Category Archives: design

Potpourri–Lazy Summer Edition

It’s summer and we (along with some of you) are taking a break.  But here’s a list of interesting usability/HF-related things that have crossed my path:

  • After much complaining, Ford is bringing back physical knobs in their MyTouch in-car controls.  Anne and I worked on some research (PDF) in our past lives as graduate students that directly compared touch-only interfaces to knob-based interfaces so it’s nice to see it is still a major issue; if only Ford read our 9 year old paper 🙂
  • Trucks driving under very low bridges is such a large problem in Australia that they are deploying a really novel and clever warning system.  A waterfall that projects a sign that’s hard to miss!
  • tags_finderApple will introduce their next version of OSX in the fall. One of the features i’m most excited about is system-level tag support.  Tags allow users to organize their files regardless of location or type.  I’m particularly interested in personal, single-user-generated tagging (compared to collaborative tagging like that used in flickr) as it appears to benefit older adults information organization and retrieval (PDF).  This pleases me.


Another edition of potpourri where I surface some of the more interesting HF/usability links that have crossed my path.

The Other Father of Human Factors: John E. Karlin

Paul M. Fitts is widely regarded as the father of human factors.  He gets mentioned a lot in HF texts because of his (still influential) law.  In more modern times, Donald Norman gets a lot of recognition as the author of the Design of Everyday Things (mentioned in my post below) which introduced the idea of psychology and human factors to a more mainstream audience.  However, someone who never gets mentioned (in my 12 years of education i’ve seen him mentioned once) was John E. Karlin who recently passed away.

By all accounts a modest man despite his variegated accomplishments (he had a doctorate in mathematical psychology, was trained in electrical engineering and had been a professional violinist), Mr. Karlin, who died on Jan. 28, at 94, was virtually unknown to the general public.

He is still relatively unknown to HF only because he rarely published his results; instead, he worked to solve problems in industry using the scientific method that all psychologists use.

“He was the one who introduced the notion that behavioral sciences could answer some questions about telephone design,” Ed Israelski, an engineer who worked under Mr. Karlin at Bell Labs in the 1970s, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

The NYT recently posted an obit detailing his contributions including such fundamental ones such as the telephone numeric layout (different from calculator layout):

Putting “1-2-3” on the pad’s top row instead of the bottom (the configuration used, then as now, on adding machines and calculators) was also born of Mr. Karlin’s group: they found it made for more accurate dialing.

The piece is very well written and I’m a little surprised that the author actually seems to understand HF and how it’s unique from other things (emphasis added):

It is not so much that Mr. Karlin trained midcentury Americans how to use the telephone. It is, rather, that by studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, he trained the telephone, then a rapidly proliferating but still fairly novel technology, to assume optimal form for use by midcentury Americans.

(NYT: great article but you hyphenated human factors in the 10th paragraph)

Go read it!

Begging robots, overly familiar websites, and the power of the unconscious?

Hello readers, and sorry for the unintentional hiatus on the blog. Anne and I have been recovering from the just-completed semester only to be thrown back into another busy semester.  As we adjust, feast on this potpourri post of interesting HF-related items from the past week.

In todays HF potpourri we have three very interesting and loosely related stories:

  • There seems to be a bit of a resurgence in the study of anthropomorphism in HF/computer science primarily because…ROBOTS.  It’s a topic I’ve written about [PDF] in the context of human-automation interaction.  The topic has reached mainstream awareness because NPR just released a story on the topic
  • The BBC looks at the rise of websites that seem to talk to us in a very informal, casual way.  Clearly, the effect on the user is not what was intended:

The difference is the use of my name. I also have a problem with people excessively using my name. I feel it gives them some power over me and overuse implies disingenuousness. Like when you ring a call centre where they seem obsessed with saying your name.

Paper prototyping made easier

Paper prototyping is a common usability technique to quickly test out an interaction before expending too much effort on programming or designing.  The value in paper prototyping is that with extremely low effort, you can test the interaction rather than the appearance of an interface.

I just came across a great iOS app that lets you add some real interactivity to your paper prototypes:  POP Prototyping on Paper.  You simply sketch out your screen, take a picture using your iPhone camera, and then add interactivity.  It’s a brilliantly simple idea.


Effective visualization of an ongoing process

What does pop music visualization and neural imaging techniques have in common?  Keep reading…You may have already seen this (i’m a little late) but have you ever wanted your favorite song to last forever?  Enter “The Infinite Jukebox“.

