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Wearable Fitness Trackers: A Comparative Usability Evaluation

This guest post is from graduate students Haley Vaigneur and Bliss Altenhoff. Haley and Bliss compared the usability of two fitness trackers as part of a graduate course in health informatics taught by Kelly Caine.


Wearable fitness trackers allow users to track and monitor their health. While these devices originated as a way for doctors to monitor chronically ill patients’ vitals, they have recently been developed and marketed for to a more general, health-conscious market. Equipped with advanced sensors such as accelerometers, users’ activity and sleep can be automatically tracked and then compared with their logged fitness goals and daily diet. Users can then use their statistics to help create or maintain a healthier lifestyle. Two examples of such devices are the Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex, shown above.

Wearable technology is popular and has the potential to dramatically impact health (e.g. long-term health and activity data tracking, immediate syncing with Electronic Health Records (EHRs)). But these benefits can only be realized if the user is able to effectively use and understand these devices. This was the motivation for focusing on two of the most popular models of fitness trackers: the JawBone Up and FitBit Flex and their accompanying smartphone apps.

This study examined the usability of these two devices and their accompanying smartphone apps by having 14 participants (7 for Jawbone Up, 7 for FitBit Flex) perform a think-aloud test on five key features: Setup, Setting Goals, Tracking Diet, Tracking Activity, and Setting an Alarm. Participants then kept the wearable for three days and were encouraged to incorporate it into their normal routine. On the third day, participants completed the System Usability Scale survey and an informal interview regarding their experiences using the wearable.

Some of the key Jawbone UP findings were:

  1. Adding food or drink items was somewhat difficult due to unintuitive organization and unpredictable bugs. For example, one participant attempted to add a food item by scanning the bar code of a Lunchable, but the app added a Dr. Pepper to the log.
  2. Participants struggled to find the alarm settings, with one conducting a general web search for help to understand the Smart Sleep Window settings and how to save alarm settings.
  3. None of the participants were able to figure out how to communicate to the band or app that they would like to begin a workout. They didn’t realize that the Stopwatch menu option was intended to time the workout.

Some of the key findings of the FitBit Flex were:

Setting goals
Setting goals
What do I tap?
  1. Participants felt that the wristband (when using the appropriate sized band) was not uncomfortable or revealing and they were proud to wear it because it made them feel healthy.
  2. Users had a difficult time figuring out where to go on the app to set their health goals at first. Their instinct was to find it on the app homepage, or Dashboard, but it was under the Account tab.
  3. Some users had difficulty putting on the wristband, and several noted that it fell off unexpectedly. Users were also confused about where to “tap” the wristband to activate it, based on the instructions given in the app. The picture can appear to instruct the user to tap below the black screen, when the user actually needs to tap the screen directly, and firmly.
  4. Users did not realize that after turning Bluetooth on their phone, they needed to return to the app to tell the phone and wristband to begin syncing. They also noted that leaving Bluetooth on all day drained their phone battery.

    Bluetooth confusion

Based on time per task and number of errors the FitBit Flex performed better than the Jawbone Up on the five tasks. Users’ ultimate trust in the data, willingness to continue using the wearable, and general satisfaction with each wearable was heavily influenced by their initial experiences (first day). The positive initial think-aloud results for the FitBit Flex were also consistent with a more positive later experience and stronger acceptance of the wearable.

This study found that there is still much room for improvement in the usability of the accompanying smartphone apps. A major concern for these kinds of devices is keeping user interest and motivation, which can easily be lost through confusing or cumbersome designs. By striving to improve the human factors of the apps simultaneous to the capabilities of the actual wearables, there is great potential for greater user satisfaction, and thus more long-term use.

While activity tracking wearables are currently most popular with more tech-savvy, active people, these devices should be designed to be used by all ages and levels of experience users. These devices could change health monitoring drastically and give people the power and ability to make better choices, and live healthier lifestyles.

Haley Vaigneur is a graduate student in Industrial Engineering at Clemson University. Her concentration is Human Factors and Ergonomics, emphasizing on research in the healthcare field.

Bliss Altenhoff is a Doctoral Candidate studying Human Factors Psychology at Clemson University, where she received her M.S. in Applied Psychology in 2012.  She is a member of the Perception and Action (PAC) lab, where her research is concentrated on enhancing human perception and performance by enriching perceptual display technologies for laparoscopic surgeons. .

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1314342. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Profiles in Human Factors: Dr. Julian Sanchez, Medtronic

This post is the first in our new series of human factors career profiles. Dr. Julian Sanchez  was kind enough to answer my questions about his job and the journey he took to get there. Dr. Sanchez received his Ph.D. in psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and has worked in a variety of settings, from agricultural technology at Deere & Co. to aviation at the MITRE Corporation and is currently with Medtronic in Minneapolis.

