Category Archives: ergonomics

Usability process not used for ACA website

slideA recently released report, done in March 2013, reveals the process of creating Healthcare.gov. Hindsight is always 20/20, but we’ve also worked hard to establish best practices for considering both engineering and the user in software development. These contributions need to be valued, especially for large scale projects. After looking through the slides, one thing I note is that even this improved approach barely mentions the end users of the website. There is one slide that states “Identify consumer paths; review and modify vignettes.” The two examples of this are users who have more or less complex needs when signing up for insurance. I don’t see any mention of involving actual users prior to release.

The NPR write-up states:

Consultants noted there was no clear leader in charge of this project, which we now know contributed to its disastrous release. And there was no “end-to-end testing” of its full implementation, something we now know never happened.

Some of this may fall on us, for not being convincing enough that human factors methods are worth the investment. How much would the public be willing to pay for a solid usability team to work with the website developers?

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.

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!

Anne & Rich Interviewed about Human Factors

Anne and I are big proponents of making sure the world knows what human factors is all about (hence the blog).  Both of us were recently interviewed separately about human factors in general as well as our research areas.

The tone is very general and may give lay people a good sense of the breadth of human factors.  Plus, you can hear how we sound!

First, Anne was just interviewed for the radio show “Radio In Vivo“.

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Late last year, I was interviewed about human factors and my research on the local public radio program Your Day:

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User Testing for Interplanetary Expeditions

I was listening  to the Big Picture Science podcast on my way to work this morning when I heard  a great example of how to test equipment prior to a mission. Hosts are Molly Bentley and Seth Shostak.

The interview was with Dr. Jennifer Heldmann, an astrobiologist who studies “Mars analogues” on earth – the Atacama Desert in South America and the very cold, very dry “dry valleys” in Antarctica. Her main purpose is to investigate whether (and what kinds of) microbial life can survive in these conditions, but she also tests the methods we might use to collect samples from other planets. Here is a transcript describing a usability test in  “A Martian Curiosity”:

(11:51)

Bentley: Well Jennifer, I was looking at a picture of you in a spacesuit. And you were standing in an alien land, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Mars, and it wasn’t even the moon. Where were you?

Heldmann: That could have been a number of places, I’ve worn spacesuits in a variety of places. All on Earth, I might add. Because we do a lot of work here on Earth to study and learn how to go and operate on other planets. So, for example, I would love love love to send people to Mars, so we can explore that planet, it’s really hard to do that, though. And we have to learn “how do you live on Mars?” “How do you work on Mars?” “How do you talk to people back on Earth from Mars?” And so, to answer those really important questions, we go out and we test it. We go to places on Earth that are like Mars. Mars is really really cold and Mars is really really dry, and so we go to cold and dry places.

Bentley: Can you share with us a story about what it’s like to walk around in some of these environments with a spacesuit on? Anything that surprised you?

Heldmann: Yes, there was one time out in Utah, we were at the Mars Desert Research Station, wearing a spacesuit, and we had a camera crew with us, because there was a group doing a documentary about Mars analogues and working out in Mars. So we said “sure, come with us, we’re going to do an EVA, an Extra Vehicular Activity, which means we’re going to wear our spacesuits and walk around, and get some rocks, and get some samples, great, come out with us. So we had little sample bags, and we had them in our backpacks, and we had our spacesuits on, and we get to the rock outcrop, and we pick up the rocks. And these are great, these are just what we were looking for, we’re all excited, and then we go to put the samples in the bag and we couldn’t get the bags open. Because we’re wearing these big, thick gloves.. you don’t think about this ahead of time! You just think “oh I’ll open the bag, and I’ll put the rock in. How hard is that?” It’s really hard when you have a spacesuit on.”

Bentley: What were they, like a ziplock bag or nylon mesh? Velcro? What was it?

Heldmann: Yes, it was a ziplock type of thing. You just had to pull it apart. Really simple, we do it every day in the kitchen, right? But with those big, thick gloves on we could not get our sample bags open. It was very embarrassing to have a film crew watching you for hours try to open a ziplock bag. It would have been really simple to just take the glove off and open the bag, but on Mars you can’t do that.

Bentley: And it would have been a bummer to go to Mars and find great rocks and then not put them into a bag and bring them back.

Heldmann: Exactly!

 

Then, to my delight, later in the podcast the hosts took it upon themselves to make an analogue of the equipment used in the Mars mission analogue and do a think-aloud. (18:01)

Bentley: Seth, could you put on those oven mitts that I set down in front of you, please?

Shostak: Why, are we getting some pizza out of the oven? What’s the deal?

Bentley: Ok. So you see what else I put down there, in front of you?

Shostak: Yeah, this giant ziplock bag.

Bentley: Yes, this may be the largest ziplock back I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a body bag size.

Shostak: I was almost going to say “Did you order this from ‘Mafia supply company'”? What do you want me to do with this bag?

Bentley: It’s closed, right now. Jennifer was trying to open a ziplock bag, she said, while she was in the desert, and she wasn’t able to do it for the cameras. What I want you to do is open it and describe what you’re doing. Now, you have oven mitts on .

