Category Archives: cognition/memory

“Smart” devices may help dementia sufferers remember to shut off stove, live at home longer

From Peter Squire (of The Daily Human Factor) another interesting story on using technology to support aging in place:

smarthome“The whole objective is to enable people to stay at home as long as they can,” says Bruce Carey-Smith, a BIME design engineer. The system reports the wealth of information it collects—from potential problems to successful interventions—to health care providers. “It’s about supporting—not about replacing—the role of care staff,” Carey-Smith says.

He says the system has been installed in the assisted-living residences of two U.K. dementia patients about a year ago—and both trials report good results.

In addition to reminding people to switch off potentially dangerous appliances (and actually shutting them off and contacting help if need be), the system is designed to help people avoid other hazards, such as nighttime wandering and incontinence issues. The system, for instance, senses when someone gets out of bed in the middle of the night and automatically turns on the bathroom light to help them find their way. Or, if the bed senses a prolonged nocturnal absence, the system will play voice recordings that gently remind people that, “it’s awfully late, perhaps you should be getting back to bed,” says Carey-Smith.

[Scientific American]

Personalized User Interfaces

Researchers at the University of Washington have created a system that can tailor a user interface to the motor and visual abilities of the user.  After a short assessment, the system presents a user interface with presets for the user based on the assessment.  I remember reading about adaptive interfaces quite a long time ago.  Could something similar be built to accommodate age-related cognitive differences?  Perhaps a spatial abilities assessment could be given to change the structure of the user interface to make it easier to use?

[from Slashdot via The Future of Things]

Older adults prefer less choice than younger adults

In the recent issue of the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers Andrew Reed, Joseph Mikels, and Kosali Simon examined whether older adults would prefer having fewer options when faced with a decision-making task.  Confirming previous research, they found that across 6 domains (e.g., prescription health plans, hospitals), older adults preferred having fewer options rather than greater.

In their study, 102 older adults (ranging in age from 60-94) and 99 younger adults (ranging in age from 18-24) completed questionnaires asking about their desired number of choices in everyday decisions.

The authors surmised that older adults prefered fewer choices because of their awareness of their reduced decision-making competence (metacognitive recognition of their own limitations).

This kind of research certainly could have human factors and design implications.  However, it might be too simplistic to just suggest that we give older adults fewer options.  More research is necessary 🙂

Reed, A. E., Mikels, J. A., & Simon, K. I.  (2008).  Older adults prefer less choice than younger adults.  Psychology and Aging, 23, 671-675.

This brief report reminds me of the easy to read book, The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz.

The Paradox of Choice
The Paradox of Choice

Tag-based interfaces and Aging

I was recently interviewed by our campus news service about receiving a Google Research Award to study information retrieval and aging. The research involves designing information retrieval interfaces around the capabilities and limitations of older adults (those age 60 and above). Here is a snippet from the press release:

Richard Pak, an assistant professor of psychology, has received a $50,000 gift from Google to study how older adults navigate the Web and what Web site design features make searches easier. The grant will fund an extension of his research on aging and technology.

“The findings are that when you take a Web site and organize it hierarchically — like how you might organize your documents on your computer with folders within folders — older adults are much slower and make more errors when they are searching for information compared to younger adults,” Pak said. “We think that this is the case because the situation does not allow older adults to use their greater knowledge toward the situation. However, when you take that same Web site and organize it around keywords or concepts instead of folders, older adults are able to bring their wealth of general knowledge to the situation and perform almost equivalently to younger adults in the task.”

That is, older adults seem to perform better using so-called “tag-based sites,” which are Web sites that organize their information around frequently used keywords. Pak said that while tag-based sites are still relatively new, several popular sites use tags. These include Amazon.com, Gmail.com, and the photo sharing Web site Flickr.com.

The recently published paper, “Designing an information search interface for younger and older adults” appears in the latest issue of the journal Human Factors.

You are what you eat (And I’m about a B-)

Like many people, I use heuristics when choosing between food products. My algorithm goes something like this:

  1. What’s the lowest unit price? 25 cents per ounce vs. 40 cents per ounce?
  2. Pick up the lowest
  3. Look at the saturated fat RDI
  4. If reasonable, look at ingredients
  5. Is list too long to read in 3 seconds?
  6. If yes, pick up next cheapest item for comparison.
  7. If no, look for “partially hydrogonated” or “high fructose corn syrup”
  8. If either found, pick up next cheapest item for comparison
  9. If neither found, purchase.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone did steps 3-9 for me? Or if they considered factors I’m too lazy or uneducated enough to balance and comprehend? Well, the ONQI has stepped up to the challenge. The ONQI, or Overall Nutritional Quality Index, is coming to products near you as a single scale for all foods. As the site states, it finally allows the comparison of apples to oranges (oranges win, by the way.)
One of the things I’m most impressed with is the ONQI’s use of the entire scale. Unlike choosing wine by points (where nearly every advertised bottle is above 88 points on a 100 scale), on the ONQI soda gets a 1 while oranges get 100. Now we know that although pretzels aren’t bad for you… they certainly aren’t good for you with a rating of eleven. Eleven is a lot closer to Coca-cola than it is to oranges.

The second thing I’m impressed with is their attempt at transparency. Their conference presentations are available online. However, due to patent, the actual algorithm used is not available. We are asked to trust that experts have tested it and found it reliable. Hopefully this will change as soon as the patent expires and it may be examined by numerous independent investigators.

One thing it does not do (that the food pyramid has been trying to do for 50 years) is recommend a balanced diet. Oranges and strawberries may score 100s, but a pure diet of those won’t do much but prevent rickets. However, I like their concept of attacking the nutrition problem at a food-by-food level. If I have my meal basically planned, I can use the scale to decide between individual options.