You upload your favorite MP3 (or select among recent uploads) and the site will analyze and parse the beats.  When you hit play it will smoothly jump to another part of the song that sounds similar so there is no end.  That alone is cool, but the visualization of the process of playing and more importantly jumping to another section is surprisingly effective.  When a possible beat intersection is reached, an arc spans the circle and (randomly) jumps or stays.

The effect works best for some songs and not others.  You can get a nice at-a-glance view of the global organization of the song (highly locally repetitive like Daft Punk) or more globally repetitive (like a typical highly structured pop song):

It is probably by design that these diagrams look just like connectomes that map the neural pathways in the brain:

More on the circular diagrams of connectomes and the software used to make them (Circos).

Principles of Animation in UI Design

Smashing Magazine posts a great article on some principles for including animation in mobile UIs.  I think the use of animation is under-estimated by some HF people because it’s hard to quanitfy the “performance benefit” (e.g., they may not increase the speed at which a user completes a task).

Some notable examples of animation are the infamous Apple’s page bounce-back, the page-curl in e-book apps or the bouncing icons on a Mac (or expanding/minimizing windows on Mac/PC).  Difficulty in quantifying objective benefits may lead some to dismiss animations as superfluous and unneccessarily ornate.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  Animations provide a fluidity that makes interfaces feel responsive even delightful.

The article provides a lot of reasons for the benefits and most appropriate use of animation. It’s typical Smashing Magazine (i.e., LOOONG) so save it to read later!

(post image from the article)

What Apple Maps “PR Disaster” Says about Human-Automation Interaction

With the release of Apple’s in-house developed mapping solution for the new iPhone 5 (and all iOS 6 devices) there has been a major outcry among some users bordering on ridiculous, frothing, outrage1.  

Personally, the maps for my area are pretty good and the route guidance worked well even with no network signal.

However, some of the public reaction to the new mapping program is an excellent example of too much reliance on automation that is usually very reliable but falible (we’ve written about here, and here.).

It is very hard to discern what too much reliance looks like until the automation fails.  Too much reliance means that you do not double-check the route guidance information, or you ignore other external information (e.g., the bridge is out).

I’ve had my own too-much-reliance experience with mobile Google Maps (documented on the blog).  My reaction after failure was to be less trusting which led to decreased reliance (and increased “double checking”).  Apple’s “PR disaster” is a good wake up call about users unreasonably high trust in very reliable automation that can (and will) fail.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it will impact user’s perception that all technology, while seemingly reliable, should not be blindly trusted.

Some human factors lessons here (and interesting research questions for the future) are:

  • How do we tell the user that they need to double check? (aside from a warning)
  • How should the system convey it’s confidence?  (if it is unsure, how do you tell the user so they adjust their unreasonably high expectations)


1I say “outrage” because those users who most needed phone-based voice navigation probably had to own third party apps for it (I used the Garmin app).  The old Google Maps for iPhone never had that functionality.  So the scale of the outrage seems partially media-generated.

Product Confusability: Tide Pods

Kim Wolfinbarger sends along a new case of dangerous things being confused for food (the story is the same but the actors different, see previous examples).  Before you reflexively say, “only an idiot would confuse the two,” remember that 5-year olds don’t know the difference.  First rule of HF-club: you are not the user (or victim):

In California alone, 307 cases of accidentally ingestion of laundry packs by young children have been reported this year. And the cases in California, and nationwide, aren’t just limited to toddlers snarfing Tide Pods. When the product was released, Tide rivals such as All and Purex launched their own single-dose detergent capsules as well. Earlier this summer, Tide reconfigured the packaging of the product, adding a double-latched lid to the plastic tubs containing the Pods to make it more difficult for children to tamper with. Still, the number of reported incidents continues to climb along with news stories warning parents to take caution.

Just yesterday, Consumer Reports reported on a wave of Tide Pod-related poisonings in Glasgow, Scotland while the New York Daily News published a quick article stating that in New York City alone, 40 children have been hospitalized after eating the packs since April. TODAY also just published a piece on the alarming trend in which Ken Wahl, medical director for the Illinois Poison Center states: “I’ve never seen a consumer product that had that degree of injury in a child.”
Dishwashing detergent also comes in pod-like single serving doses but I am not aware of similar cases of ingestion.  Maybe it’s the coloring (they tend to be blue/green) or size (they are a bit larger I think)?