indicate which elevators are safe and their purpose, but whether other elevators in the building are safe or unsafe. My building is square, with elevators on mirrored sides. If one were safe and the other not, I am sure I could remember which was safe, especially under the cognitive demands of an emergency.

3. Wayfinding and luck: Use of the elevator may depend on the location of the fire.

  • One of the original problems was that elevators opened onto smoke-filled or fire-filled floors. The story did not specify how the new elevators would avoid this. If there is a sensor that prevents them from opening onto such a floor, what if there are people desperately waiting for the elevator on that floor (as they have been re-trained to do)?
  • Should the system be even more complex, with people gathering on certain floors to await the elevator rescue? And then, if those floors are on fire..

In short, researchers start your engines! We have some training, warning, design, and way-finding work to do.

‘Mind-reading’ car keeps drivers focused

A “smart” dashboard that reduces the amount of information displayed to drivers during stressful periods on the road could be available in just five years, say German engineers.

A team from the Technical University of Berlin found they could improve reaction times in real driving conditions by monitoring drivers’ brains and reducing distractions during periods of high brain activity.

They were able to speed up driver’s reactions by as much as 100 milliseconds. It might not sound much, but this is enough to reduce breaking distance by nearly 3 metres when travelling at 100 kilometres per hour, says team leader Klaus-Robert Müller.


Automation, Consumer Products, and Energy Usage

Interesting article on the use of automated decision aids on consumer devices. The researchers used a vacuum cleaner that indicated when an area needed more cleaning or not. They wanted to determine if users would use less energy if they were told that an area was clean. They found that energy consumption was not reduced. This is contrasted with some research (I can’t think of the exact citation) that showed that when users saw their household energy consumption, they tended to be more mindful about reducing their usage.

Sauer, J., & Ruttinger, B. (2007). Automation and decision support in interactive consumer products. Ergonomics, 50, 902 – 919.

Abstract. This article presents two empirical studies (n = 30, n = 48) that are concerned with different forms of automation in interactive consumer products. The goal of the studies was to evaluate the effectiveness of two types of automation: perceptual augmentation (i.e. supporting users’ information acquisition and analysis); and control integration (i.e. supporting users’ action selection and implementation). Furthermore, the effectiveness of on-product information (i.e. labels attached to product) in supporting automation design was evaluated. The findings suggested greater benefits for automation in control integration than in perceptual augmentation alone, which may be partly due to the specific requirements of consumer product usage. If employed appropriately, on-product information can be a helpful means of information conveyance. The article discusses the implications of automation design in interactive consumer products while drawing on automation models from the work environment.

Too much trust in automation…

 Wonder if he was distracted (being in a rental car) and was not able to pay attention to his surroundings while using GPS.  Not much detail in the story.

BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. – A Global Positioning System can tell a driver a lot of things — but apparently not when a train is coming. A computer consultant driving a rental car drove onto train tracks Wednesday using the instructions his GPS unit gave him. A train was barreling toward him, but he escaped in time and no one was injured.

[yahoo news]

Design out, Guard, then Warn

Check out this fascinating solution to protecting users from the blade of a table saw.

The way it works is that the saw blade registers electrical contact with human skin and immediately stops. I can’t imagine not having this safety system in place, now that it is available. However, I still have some questions that commenters might want to weigh in on:

1. Unless the system is more redundant than an airplane, it must be able to fail. How do you keep users to remain vigilant when 99.999% of the time there is no penalty for carelessness?

2. To answer my own question, is the fear of a spinning blade strong enough to do that on its own? I know I’m not going to intentionally test the SawStop.

3. Can we use natural fears such as this in other areas of automation?

4. For great insight into human decision making, read this thread on a woodworking site. What would it take to change the mind of this first post-er?

When do we as adult woodworkers take responsibility and understand the dangers of woodworking. Most accidents happen due to not paying attention to what we’re doing. If we stay focused while we’re using power tools, or even hand tools, we eliminate accidents.”

Legal Interpretations can be the Bane of Good Human Factors

Verizon wireless interpreted an accessibility requirement to require they trigger a notification when the user dials 911. Verizon chose to do this audibly… exactly what you DON’T want when you’re calling the police during an emergency!

“The tone our customer experienced is our interpretation of Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act calling for a provider of telecommunications service to offer service that is accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities. The tone, indicating that 911 has been dialed, is one of several features designed to make wireless service is accessible and easy to use, especially for those with disabilities. Other features include a voice command key where customers can use their voice to dial by name or number; a voice echo feature so that a person who can’t see can hear the number or letter if sending a text; read back text messages and speech output of signal strength, battery strength, missed calls, voicemail, roaming, time and date.”

Read the full news article here.

Perhaps there was no time for use cases or personas. “Debbie sees 4 masked men breaking into her home. Trapped, she hides in the closet and dials…. oh. Wait, guys. I think we have a problem.”