Category Archives: hci

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.

Fast Food Wednesday

I was browsing the nutrition information for Moe’s the other day and was struck by the uniqueness of their interface. It let’s you specify exactly what you order, exactly how you order, at their restaurant. Give it a try (click on “Nutrition” in the menu at bottom.) This is obviously an interface for those who need to know just how many calories are in those jalapeno bits.

moes

As an informal comparison, check out these interfaces from Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King. They all make assumptions, perhaps correct, about their users. For example, it was pointed out to me that taco bell makes sure it’s easy for you to have more than one of the same item (since that’s how people order… two soft tacos, please).

tacobell

McDonald’s seems to think that importing the same table they provide in-restaurant is the way to go.

mcd1

Burger King pretends to be novel, with the “big book of nutrition”, but exploration of any item eventually turns up a table.

bk1

bk2

It does seem to be the most parental of the sites, offering as many tips on how to eat as telling you what they serve.

These interfaces are so rich with both good and bad human factors, I can’t possibly cover it in one post. Let us know your favorites!

The New Field of Unmanned Aircraft

Though for some, turning war into a video game might remind them of 1984, unmanned aircraft offer unparalleled safety to the pilot.

NPR recently covered the technological and social changes that come with unmanned aircraft, but the human factors of tracking, flying, and manipulating the Predator was not mentioned.

Obvious issues include:

  • Lag time from the camera halfway around the world
  • Limited acuity and field of view
  • Decision-making (e.g., bombing a target on a screen vs. dropping a bomb on people)
  • High loss of equipment (if not pilot life)

In short, I worry that the news presented to the public paints a too-rosy picture of these aircraft, implying that we will eventually have robots fighting robots from the comfort of our own homes.

I’d like to hear from people what they consider to be the most interesting human factors challenge of unmanned vehicles. I don’t know much about the design of their interfaces and whether they are more similar to a cockpit or a game console, but I’m interested to learn. Feel free to comment!

game

cockpit