Category Archives: cognition/memory

Win a copy of Designing Displays for Older Adults

Look what came in the mail! To help celebrate the publication of our book Designing Displays for Older Adults, we are giving away two copies (retail value $69.95 each) to two randomly chosen twitter followers.   If you already follow @hfblog, you’re entered!  If you would like to enter, just follow @hfblog using your twitter account–no purchase necessary.  We’ll announce the winners January 17th, 2011.  Good luck!

Blogging APA Division 21: “One Thing at a Time” (but over a really long time)

I held off for a while writing this post because I wanted to make sure I could include media Dr. John Senders included in his talk. I think you’ll agree it was worth the wait!

At the 2010 APA convention, John W. Senders, Ph.D. presented “One Thing at a Time: From Eye Fixations (1951), to Sampling (1954), to Information Theory (1955), to Workload (1959), to Queuing Theory (1964), to Attentional Demand (1966), Followed by a Lapse of 40 Years.” Video of the talk will eventually be posted on the Division 21 website.

Dr. Senders mentioned an eye tracking experiment from the 1950s, before any “eye trackers” existed. The method was to film the eyes of pilots as they scanned each instrument in a cockpit according to instruction. The position of the pilots eyes were coded in the close-up video. For example, a pilot might be told to “look at the altimeter,” and then the exact position of the pilot’s eyes was coded as “looking at altimeter.” Then, when the pilots were using their instruments naturally, a video of this use could be coded by eye position to know exactly when and where they were looking at any moment.

In another ingenious methodological development, Senders created a vision sampling device. The video below illustrates how it worked – a mechanical visor rose and fell in front of the driver’s eyes.

Dr. Senders came up with this idea of sampling while driving through a heavy rainstorm at different speeds, while the speed of the windshield wipers stayed the same. The visor in the video does the same — the rate of viewing can be controlled and the attentional demands of the driving task measured.

For more information, see the CogWorks website.

I’ve already covered these techniques in my classes as they are great demonstrations of creativity in research methods. If one has a well defined purpose and goal, a tool can often be created from surprising materials. Another example I often cite is the actual picture of Thorndike’s puzzle box — a splintered and rickety contraption that bears little resemblance to the finely drawn illustrations in intro psychology textbooks.

Blogging APA Division 21: You’re Looking Harmless Today

I‘m on a plane writing this post and I look harmless, or at least not threatening.

According to work presented by Poornima Madhavan from Old Dominion University, being a female in the screening line means I am less likely to be hassled by a false alarm of a screener seeing a threat in my bag.*

In work done with her graduate student Jeremy Brown, Dr. Madhavan found that participants in their studies consistently reported more false alarms (detecting a threat that was not there) when the passenger was male. Both genders showed this bias.

Because this bias affects a perceptual task (detecting a knife in a baggage x-ray) it is called a “Social Cognitive Bias.”

This project is a wonderful example of an applied experiment that gives us information on the effects social and cultural structures can have on cognitive ability.

Photo credit Wayan Vota under a Creative Commons license.

*No matter what gender you are, carrying climbing gear guarantees a search!

Designing Displays for Older Adults: Chapter 1 (excerpt)

Below is the preface and excerpt of Chapter 1 from our forthcoming book.  The book is available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.  Until January 31, 2011, you can get 20% off the cover price when you purchase directly from CRC Press using this link and this code: 810DE.


Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398

This book is focused on the design of displays for the older user.  Why does this topic deserve a book?  Aging leads to a complex set of changes both mentally and physically that can affect technology acceptance, adoption, interaction, safety, and satisfaction.  Design with an understanding of these changes will result in better products and systems for users in all stages of the lifespan.  Conventional wisdom (possibly informed by personal experience) is that getting older leads to a decline across a broad set of skills and abilities; however, the reality is that as some capabilities decline with age others remain stable or increase.  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.