Last, I enjoyed this bit from their website:

What about products that don’t score well? Aren’t you at risk of alienating some brands? The ONQI was developed based on sound science, independent of any food company or commodity organization bias. Since the ONQI can be applied to all foods, beverages, recipes and meals, it levels the playing field, and provides consumers with a universal tool to measure any food they wish to purchase. It can also provide a benchmark for product development and reformulation.

The failed food pyramid is a good example of how difficult it is to create a nationwide understanding of a complex topic. The ONQI does the work for the consumer; work we’re clearly not interested in doing ourselves. I’m going to be watching closely to see how the ONQI pans out in studies of purchasing behavior changes.

Human Factors Journal Celebrates 50 Years With Special Issue Highlighting Pivotal Research and Applications

The journal, Human Factors, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a retrospective of some pivotal research and areas. To celebrate, the entire issue is available online for free. Some highlights:

  • The Split Keyboard: An Ergonomics Success Story
  • The Role of Expertise Research and Human Factors in Capturing, Explaining, and Producing Superior Performance
  • Multiple Resources and Mental Workload
  • Putting the Brain to Work: Neuroergonomics Past, Present, and Future
  • Discoveries and Developments in Human-Computer Interaction
  • Aging and Human Performance

Human Factors and Ergonomics Society : Human Factors Journal Celebrates 50 Years With Special Issue Highlighting Pivotal Research and Applications

Memory Loss – Aging – Alzheimers Disease – Aging Brains Take In More Information, Studies Show – Health – New York Times

This short article nicely talks about a well known pattern of age-related cognition (that with age comes “wisdom” or knowledge).  The challenge in Human Factors is using this information in design.

“These findings are all very consistent with the context we’re building for what wisdom is,” she said. “If older people are taking in more information from a situation, and they’re then able to combine it with their comparatively greater store of general knowledge, they’re going to have a nice advantage.”

Memory Loss – Aging – Alzheimers Disease – Aging Brains Take In More Information, Studies Show – Health – New York Times

Nagging via text messages to help teens remember meds

I‘ve heard of text messages being used to remind older adults, but this is an interesting take on that…I guess it addresses the same underlying problem in both age groups: prospective memory failures.

WASHINGTON – 4gt yr meds? Getting kids to remember their medicine may be a text message away. Cincinnati doctors are experimenting with texting to tackle a big problem: Tweens and teens too often do a lousy job of controlling chronic illnesses like asthma, diabetes or kidney disease.

It’s a problem long recognized in adults, particularly for illnesses that can simmer without obvious symptoms until it’s too late. But only now are doctors realizing how tricky a time adolescence is for skipping meds, too.

Nagging via text messages to help teens remember meds – Yahoo News

Overcoming the big downside of tagging

“A tag is a (relevant) keyword or term associated with or assigned to a piece of information (a picture, a geographic map, a blog entry, a video clip etc.), thus describing the item and enabling keyword-based classification and search of information.” [Wikipedia]

Tagging is the process of assigning keywords or phrases to items. To be more concrete, many of us may have collections of bookmarks in our web browser. Tagging each bookmark with a relevant term allows them to be classified and categorized semantically, or by meaning.

But one major downside of tagging is that the user has to actually do the tagging; quite a bit of work if you have many thousands of bookmarks (or emails or photographs). Rashmi Sinha was one of the first people to start thinking about the cognitive requirements (i.e., what happens in the head) when users tag. Here is a figure from her analysis:

sep22_cognitive_tagging.gif

Her bottom line is that tagging is efficient (compared to other methods of organization) because when we are trying to think of keywords, we have lots of choices that come to mind (stage 1). However, I see this as a potential downside. It’s a heavy decision step that must be repeated for every item one needs to tag.

Several new products are on the horizon that aim to automate this very step:

The first (which is in private beta and thus unavailable) is Twine. The New York Times wrote an interesting story about Twine and how it automatically scans your documents to obtain relevant keywords.

Sarah Miller, a librarian at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, became a member of Twine’s test group in November, partly because she and her husband, Ethan, a doctoral candidate, needed a place to organize all the documents they wanted to share with each other about teaching and learning.

Ms. Miller likes Twine’s mechanized tagging abilities.

“If I save the URL of a Web page into my Twine account,” she said, “Twine will skim the page and turn it into tags automatically. It’s a way to tie together things that my husband and I find over days, and months and years.”

Twine has an option that allows people to do their own descriptive tagging, just as they might, for instance, use the Web service del.icio.us to assign labels to Web sites to help keep track of them.

“But my tagging is inefficient,” Ms. Miller said. “Personal vocabulary changes. It’s difficult to be consistent.”

A less automated solution is a new product (also in private beta) called zigtag. Zigtag relies on you entering a keyword, but afterwards will suggest additional keywords.

After entering an appropriate tag for a page, the user is presented with a list of matching keywords, each of which has been defined in Zigtag’s database. For example, after entering “Apple” into the search field, I was able to choose from “the computer company”, “the pomaceous fruit”, and “the record company”, among others. The process is painless and the integrated dictionary is fairly comprehensive. If you happen to stumble across a term that isn’t defined, you can easily request to have it added to the dictionary (and can place your own temporary tag). [Tech Crunch]

While these are nice solutions, i’ve always imagined that one side benefit of tagging was that the very effortful process of tagging could contribute to a more durable memory trace (the classic “generation effect“). Incidentally, some limited research of mine (PDF) has not borne this out. But in reality, how well do we want to really remember our bookmarks? Most of us are satisfied that it is stored somewhere and are less interested in retrieving it later unaided.

“Continuous partial attention” vs. Multi-tasking

Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert. We reach to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities, and if we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? How many emails? What’s on my list? What time is it in Beijing?

Sounds an awful lot like “vigilance” + some kind of personality trait.

[huffington post]