Category Archives: design

Thoughtful and Fun Interfaces in the Reykjavik City Museum

I stopped over in Iceland on the way to a conference and popped in to the Reykjavik City Museum, not knowing what I’d find. I love the idea of technology in a museum, but I’m usually disappointed. Either the concepts are bad, the technology is silly (press a button, light some text), or it just doesn’t work, beaten into submission by armies of 4-year-olds.

Not at the Settlement Exhibit in Reykjavik. There are two unique interfaces I want to cover, but I’ll start at the beginning with a more typical touchscreen that controlled a larger wall display. As you enter the museum, there are multiple stations for reading pages of the Sagas. These are the stories of their history, from the 9th to 11th centuries, and beautifully illustrated.
njals_saga_miniature
They have been scanned, so you can browse the pages (with translations) and not damage them. I didn’t have all day to spend there, but after starting some of the Sagas, I wished I had.

Further in you see the reason for the location: the excavation of the oldest known structure in Iceland, a longhouse, is in the museum! Around it are typical displays with text and audio, explaining the structure and what life was like at that time.

Then I moved into a smaller dark room with an attractive lit podium (see video below). You could touch it, and it controlled the large display on the wall. The display showed the longhouse as a 3-D virtual reconstruction. As you moved your finger around the circles on the podium, the camera rotated so you could get a good look at all parts of the longhouse. As you moved between circles, a short audio would play to introduce you to the next section. Each circle controlled the longhouse display, but the closer to the center the more “inside” the structure you can see. Fortunately, I found someone else made a better video of the interaction than I did:

The last display was simple, but took planning and thought. Near the exit was a large table display of the longhouse. It was also a touch interface, where you could put your hand on the table to activate information about how parts of the house were used. Think of the challenges: when I was there, it was surrounded by 10 people, all touching it at once. We were all looking for information in different languages. It has to be low enough for everyone to see, but not so low it’s hard to touch. Overall, they did a great job.

Be sure to do a stopover if you cross the Atlantic!

Both videos come from Alex Martire on YouTube.

Warning against overgeneralizing in UX

I enjoyed this article by Matt Gallivan, Experience Research Manager at AirBnB, about the tendency of experts to overgeneralize their knowledge. I try to watch out for it in my own life: When you’re an expert at one thing, it’s so easy to think you know more than you do about other areas.

Excerpt:

Because if you’re a UX researcher, you do yourself and your field no favors when you claim to have all of the answers. In the current digital product landscape, UX research’s real value is in helping to reduce uncertainty. And while that’s not as sexy as knowing everything about everything, there’s great value in it. In fact, it’s critical. It also has the added bonus of being honest.

Somewhat related, here is a fun page analyzing where and why AirBnB succeeds at usability.

Helmet Design and Environment Interaction

I wanted a new helmet that offered some side-impact protection to replace my trusty Petzl Ecrin Roc, especially after a helmet-less Slovenian climber mocked me in Italy for wearing “such a heavy helmet” at a sport climbing crag.

I now own the Petzl Meteor, but after one trip discovered a strange design flaw.

Most helmets clip together the way carseats or backpack buckles clip together:
clip

The Petzl Meteor helmet has a similar clip, but also contains magnets that draw the buckle together. Here is how it should work:

I was climbing at Lover’s Leap in California, a granite cliff. Those of you who know your geology might guess what happens when you combine magnets and iron-rich granite. I put the helmet on the ground while sorting gear, put it back on and heard the buckle snap together. A few minutes later, I looked down (which put some strain on the helmet strap), the buckle popped open, and the helmet fell off my head.

When I examined the buckle, there was grit stuck to the magnet.

Iron grit on magnet
Iron grit on magnet

Wiping it off seemed to work, except that it moved some of it to the sides rather than just the top. My fingers weren’t small enough to wipe it from the sides. So, the next time I snapped it shut and checked to make sure it was locked, I couldn’t get it off. The grit on the side prevented the buckle from pinching enough to release. I was finally able to get it off the sides by using part of a strap to get into the crevices.

Iron grit on sides

I made some videos of the phenomenon. It was pretty easy to do, I just had to put my helmet on the ground for a moment and pick it up again. Attached grit was guaranteed – these are strong magnets!

I am not the only person to notice this:

In one review of another helmet with a similar closure:

The only issue I had with the buckle came after wearing the Sirocco while bolting and cleaning a granite sport route. Some of the swirling granite dust adhered to the magnets, obstructing the clips. It was easy enough to fix: I just wiped the magnets clean, and it has worked perfectly since.

and:

Helmet review from Outdoor Gear Lab

What we found in our tests of both the Meteor and the Sirocco was that the magnet did not always have enough oomph to click both small arms of the buckle completely closed. About one in four times, only one of the plastic arms would fasten and the buckle would need an extra squeeze to click the other arm in. Another thing our testers noticed was that the magnet would pick up tiny pebbles which would prevent the buckle from fully closing. The pebbles can be easily cleaned by brushing off the exposed part of the magnet, but it adds an extra step to applying the helmet. The bottom line is, we prefer the simplicity of the old plastic buckle. We think that the magnet is a gimmick which potentially makes a less safe helmet.