As human factors professionals, we have often been frustrated at how little research makes it to practice.  This is why the target audience for this book is a usability engineer, or user interface/user experience designer who is tasked with creating an interface that might be used by older adults.  Literally hundreds of papers have been written about interface issues experienced by older adults, but how many actually influence the designs older adults use? We believe the challenge comes in part from the sheer number of articles available.  Design and usability evaluation are fast-paced activities with little time allowed for literature review.  Many professionals do not have the time to sift through thousands of papers to determine: a) which are related to the question at hand and b) whether the design or study has merit.  Another reason may be that academic papers typically target other academics and may not stress the application or design implications of their findings.  Finally, another barrier to knowledge transfer may be that academic publishing moves slower than the design and usability industry.  The time it takes for journal articles to reach the audience, from submission time, can be months to years.  As such authors may be loathe to nail down concrete design guidelines opting for the conceptual and general (but often vague and hard to implement) because their research may be published a year in the future.  This book distills decades of published aging research most relevant to the design of displays.

We believe this book offers a benefit beyond individual research studies.  The first half of the book is a primer of age-related changes in cognition, perception, and behavior.  Theory can be used to organize examples from the literature into meaningful principles that improve understanding.  Using theory backed up by evidence provides an understanding of why we see certain problems with many displays and often predicts solutions.  This understanding surpasses an individual interface and provides the practitioner with ways to plan for older users on multiple display types.  We then apply these theories in real design exercises.  In all chapters we provide specific guidelines for display examples to bridge theory and practice.

1.  ­­Introduction

Age is simply an indicator of how long one has lived, but is not a complete indicator of a specific individual’s capabilities and limitations.  One can easily imagine how a physically fit 55 year old tri-athlete could out-perform a 34 year old in a marathon, personified by Cliff Young, the sixty-one year old winner of the 1983 Sydney ultra-marathon (544 miles).  Similarly, with respect to cognitive capacity, there is wide variety in capabilities and limitations that are linked with age.  Thus the definition of “old” and “older” can be a tricky issue.  The issue is further complicated by the sheer variability in any given ability as we get older.  Generally, for younger and middle age groups, capabilities vary but this variability widens as people get older: the older adult age group (defined as those aged 65 and over) are more different from each other than people in other age groups differ from persons in their own age group.

One way to think about the older user is via their familiarity with current technologies and interface conventions.  Jakob Nielsen reported that “Between the ages of 25 and 60, the time users need to complete website tasks increases by 0.8% per year.” But does this time increase come from a rapidly changing technology or declines in the human body? Both culture and the physical aging process play a role.  Such dual causes for the same symptom exemplify why designs should be carefully analyzed as to the difficulties they produce.  It is important to know how much of a role the display plays in increased time to complete tasks versus slowed completion times due to the user’s inexperience with that type of task or any number of other variables.

Another way to think about the older user is by the appearance of perceptual and cognitive changes that we usually associate with aging.  This may include far-sightedness, the need for bifocals or reading glasses, hearing aids, and an increased reliance on notes rather than memory for everyday tasks.  An understanding of these changes and the effects they can have on display use is critical, because these changes often interact with each other.  Thus, understanding a single age-related change, such as vision, can lead to designs that adversely affect other senses and cognitions such as the high working memory requirements of audio displays or creating the need to scroll larger text, which can require precise movement.

1.1 What Do Older Adults Want from Technology?  What Do They do with Technology?

Across a wide range of everyday activities users encounter electronic technology.  Technology, for the purposes of this book, is broadly defined as any tool or artifact that helps the user accomplish a task, limited to electronic displays for the purposes of this book.  Even with this limitation, consider how ubiquitous technology is for most people.  Table 1.1 shows everyday technologies located in typical environments.