Anne: Hi Julian, let’s start with “Would you briefly describe your job and what you enjoy most about it?”

Julian: I work for a medical device company called Medtronic, within their Cardiac Disease Management division. I am part of the R&D group so I work alongside scientists of all disciplines on product ideas that are at least 5 years from making it to market. I help ensure that Human Factors and UX issues are considered early in the design process.

Implanted pacemakers and defibrillators have the capability of wireless communication with a receiver that then transmits all of the data from the patient’s heart to the doctor’s office. I mean, how can anyone think that working in this field is not the coolest thing?

Anne: Sounds like you like it!  How did you get interested in Human Factors as a career path?

Julian: To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I was really going to love HF as a career path until I did an internship at John Deere. This was only two years before getting my PhD, so thank god for that! I guess the internship really hit home that all of the theoretical principles that I had learned in grad school could be applied, AND there was a real thirst for it.

Anne: So, what skills from graduate school have you used the most?

Julian: During grad school I taught myself Flash, a prototyping tool. Besides HF knowledge, this has been the skill that has best served me. Being able to mock up a prototype gives you the ability to pitch ideas to other engineers and designers.

Anne: Neat. Ok, if you could tell your first-year graduate student self a single sentence, what would it be?

Julian: Great question. “Don’t rush”

Kitchen Taskonomy Part 1: A Guest Post by Kim Wolfinbarger

January magazines arrived a month ago, full of the annual list of ideas for organizing your house, life, office, even your car. I’ve been thinking lately about how we organize our workspaces. As Pottery Barn and Ikea entrance us with their coordinated sweater bins and modern snap-together wall-mounted organizers, how often do we ask this most important question: Do our workspaces support the way we work?

A few years ago, Don Norman wrote an excellent article for ACM Interactions titled “Logic Versus Usage: The Case for Activity-Centered Design.” He discussed two different approaches to organization: taxonomy, in which items are ordered by category or name, and taskonomy, in which items are organized by the way they are used. Norman argued that while a taxonomic organization makes sense for libraries and grocery stores, it makes little sense for organizing workspaces.

I don’t particularly like routines, which is funny because I’m an industrial engineer and classical IE involves designing routines for other people to follow. Over the years, I’ve tried to follow various organizational systems, but they tended to fall apart. A carefully alphabetized spice cabinet became a mess when I purchased new spices, because inserting one new spice required moving several others. Kitchen cabinets were organized according to pan size, but I frequently had to move three small casserole dishes to get the big one I wanted. Bank statements and receipts stacked up because filing was easy to put off. Reading about taskonomy  help me identify the source of the problem: The organizational systems I had struggled to follow just didn’t match my use patterns.

When I first purchased this house, I organized the pantry by the common taxonomic approach. Baking soda, salt, and baking powder were grouped together, as were all the vinegars—white, red, balsamic, cider, and herbal. I alphabetized the spices and placed those that would fit in the pantry doors. The others I grouped on a shelf, between the vinegars and the salt. But the shelves are deep and wide, and with nothing to keep items in their assigned places, stuff tended to migrate. Common white vinegar was as hard to retrieve as its gourmet cousins. Spices floated behind the syrup, peanut butter was never in the same place, and the salt always managed to slip into some dark corner.

It was losing the salt—and the 60 seconds it took me each evening to find it—that finally motivated me to DO SOMETHING about the pantry. For my first attempt, I redesigned the shelves. I planned to replace the deep, flat plywood boards with a shallower but more closely spaced arrangement. The shelf heights would be changed so that frequently used items could be placed at or just below eye level. But without the time, skills, or tools needed for the carpentry project, the design ended up in the “someday” file and the salt kept disappearing. Reading about taskonomy showed me that I could achieve the same goals without changing the pantry’s structure at all.


For the taskonomic redesign, I arranged the spices and other dry goods by use. I sorted the spices into four groups: Italian (including basil, oregano, and bay leaves), Baking (e.g., cinnamon and nutmeg), Specialty Salts (Nature’s Seasons, seasoning salt, garlic salt), and Savory (e.g., thyme and rosemary) and labeled the shelves in the pantry doors. I was not too rigid about the sorting–garlic powder, for example, is next to garlic salt–and the divisions are not particularly fine. Because the door shelves hide the labels on the smaller spice jars, I also wrote names on the lids. Each shelf has enough space to add one or two more jars, and because I can see all the jars on one shelf at a glance, alphabetizing is no longer necessary.

Baking basket

I used shallow baskets to sort other ingredients by use. The baking basket contains salt, pepper, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon-sugar. I often use several of these items in a single recipe, such as pancakes or cinnamon biscuits, so it makes sense to group them together. The basket also prevents the salt from migrating, saving me time and frustration each evening. In another basket (out of reach of my young children) I placed spicy blends and specialty peppers, such as cayenne. A third basket, placed toward the back of the shelf, holds rarely used seasonings, such as poppy seeds and dill.

