Category Archives: hci

Human Factors Special Issue

Just a quick note that Computers in Human Behavior released a special issue on human factors in networked computing. There are some interesting articles in it, including:

Gloria Yi-Ming Kao, Pei-Lan Lei and Chuen-Tsai Sun

“Web searches entail complex cognitive processes influenced by individual differences, and users with similar cognitive or skill factors tend to develop multiple search strategies. The authors analyze such strategies in terms of level of thinking style (global versus local), search targets, and six search behavior indicators and report (a) a significant relationship between different thinking style levels and individual search target types and (b) that different thinking style level conditions can cause significant differences in search behavior performance regarding maximum depth of exploration, revisited pages, and Web pages visited for refining answers…”

Abdolhossein Sarrafzadeh, Samuel Alexander, Farhad Dadgostar, Chao Fan and Abbas Bigdeli

“Many software systems would significantly improve performance if they could adapt to the emotional state of the user, for example if Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITSs), ATM’s, ticketing machines could recognise when users were confused, frustrated or angry they could guide the user back to remedial help systems so improving the service. Many researchers now feel strongly that ITSs would be significantly enhanced if computers could adapt to the emotions of students. This idea has spawned the developing field of affective tutoring systems (ATSs)….”

Enjoy your summer reading!

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.

Electronic voting machines and misconceptions…

There was a report on electronic voting irregularities in South Carolina (during the Republican primaries last week) this morning on NPR.  The person that was interviewed,a representative of the State Election Commission, naively stated that the machines were fine, but it was the users who were not following operating procedures. Here is a quote:

“Any voting system is dependent on its user following the proper operating procedures and, in this case, Horry County election officials missed a step,” he says. That step was closing out tests performed on the machines before the elections, which left some test votes still recorded and any affected machine locked up.

Unfortunately, this widespread view of blaming the user prevents designers and engineers from coming up with easier to use voting machines. If the problem lies with the user, the manufacturer/designer is off the hook in terms of fixing the problem.

From a user-centered design perspective (which has roots in human factors), you never blame the user!  With the prevalence of voting system usability issues in the news, clearly, there are no usability or human factors people working within the manufacturers of electronic voting systems.

[link to NPR story; text or streaming audio]

However, there is some hope. Human factors researchers Tiffany Jastrzembski and Neil Charness, at Florida State University, examined electronic voting machines to improve accuracy among older adults. The article, published in Ergonomics in Design, is a good example of applying the science of human factors to human-machine problems.

[link to press release and full text article]

Surgeons Hone Skills on Nintendo Wii

wiinew_art_200_20080118072726.jpgImprovements in simulator performance didn’t come from just any Wii (see image), or any game. Marble Mania is good, for example. Tennis (astonishingly fun to play on the Wii, which uses a motion-sensitive wireless control) isn’t so helpful. “The key is to have subtle hand movements,” Kanav Kahol one of the authors of the study, told the Health Blog. “You can’t hit a tennis swing and expect to become a better surgeon. You need fine motor control.”

[wsj.com]

“Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine”

He was playing with one of this year’s hot Christmas gifts, a digital photo frame from Kodak. It had a wondrous list of features — it could display your pictures, send them to a printer, put on a slide show, play your music — and there was probably no consumer on earth better prepared to put it through its paces.

Dr. Norman, a cognitive scientist who is a professor at Northwestern, has been the maestro of gizmos since publishing “The Design of Everyday Things,” his 1988 critique of VCRs no one could program, doors that couldn’t be opened without instructions and other technologies that seemed designed to drive humans crazy.

Besides writing scholarly analyses of gadgets, Dr. Norman has also been testing and building them for companies like Apple and Hewlett-Packard. One of his consulting gigs involved an early version of this very technology on the shelf at Best Buy: a digital photo frame developed for a startup company that was later acquired by Kodak.

“This is not the frame I designed,” Dr. Norman muttered as he tried to navigate the menu on the screen. “It’s bizarre. You have to look at the front while pushing buttons on the back that you can’t see, but there’s a long row of buttons that all feel the same. Are you expected to memorize them?”

[link to NYT story]

Legal Interpretations can be the Bane of Good Human Factors

Verizon wireless interpreted an accessibility requirement to require they trigger a notification when the user dials 911. Verizon chose to do this audibly… exactly what you DON’T want when you’re calling the police during an emergency!

“The tone our customer experienced is our interpretation of Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act calling for a provider of telecommunications service to offer service that is accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities. The tone, indicating that 911 has been dialed, is one of several features designed to make wireless service is accessible and easy to use, especially for those with disabilities. Other features include a voice command key where customers can use their voice to dial by name or number; a voice echo feature so that a person who can’t see can hear the number or letter if sending a text; read back text messages and speech output of signal strength, battery strength, missed calls, voicemail, roaming, time and date.”

Read the full news article here.

Perhaps there was no time for use cases or personas. “Debbie sees 4 masked men breaking into her home. Trapped, she hides in the closet and dials…. oh. Wait, guys. I think we have a problem.”

Another precient post

The multiple monitor post made me think of something I read yesterday. This is from The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman in 1988.

“Would you like a pocket-size device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. I will definitely put all my reminding burdens upon it. It has to be small. It has to be convenient to use. And it has to be relatively powerful, at least by today’s standards. It has to have a full, standard typewriter keyboard and a reasonably large display. It needs good graphics, because that makes a tremendous difference in usability, and a lot of memory – a huge amount, actually. And it should be easy to hook up to the telephone; I need to connect it to my home and laboratory computers. Of course, it should be relatively inexpensive.”

When Norman wrote this, the “first PDA” had been on the market 4 years. Though armed with a full (though alphabetic) keyboard, it hardly fulfilled Norman’s ideals.

Today, of course, even the technologicaly challenged own one of these, only differing in that it IS a phone rather than having to hook it to one:

treo

One thing I find interesting: the device above fits Norman’s functional desires to a T. However, if there is anything that still needs usability improved… it is the cell phone.

And if there is anything that needs it more than a cell phone, it’s anything combined with a cell phone.