Many of these technologies are either specifically for or related to communication with others.  Mobile communication occurs commonly with all age groups, though use of mobile communication technologies can vary by age (Table 1.2).  Those over age sixty-five are less active users of the full range of advanced mobile services, but they are enthusiastic users of mobile voice communications, especially in emergency situations (Table 1.3).  The need to communicate is enabled through cell phone use and thus the product has been adopted by older adults.  Indeed, this adoption occurred in spite of the fact that many cell phones are not well designed for older users.  These design problems can partly explain the lower use in older age groups compared to younger.  When a user group is excluded from these everyday technologies by designs that do not accommodate them, both the quality of life of those users and the market share of the product companies can suffer.

Similar to cell phones, use of the internet as a tool beyond information seeking is becoming more common among older adults.  According to a 2006 Pew survey, 41% of internet users are over age sixty-five.  Online banking is a popular activity and 43% of internet users engage in some form of online banking.  However, only 27% of users aged sixty-five or older regularly banked online.  This is a fairly typical finding when relating age and technology use, but there are many potential reasons as to why.  These reasons range from usability issues with the interface to unease in accessing financial information over the web (mistrust).  These are two different reasons for avoiding online banking and one would take different paths to overcome them.  The lesson from investigating reasons for non-adoption of a technology is that it is important not to conclude that older adults avoid technology for any stereotypical reason, as avoidance is often affected by context, needs, and experience levels.  Understanding the barriers to the adoption of potentially useful services and products is crucial to overcoming the problems and increasing adoption.  Stereotypes of older users should be avoided in favor of evidence-based analyses.

1.2 Stereotypes of Older Users

A common stereotype of older adults is that they do not and will not use technology.  If this were true, there would be no need for this book: all displays and interfaces would be translated to disinterested older adults by their children and grandchildren.  However, this stereotype could not be farther from the truth.  Adults over sixty-five want to keep up with technology and take advantage of what a technological world has to offer.  About half of persons aged sixty-five to seventy-four are cell phone subscribers, and a third over seventy-five pay for service.  The Center for the Digital Future found that in 2009, 40% of persons over sixty-five in the United States were internet users.  Participants in our research studies frequently mention that understanding new technologies makes them feel connected to others and the world in general.

Use of the internet is one microcosm of older adults’ perception of technology.  Though the statistic of 40% using the internet seems impressive, it is paltry when compared to the nearly 100% of younger users who take advantage of the web on a daily basis.  A common stereotype of older users is that they are unable to learn to use complicated technological systems.  However, when older adults reject technology it tends to be due to not perceiving a benefit of the technology, not necessarily because it is too difficult or time consuming to learn.  The end result may be the same, fewer older adults use new technologies, but the reason is important.  When older adults perceive a benefit, they are willing to invest the time to learn.  However an unusable interface is more likely to tilt the scale in favor of “not worth it.”

Email provides another useful example to illustrate these points.  Email is form of communication, both business and personal.  Imagine someone having only this knowledge about email.  Would one understand that email allows instant communication? Would one know that they could send and receive pictures of the people they care about the very day the pictures were taken? Would they know that email is free?  Would they understand the asynchronous nature of email; that the person they are communicating with did not have to be available at the instant the email was sent, but that the message would be there waiting for the recipient(s), or even that the same message could be sent to more than one person at the same time?  If potential users do not know these things there is no reason to prefer email over a letter or a phone call.  It should not be assumed that “everyone” understands these benefits of email and if a person does not know of these benefits there is little reason to adopt the technology.


This book is part of the Human Factors & Aging Series. The first volume in the series is Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches by Fisk, Rogers, Charness, Czaja, and Sharit and is available now. Forthcoming titles are: Aging and Skill Acquisition: Designing Training Programs for Older Adults (Czaja & Sharit) and Designing Telehealth for an Aging Population (Charness, Demiris, & Krupinski).

Blogging APA Division 21: “Who are we?” (how did we get here, and who do we want to be?)

According to Peter Hancock, we are our tools.  His 2010 presidential address “Mind, Machine, and Morality,” was as entertaining and wide-ranging as is typical of a Dr. Hancock talk. Two of his philosophical takes on our field are well suited to discussion, and I present them to invite comment.

Part I: Self-symbiosis – Uniquely human?