Bottled items

Bottled items were separated by frequency of use. Soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, cooking spray, a small bottle of white vinegar, and olive oil now stand on a lazy susan at the front of a shelf, while lime oil, Karo syrup, and Liquid Smoke occupy a back corner. Bulk-sized bottles are stored on the floor and are used to refill the smaller containers.


Next I tackled the kitchen cabinets. Bulky Items that I use infrequently–roasters, the Bundt muffin tin, my beautiful but heavy enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens–got their own shelf in the garage.

I kept a few toast pans and cookie sheets in the kitchen and sent the extras to the garage as well. Casserole dishes used multiple times a week were moved to front of the cabinet and stacked no more than three pieces high. Retrieving the 13-by-9-inch dish now requires only a slight bend, rather than a deep squat and a minute of moving and restacking smaller dishes. And my silicone baking-sheet liners, which are indispensable but awkward to store, were rolled up and slipped into paper-towel tubes.

I’m happy to report that the taskonomic kitchen organization system has been in place for two years. While occasionally straightening is needed, a pantry spruce-up no longer requires an afternoon. The cabinets won’t be featured in House Beautiful, but the things I use most often stay accessible, without much intervention from me.

Next time, I’ll talk about my simplified bill-paying system. Until then, as you organize your pantry and cabinets, don’t just sort and stack. Design a sustainable system by viewing your workspaces throughout the lens of taskonomy.

Kim Wolfinbarger is the recruitment coordinator and a PhD candidate in the School of Industrial Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. Her research interests include driver behavior, intelligent transportation systems, and design for aging. She is a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and the Institute of Industrial Engineers.

“Having the Data is not enough” – Visualization Techniques

I do love good visualization. I think animations like this, accompanied by a good story, would serve us well from conference presentations to convincing industry clients.

It is from the “Joy of Stats,” on the BBC (which I’m apparently not allowed to watch due to my location.)

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.

Redesigning the airline boarding pass

Designer Tyler Thompson gets frustrated with boarding passes and attempts to redesign them.  I recently had a very similar experience with a boarding pass: my first flight was delayed and my connecting flight was taking off in minutes.  As I sprinted through the airport I glanced at my boarding pass only to stop dead in my tracks as I had to devote all my attention to examining it for useful information (I missed my flight).

Old boarding pass
Mock up
Mock up

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).

Update on an Academic’s Use of the iPad

There seems to be a huge amount of interest in the use of iPads in academia as evidenced by the popularity of my last post on the iPad. This is just a follow-up post with some more app recommendations and more thoughts on how well it substitutes for my laptop after over a month of use.

View from Glacier Point
View of half dome from subdome (yes we went up)

I recently went on vacation for a few weeks (to Yosemite National Park) and carried the iPad exclusively.  I used the Camera Connection Kit to download and view pictures and movies from my digital camera.

When I could get wireless in the park, the built-in email client worked wonderfully with my campus Microsoft Exchange email/calendar system.  Touch-typing emails is a real pleasure once you get used to the software keyboard.

To temper my enthusiasm for the iPad, Anne will present her, “things I hate about the iPad” post shortly.  In the meantime, I just wanted to follow-up with some more app ideas for anyone in academia who is thinking of using an iPad.

First, I still use Evernote as my primary note-taking application when I need to jot down an idea, draft a blog post, draft a paper review, etc. But the major downside (which isn’t the fault of Evernote) is that the lack of true multi-tasking is really annoying. I’d love to be able to have a small note window on the bottom half of the screen to take notes while I do something else.   This is not yet a major annoyance and should be partially fixed when the iPad gets updated to iOS4 this fall.

I also still use iAnnotate a great deal to read PDFs. During my vacation, I used iAnnotate to store, read, and search PDFs of various things to do around Yosemite.  I also used it for light airport/airplane reading of some work material.  The instant-on capability (and 10+ hr battery life really came in handy on the cross-country air and road trip).  PDF tip: if you scan your own journal articles, make sure to OCR them so that they are searchable within any PDF app.

Recently, the iBooks app, from Apple, was updated to support PDF reading. It presents another option if all you want is a PDF reader. It displays your documents on a bookshelf:

I recently downloaded DocsToGo to create and edit Microsoft Office-compatible files and have since abandoned the iWork apps (including Keynote).  I recently created a presentation in Keynote but then only later realized that Keynote does not export to Office/PowerPoint for later editing on the desktop.  It does import PPT files. Apple’s reputation for a closed ecosystem rears its ugly head!