Safety gear shouldn’t add steps to be remembered, such as making sure the buckle is locked, even after getting auditory and tactile feedback when one connected it. Some people may never climb in an area with iron in the ground, but the use-case for a granite environment should have been considered. You know, for little climbing areas such as the granite cliffs of Yosemite.

Rock Climbing Human Factors – Harness attachment points

A friend of mine was recently rappelling from a climb, meaning that she had the rope through a device that was connected to her belay loop on her harness. As she rappelled, she yelled that her harness broke, and the waistband of the harness slid nearly to her armpits. Fortunately, she remained calm and collected, and was still able to rappell safely, if awkwardly, to the ground. On the ground, her partner saw that her waistband with belay loop had become disconnected from her leg loops. The leg loops were intact, though a keeper-strap that helps the leg loops stay centered was no longer connected.

So, what happened?

First, for the non-climbers, a primer. A climbing harness is composed of three major parts, attached to each other in various ways depending on the manufacturer. The first part is the waistband, which is load-bearing, meaning that it is meant to take the weight of a climber.

The second part of the harness is the belay loop, a load-bearing stitched circle that connects the waistband and leg loops and is also used to hold a belay device, to hold the climber’s weight when rappelling, and for anchoring to the ground or a wall when needed.

The last part of the harness is the leg loops, which are also load-bearing in the parts that connect to the belay loop and around the legs themselves.

Figure 1 shows the general composition of climbing harnesses, with these three parts diagrammed in the Base Concept.

harness_leg_loop_error
Figure 1. Simplified diagrams of climbing harnesses.

On most harnesses, the leg loops are kept connected to the belay loop by a “keeper strap.” This is usually a weak connection not meant to bear weight, but only to keep the leg loops centered on the harness (shown in blue in figure 1). In the case study that prompted this blog post, the keeper strap was connected through the belay loop, rather than the full-strength leg loops (figure 2.) When loaded, it came apart, separating the leg loops from the waistbelt. My own tests found that the keeper strap can be very strong, when it is loaded on the strap itself. But if the leg loops move so that the keeper buckle is loaded by the belay loop, it comes apart easily.

errorharness
Figure 2. Harness assembled with keeper strap bearing weight via the belay loop.

There are two ways to mis-attach leg loops to the belay loop of a harness. The first way is by connecting the leg loops back to the harness, after they were removed, using the keeper strap. The video below demonstrates this possibility. Once connected, the harness fits well and gives little indication the leg loops are not actually connected to bear weight.

The second (and I think more likely) way is by having the leg loops disconnected from the back of the harness, usually for a bathroom break or to get in and out of the harness. The leg loops are still connected in the front of the harness, but if a leg loop passes through the belay loop, suddenly the keeper strap is load bearing when the leg loops flip around. However, the harness does not fit differently nor does it look particularly different unless carefully inspected. Video below.

The non-load bearing parts of the harness are what determine the possibility for this error. In figure 1, some harnesses either do not allow disconnection of the leg loops in back or only allow their disconnection in tandem. When the leg loops are connected in this way, the front of the leg loops cannot be passed through the belay loop. Video demonstration below.

Back to figure 1, some harnesses allow the disconnection of leg loops for each leg. If these are disconnected, a loop may be passed through the front belay loop, resulting in the error in figure 2.

In sum, this error can be examined for likelihood and severity. It is not likely that the error occurs, however if it does occur it is likely it will go undiscovered until the keeper strap comes apart. For severity, the error could be lethal, although that is not likely. The waistbelt will hold the climber’s weight and having leg loops and a waistbelt is a (comfortable) redundancy. However, the sudden shock of suddenly losing support from the leg loops could cause loss of control, either for an un-backed-up rappell or while belaying another climber.

What are the alternatives?

  • Climbing is exploding, particularly climbing in gyms. The “gym” harnesses, with fewer components and gear loops (Figure 1), are a good option for most climbers now. However, there is little guidance about what harness one should buy for the gym vs. outdoor versatility so few probably know this harness is a good option.
  • Some harnesses are designed to be load-bearing at all points (i.e., “SafeTech” below). It is impossible to make an error in leg loop attachment.
  • safetech

  • Harnesses with permanently attached leg loops or loops that attach in the back with a single point are unlikely to result in the error.
  • Many climbers reading this are thinking “This would never happen to me” or “You’d have to be an idiot to put your harness together like that” or my usual favorite “If you wanted climbing to be perfectly safe, you shouldn’t even go.” Blaming the victim gives us a feeling of control over our own safety. However, there are other instances where gear was assembled or re-assembled incorrectly with tragic consequences. No one (or their child) deserves to pay with their life for a simple mistake that can be prevented through good design.