Self-symbiosis refers to our propensity to create artifacts that change (create) our future selves. Hancock’s diagram was similar to the one below, with the addition of the passage of time.

In self-symbiosis, we create tools that change our behavior, our options, and the course of evolution is affected. I found this idea interesting because I could see how it might generalize from long-term evolutionary change to individual change within a lifetime.

In the macro, the tools and opportunities of one generation slowly change the upbrining, opportunities for new tools, and even the brains of generations far, far, far in the future.

In the micro, we create tools that directly affect our own lives. We create sports and physical play, weight machines, and other physical activities that change our bodies, the length of our lives, and even our ability to think and reason (linked to blood flow in the brain.) My own interests are in studying (and eventually creating) artifacts that act similarly through “mental exercise,” specifically games. So, in the micro view we are still creating things that change us, allowing us to develop new things. Then these new things can also change us within our lifetimes.

Hancock referred to this control over our selves as a compromise between the chance changes that result in evolution and the idea that we were “designed.”  In some small way we might design ourselves through our tools and artifacts.

Part II: Morality in Human Factors Work

Hancock gave a call to action for our profession to work on the problems and discoveries that matter most to the human race. He gave as an example a well-designed ergonomic nose hair trimmer, followed by a noodle-cooler chopstick appendix. ‘Are we an ‘appliance science?’ he asked. “Do we want to give device advice?” Granted, these two examples are inarguably unnecessary to our ultimate survival and success as a species, but what about more ambiguous work such as well designed retail websites?*

Hancock concluded with a challenge to those in the human factors field: “We need a philosophy, not a profession. We need a moral compass,” for where to go in the future. What do you think?

William Blake photo credit  reproduced Naccarato under a Creative Commons license.

“Noodle cooler” photo credit bhikku under a Creative Commons license.

*Personally, bad websites might be taking years off my life, due to blood pressure, so their design is very important to me. 🙂

Code Chartreuse – “Too many codes”

Enjoy memorizing this hospital sign!

How about just announcing the issue rather than matching it first with a color? For example: “Attention, tornado!” seems like it would be effective.

Elopement, by the way, means a patient with Alzheimer’s needs to be located. That makes “purple” a code within a code (and makes me want to watch Inception again). This is also one of the few I could understand wanting to disguise with a color.

“Shooter” is another candidate for obfuscation, although I imagine the shooter would quickly figure out that any announcements were about them, while hospital denizens look around and say “Huh, we’ve never heard code silver before. Sounds like something to do with Alzheimer’s.”

Photo credit Jason Boyles.

Soft Keyboard: Smart Idea or Incredibly Frustrating?

ThickButtons is a replacement soft-keyboard for Android phones that works in a very unique way. It uses the predictive word functionality available in many soft keyboards (where it can predict what word you are likely to be typing based on what you’ve typed) but takes that one step further by enlarging the next letter on the keyboard. Take a look:

This seems very ingenious but the constantly changing key sizes could be frustrating because it interferes with our ability to use consistent elements of the environment in learning. When the mappings between stimulus (key size, location) and response remain fixed (as in a hardware or soft-keyboard), it is much easier for us to learn and automatize.  This is one of the seminal findings of cognitive psychology/human factors research.  In training, reaching automaticity means reaching the state where very little attention is required–in this case, attention to where the button is located on the keyboard.  That is how, with extensive practice, some people can become extremely quick soft keyboard typists.

Consistently mapped situations, where the keys remain in the same position, in the same size, encourage automaticity (more or less) while variably-mapped situations discourage automaticity (performance is “controlled”).  When automaticity is reached, performance feels effortless and automatic (think of tying your shoe).  However, in VM situations, performance never reaches automaticity and always feels very effortful.

I wonder if the purported benefits of this configuration outweigh the possible variably-mapped fiasco…it’s an empirical question!  (i.e., someone should do a study).