Shostak: Well, actually it isn’t too hard to open this, if you want to know the truth, because it’s so big that even with oven mitts.. watch. (crinkle sounds) Maybe it’s not so easy. Pull it!

Bentley: C’mon, Seth! The Martian rocks are waiting for you. (struggling sounds)

Shostak: Well, those Martian rocks are safe from me because I cannot get this bag open!

Bentley: Ok, Jennifer is vindicated.

Oven mittens or something similarly cheap could be a nice lab-based pre-test for any manual equipment, before it even gets to the spacesuit test.

So.  In closing…  Human Factors isn’t rocket science.

Or is it!?!?

 

 

Photo credit veggietothemax @ Flickr

HFES on LinkedIn

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society has a lively discussion board hosted at LinkedIn. If you like talking about issues with other professionals, have questions or need resources, or just want to see “what do these people like to talk about?” then I suggest a visit!

Some sample topics:

  • What are the top three classical or seminal papers in HFE that you think every graduate should know?
  • What is a safe number of characters to read on a screen while driving?
  • What is the best statistical method for comparing Modified Cooper Harper ratings for two different designs?
  • Does visual appeal, i.e., aesthetics, enhance usability?
  • What is the best place to place OK button on the computer form?
  • Trends in Function Allocation among cognitive agents (human & machine) – a new era for joint cognitive systems?

Usability Follies in the News

It’s election season which means more opportunities to point, laugh, and cry at the state of voting usability.  The first is sent in by Kim W.  As part of an NPR story, the reporter dug up a sample ballot. Pretty overwhelming and confusing (“vote for not more than one”??); makes me long for electronic voting.

Next, Ford is sending out a software update to their popular MyTouch car telematics system. The following NYT article is excellent in highlighting the importance of not only basic usability but that “user experience” is just as important as technical capability/specs.  The article lists a variety of usability quirks that should have been caught in user testing (e.g., “a touch-sensitive area under the touch screen that activates the hazard lights has been replaced with a mechanical button, because Ford learned that drivers were inadvertently turning on the hazard lights as they rested their hand while waiting for the system to respond.”).

My Touch (photo: NYT)

I am being facetious when I point an laugh but seriously, many of these issues could have been caught early with basic, relatively cheap, simple user testing.

“I think they were too willing to rush something out because of the flashiness of it rather than the functionality,” said Michael Hiner, a former stock-car racing crew chief in Akron, Ohio, who bought a Ford Edge Limited last year largely because he and his wife were intrigued by MyFord Touch.

Now Ford has issued a major upgrade that redesigns much of what customers see on the screen and tries to resolve complaints about the system crashing or rebooting while the vehicle is being driven. Ford said on Monday that the upgrade made the touch screens respond to commands more quickly, improved voice recognition capabilities and simplified a design that some say had the potential to create more distractions for drivers who tried to use it on the road. Fonts and buttons on the screen have been enlarged, and the layouts of more than 1,000 screens have been revamped.

ATM Accessibility (not)

I’m catching up on some older topics I never blogged about. This is one of my favorites.

The Consumerist posted a video of a blind user interacting with an ATM. As they said, “Overall, it seems like whoever designed the ATM didn’t ask a blind person to try it out first.”

Quotes from the video:
(Re: finding the headphone jack) “It was camoflagued, I swear it was camoflagued.”

Then the voice instructs him to press Enter on the keypad and pauses. THEN it describes the location of the enter key on the keypad.

Beyond Touch: the future of interaction

Follow the link to read “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design” by Bret Victor. The briefest of summaries would be that we over-use simple touch in our visions of the future, when we could be including many other cues, such as weight and balance.

From the post:

If you’re with me so far, maybe I can nudge you one step further. Look down at your hands. Are they attached to anything? Yes — you’ve got arms! And shoulders, and a torso, and legs, and feet! And they all move!

Any dancer or doctor knows full well what an incredibly expressive device your body is. 300 joints! 600 muscles! Hundreds of degrees of freedom!

The next time you make breakfast, pay attention to the exquisitely intricate choreography of opening cupboards and pouring the milk — notice how your limbs move in space, how effortlessly you use your weight and balance. The only reason your mind doesn’t explode every morning from the sheer awesomeness of your balletic achievement is that everyone else in the world can do this as well.

With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?

 

 

Photo credit jstarpl @ Flickr

NYT: So Many Gadgets, So Many Aches

A nice but short article in the New York Times about the ergonomic challenges with new electronic devices.  I’m pleasantly surprised that the article mentioned both physical and cognitive issues.  When most people hear or think of “ergonomics” they think of physical issues only.

Most of the content will not be new to HFB readers but it’s nice that the topic is receiving more mainstream attention.

Texting has led to an increase in a condition known as De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, where the tendons become so inflamed that it becomes painful to move your thumb, affecting your ability to hold things, Professor Hedge said.

Don’t discount psychological factors, she added. Mental stress can cause you to tense your muscles, aggravating any existing physical stress.

(Thanks Kim!)