Another major limitation of Keynote is in its presentation capabilities.  When you pair the iPad with the iPad VGA connector (to connect to projectors) you might think you have a great, portable solution for presentations.  Almost.  The connector does output to a projector but you can’t see your presentation on the iPad itself.  All you get is slide up/down control and a laser pointer simulation.  Hopefully this will be remedied in a Keynote update.

The iWork apps (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers) are designed well and incredibly easy and intuitive to use but the lack of a proper export option precludes me from using them full time.

Here are some screen captures of DocsToGo:

A really cool feature of DocsToGo is that it will interface with your Google Docs account and let you edit (offline) any file you have in the Google cloud. This is especially useful if you or your campus uses Google Docs for collaborative activities.  Changes made offline on the iPad will be uploaded back into your cloud. It also integrates with DropBox (another must-have tool that is available on the iPad).

Mac-using academicians may be familiar with the Papers application which allows users build a personal database of PDF articles.   A stand-alone version is available for the iPad:

Although this application does not require the desktop copy of the Papers application, I think it might work best when it syncs with a library that exists on your desktop. The company does not make a PC version so I’ve found this app of limited use right now. It might be more useful next time I need to do a new literature review.

This blog runs on WordPress.  I know many other academics who run blogs also use WordPress because of its simplicity and ease of use.  The WordPress iPad app comes in handy to do light editing, content creation, and spam management on the go.

Wordpress for iPad

There are many things that the iPad cannot do. One of them is run PC software like SPSS (used for data analysis). When I need to access specialized applications for a short time, I use VNC viewer which lets me connect to and control my desktop computer (which is running RealVNC) from my iPad.  Controlling a desktop computer with only a touchscreen is executed very elegantly with the VNC viewer.

Finally, if you’re like me and don’t necessarily want to broadcast to the world that you are carrying around an iPad, what better hiding place than in a book!  I just received the DodoCase (after a 6 week wait).  Highly recommended:

iPad in Dodocase. Moleskine Pocket notebook on top

(image of TRS-80 Model 100 from Wikipedia)

The Human Factors of Rock Climbing – A matter of life and death

A tragedy occurred last week in West Virginia where a rock climber died apparently due to a human factors issue with her gear. This text comes from a commenter on

The climber was Karen Feher from Midlothian Va. She climbed to the anchor of Rico Suave and clipped in direct. Her setup: She had two thin dyneema slings girth hitched to her harness. At the end of each sling was a locking carabiner held in place with a rubber Petzl keeper…She clipped a locker to each bolt and probably called off belay. I’m unclear if she was going to rappel or lower. It doesn’t matter. She fell to the ground.

The day after the accident a local climber named Craig (last name?) climbed to the anchor and found a locker on each bolt with a Petzl String still affixed to each one. Both Petzl strings were torn on the side.

Let me give a little background on the gear so you can understand what seems to have happened:

Climbers can affix themselves to the wall with equipment that has carabiners on both ends. This allows them to clip themselves to one side and clip the other to the wall. These can come in different varieties, and two types are illustrated below.

The first type consists of a sewn sling between the two carabiners. It is sewn tightly in multiple places to make sure that it holds tightly to the two carabiners.

A "quickdraw" with two carabiners
Notice the larger and smaller holes in each end. One holds a carabiner loosely to the rock while the other holds a carabiner more tightly on the rope end.

Notice on one side it is sewn so the carabiner hangs loosely and on the other side it is sewn tightly, so that it holds the carabiner almost immobile. The reason for this is to allow the side connected to the wall to swing freely as the rope moves, which keeps the rope movement from jarring or upsetting protection put into the rock. The other end that is connected to the rope keeps the carabiner from moving around and possibly turning sideways.

The second type (below) consists of a nylon sling doubled over between the carabiners. The benefit of this kind of sling is that it can be changed in length – by doubling and tripling it, it can either be 4′ long, 2′ long, or just a foot long. However, notice both sides are the same. The benefit of having one loose side and one tight side does not exist here. Incidentally, this is the type of sling I use almost exclusively.

A simple loop connects the two carabiners
A simple loop connects the two carabiners
The sling has now been doubled over to shorten it

There is one way to turn the second type of sling into an approximation of the first type: a rubber band. Not only can you do this with a plain rubber band, there are some specifically sold for this purpose.

The rubber band holds the rope end tight while allowing the other end to swing freely
Again, rope holds one end, this time with sling not doubled over

The problem with this solution lies in the changes to visibility and function that the rubber bands can have when the slings are doubled-over incorrectly.  Click here for a video explaining what can go wrong.

Essentially, the sling can become almost invisibly connected ONLY by the rubber band. I am sure no one would like to think of hanging 100 feet from the ground by a grocery store rubber band.

The additional component to the tragedy that prompted this post is that both of her slings were attached only by the rubber band. Climbers build redundancy into their systems to prevent accidents like this, but here both failed.