For more on the CM/VM and automatic/controlled processing in attention, please see this Google Scholar link to just some of the relevant papers.  Note that some of them are quite technical and may require a background in cognitive psychology.

[via Lifehacker]

Visual Search and Airport Security Screening

Funny I should have mentioned conjunction search the other day, since this post is all about new research by Jeremy Wolfe who has and continues to contribute to the visual search literature.

In this new work, already mentioned on i09, Wolfe and his former research assistant Michael van Wert investigated complex visual search as it applies to baggage scanning at airport security. When the target being searched for (i.e., weapons) does not appear frequently, detection rates go way down. Even if it is detected, people have a hard time inhibiting the motor response of saying “no, I didn’t see anything.”¹

Of course, human difficulties in searching for rare events is nothing new. The big contribution of this work was to determine that we go through two decision criteria when searching and each affects our response time and our accuracy.

¹I’m liberally translating; these aren’t the specifics of the study method.

The primary sources mentioned in this post can be found:

Wolfe, J. M, & van Wert, M. J. (2010). Varying target prevalence reveals two dissociable decision criteria in visual search, Current Biology, 20(2), 121-124

Another good article with implications for the TSA:

Warm, J. S., Parasuraman, R., & Matthews, G. (2008). Vigilance Requires Hard Mental Work and Is Stressful. Human Factors, 50, 433-441.

3D is better than 2D, right?

It seems that every few years, 3D technology is in the zeitgeist (with 3d movies).  User interfaces are not immune to the frenzy of 3D.  However, there is quite a bit of past research in 3D interfaces (I won’t even scratch the surface but see this simple Google Scholar search to start). Much, but not all, relate to navigation in virtual environments, while other research relates to the inclusion of use of depth/perspective.  There are still many outstanding issues in the use of 3d in user interfaces; some of which are: use/interaction (input, output), effects on workload, and effects on learning.

In general, 3-dimensional displays (like a perspective view) are perceived to be more natural and possibly require less mental integration than 2-dimensional displays (see this very well-researched U.S./FAA report on multifunction displays; warning PDF).  Some of the logic goes like this:  when I view a 2d map, I usually turn it into a 3d representation in my head.  Showing a 3d representation removes this step (in addition to showing more information).  Compare the two types of information displays:

2d and 3d representations of a hiking trail
2d and 3d representations of a hiking trail

These images come from a user study examining user preferences in map presentation (2d or 3d). The research showed that it depends.  The preference data was very complex (see paper) but the preferences were evenly split but those aged 26-40 preferred 3d maps. Males preferred 2d maps while females preferred 3d maps (which seems surprising).

Personally, I switch between 2d and 3d view when I can because each offers information the other does not. I like to examine hikes after the fact (collecting and mapping GPS data). See below; each view gives you different information:

Left: 2d, top-down view. Right: 3d, perspective view

The 2d view gives a good general overview and the intricacies of the trail but shows no elevation information while the 3d view shows terrain but obscures the path (part of it is hidden behind the terrain).

More subtle uses of 3D on websites is the use of the parallax for the illusion of depth. This website showcases some creative uses of this effect. Most websites use it for aesthetic effect, however, I noticed the new Google Nexus One phone uses it in a subtle but useful way to indicate that you are on a different screen (a type of low-level feedback). See the video below. When the user slides to another screen horizontally, the animation of the galaxy changes perspective:

Notice the slight perspective shift of the galaxy background
Notice the slight perspective shift of the galaxy background after the user swiped the screen

Embedded video (skip to 61 seconds in):

In some cases, when used appropriately, learning can be enhanced by the use of 3d.  Researchers Avi Parush and Dafna Berman (in a 2004 paper in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies) were interested in the use of 3D interfaces for navigation and orientation in a virtual environment.  The virtual environment contained the objects that one would normally have on their computer desktop (e.g., files, applications).  Will the use of a 3d environment enhance learning and performance?  They manipulated whether subjects had two kinds of aids to help: landmarks or a route list.  They found that both types of aids help in the learning process but a crucial point was that landmark placement (in either 2d or 3d) was critical.