    Parking sign re-design

    I’ll be the first to admit that I experience cognitive overload while trying to park. When there are three signs and the information needs to be combined across them, or at least each one needs to be searched, considered, and eliminated, I spend a lot of time blocking the street trying to decide if I can park.

    For example, there might be a sign that says “No parking school zone 7-9am and 2-4pm” combined with a “2 hour parking only without residential permit 7am-5pm” and “< —-Parking” to indicate the side of the sign that’s open. It’s a challenge to figure out where and how long I can park at 1pm or what happens at 7pm.

    Designer Nikki Sylianteng created new signs for parking in Los Angeles that incorporated all information into a single graphic.

    http://nikkisylianteng.com/project/parking-sign-redesign/
    http://nikkisylianteng.com/project/parking-sign-redesign/

    I still have some difficulty in going back and forth to the legend at the bottom, but probably just because I’ve never seen the signs before. Otherwise, one just needs to know the time and day of the week.

    An interview with her can be found in the LA Weekly where she describes mocking up a laminated example in NY and asking people for feedback on the street via sharpies. (Yay for paper prototypes!) An NPR story focused on the negative reactions of a few harried LA denizens, who predictably said “I like how it was,” but I’d like to see some timed tests of interpreting if it’s ok to park. I’d also like to suggest using a dual-task paradigm to put parkers under the same cognitive load in the lab as they might experience on the street.

    As for NY parking signs – I still can’t parse them.

    The Square Cash Disappearing Act

    Square Cash is a great service – it allows you to send money via an email with no service charge if you’re using your debit card. You can receive money without entering a PIN. I use it all the time to divide up restaurant bills among my friends. That said, I found a usability issue yesterday that I wanted to share.

    I needed to link my debit card to the app, so I followed their very simple instructions for entry. 

    The first screen asks for the card number. The number pad is telephone-order rather than number pad-order. This is on a phone, so that makes sense even if I’m much more used to entering these numbers using a keyboard.

    IMG_4841

    Next, the expiration date. On my card, the expiration date is 09/16/2016*, so I start to enter it.

    IMG_4842

    Here is the screen as you start to enter the date:
    IMG_4843

    I then proceeded to enter 09/16 as I looked at my card, then the CCV, and got an error message about an incorrect card number. Tried again. Same. Did this four times before I realized that the expiration date was month/year. It isn’t as though I’d never seen this, or been asked to enter just the month and year from a card, so I thought hard about what tricked me.

    I concluded it was the difference between the second and third screens – the guidance is there before you start typing, but as soon as you put in any number for the date, the guidance disappears. Since I was looking down at my card, I just entered what I saw and didn’t think enough to check – especially since it called for ##/##, which matched the month and day on my card, not ##/####, which could only be a month and year.

    You are welcome to blame the user for this one, but it would be a small fix to keep the background guide visible during entry.

    *No, I’m not dumb enough to put my real card number or expiration date in the pictures for this post. 🙂

    Treemap sighting in the wild: U.S. Budget proposal

    imageI get pretty excited when I see my favorite infovis being used: The Treemap

    Just released today – the proposed U.S. budget as a treemap!

    So, how well did this visualization work for its intended purpose:

    • Points awarded for using a treemap – it makes it so easy to see how massive social security and healthcare are.
    • Points deducted for the cluttered overlay text in the Transportation section.
    • Points deducted for making the areas clickable, but not actually providing more information beyond a platitude (“Military Personnel: When it comes to our service members and their families, America stands united in support. The budget helps ensure that those who serve our country receive all the support and opportunities they’ve earned and deserve.”)
    • Points deducted for making me click a link to “learn more” from a YouTube video of the entire State of the Union address when I could be learning more with a deeper treemap.

    I’d like to see more of the blocks broken down into the components they fund, making it as informative and transparent as my go-to example of a treemap: the stock market. My second favorite treemap is a program that will treemap your harddrive, making it easy to see where those giant spacehogging files are hiding, deep in directories you forgot were there. I treemapped my lab server with it as we ran out of space and found giant video files about 10 directories down in an unlikely spot that were eating up our GBs.

    Perhaps we could have a treemap that lets us change things in the budget to see how we would make it look, like the American Public Media interactive “Budget Hero” game from a few years ago (now defunct or I would link it)? I learned a LOT about what could budge and what couldn’t budge in the budget from that game.

    *All the points deducted are far outweighed by my support of the treemap being used in the first place! Brilliant!