Example of the 3d condition (left, no landmarks; right, landmarks). From Parush & Berman (2004)

One commercially available tool that gives users this kind of view of their computer is the BumpTop desktop:

BumpTop Desktop

The BumpTop desktop introduces the further complication (on top of 3d) of the nature of interaction.  You are using a 2d surface (the touch pad or mouse) to navigate the 3d environment and in some cases using multi-touch gestures (using more than 1 finger).  Very cool…but useful?  See for yourself:

(post image:

Human Factors and Healthcare: The older patient & nurse

I‘ve recently published two papers on the topic of human factors and healthcare. Each paper covers a different “stakeholder”: the older patient and the nurse.  The first paper is available for free but the second paper (a collaboration with my architect colleague Dina Battisto) is available at your local library (or you can request a PDF reprint from me).

Pak, R., Price, M. M., & Thatcher, J. (2009). Age-sensitive design of online health information. Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Older adults’ health maintenance may be enhanced by having access to online health information. However, usability issues may prevent older adults from easily accessing such information. Prior research has shown that aging is associated with a unique pattern of cognitive changes, and knowledge of these changes may be used in the design of health websites for older adults. Objective: The goal of the current study was to examine whether older adults use of a health information website was affected by an alternative information architecture and access interface (hierarchical versus tag-based). Methods: Fifty younger adults (aged 18-23) and 50 older adults (aged 60-80) navigated a health information website, which was organized hierarchically or used tags/keywords, to find answers to health-related questions while their performance was tracked. We hypothesized that older adults would perform better in the tag-based health information website because it placed greater demands on abilities that remain intact with aging (verbal ability and vocabulary). Results: The pattern of age-related differences in computer use was consistent with prior research with older adults. We found that older adults had been using computers for less time (F1,98= 10.6, P= .002) and used them less often (F1,98= 11.3, P= .001) than younger adults. Also consistent with the cognitive aging literature, younger adults had greater spatial visualization and orientation abilities (F1,98= 34.6, P< .001 and F1,98= 6.8, P= .01) and a larger memory span (F1,98= 5.7, P= .02) than older adults, but older adults had greater vocabulary (F1,98= 11.4, P= .001). Older adults also took significantly more medications than younger adults (F1,98= 57.7, P< .001). In the information search task, older adults performed worse than younger adults (F1,96= 18.0, P< .001). However, there was a significant age × condition interaction indicating that while younger adults outperformed older adults in the hierarchical condition (F1,96= 25.2, P< .001), there were no significant age-related differences in the tag-based condition, indicating that older adults performed as well as younger adults in this condition. Conclusions: Access to online health information is increasing in popularity and can lead to a more informed health consumer. However, usability barriers may differentially affect older adults. The results of the current study suggest that the design of health information websites that take into account age-related changes in cognition can enhance older adults’ access to such information.

Battisto, D. B., Pak, R., Vander Wood, M. A., & Pilcher, J. J. (2009). Employing a task analysis to describe nursing work in acute care patient environments. Journal of Nursing Administration, 39(12), 537-547.

To improve the healthcare environment where nurses work and patients receive care, it is necessary to understand the elements that define the healthcare environment. Primary elements include (a) the occupants of the room and what knowledge, skills, and abilities they bring to the situation; (b) what tasks the occupants will be doing in the room; and (c) the characteristics of the built environment. To better understand these components, a task analysis from human factor research was conducted to study nurses as they cared for hospitalized patients. Multiple methods, including a review of nursing textbooks, observations, and interviews, were used to describe nurses’ capabilities, nursing activities, and the environmental problems with current patient room models. Findings from this initial study are being used to inform the design and evaluation of inpatient room prototype and to generate future research in improving clinical environments to support nursing productivity.

The picture at the top of this post is the room prototype referenced in the abstract above.  Further details on its design and evaluation will be covered in another forthcoming paper.