Category Archives: humor

Distracted Learning

In addition to distracted driving, and walking, now there is increasing awareness of distracted learning.  This has long been a problem in academic circles but it’s finally getting some news coverage.

Some professors in Ottawa want the right to ban laptops in class:

The University of Ottawa is considering a proposal which would give its professors the power to ban laptops and other electronic devices in the classroom.

Professors say everything from texting to time on Facebook is allowing their students to do everything but learn.

“They are distracted and we are competing with that for their attention,” says University of Ottawa professor Marcel Turcotte who voted in favour of the policy.

“You see one student who is really not listening, would be watching the video and then it’s kind of contagious,” says Turcotte.

As a professor, I see my share of this as well.  Every classroom has wireless and it’s just too tempting to browse Facebook and other non-relevant sites while in class.  A student once told me that they are distracted by OTHER people’s laptops when that other student is watching Youtube or browsing Facebook:  secondhand distraction.

I happen to see more phone texting in my classes.  <begin RANT>My opinion is that there is nothing special about a laptop where it deserves special treatment over any other technology (it’s not a magical note-taking tool).  If we take a more critical analysis of what the students and administrator say in the article:

But many students say they learn better with a laptop and the vice president of the university’s student federation says it’s an important tool.

What does that mean?  “Learn better”?  How do they know?  And what does “important tool” mean?  Again, it’s just a word processor; not a magical note-taking tool.  It’s attitudes and implicit assumptions like this (more specifically, a blind, unquestioning trust that the simple PRESENCE of a high technology tool will inevitably lead to better outcomes; it HAS to, it’s HIGH TECH!) that’s a major problem.  It’s marketing speak by companies who want to sell and integrate very expensive technology into our cars, classrooms, phones, and offices and administrators just eat it up.  What problem is being solved? <end RANT>

Older adults and Windows 8

In an earlier post we discussed how illuminating simple user testing can be. The video below is computer blogger Chris Pirrilo who put his dad in front of the new Windows 8 Preview. The dad seems to be relatively sophisticated and knows about Windows 7 but is completely flummoxed by Windows 8 new “Metro” interface.

Note that this is the reaction of just one person but we shouldn’t discount it. Plenty of users (both young and old) are not as sophisticated as you and I. I guess Anne and I (and other human factors & aging researchers) will still have lots of work!

(via Daring Fireball)

Humans and Automation on the Colbert Report

Look! A human factors colleague on the Colbert Report! Does this mean we’re cool?

Dr. Missy Cummings, Associate Professor at MIT
Director of the Humans and Automation Lab

Miller Column Inception (or the geekiest movie you’ll see today)

Miller Columns are the browsing/visualization technique used in the Mac OSX Finder. It was inherited from the NeXT operating system (one of my favorites). I personally prefer this to the tree view that’s common in Windows Explorer.

The embedded video below summarizes the essential action of the movie Inception (spoiler alert!):

INCEPTION_FOLDER from chris baker on Vimeo.

(via Kottke)

Does this color make me look fat?

Funny post from Consumer Reports showing that perceptions are altered by color:

Wearing black is the time-honored technique for appearing thinner without shedding an pound. Apparently it works for the iPhone 4, as well. Recently an avalanche of news and tech sites reported that the white iPhone 4 was thicker than the black iPhone, even showing side-by-side photos claiming it was 2mm thicker than the black version.

Consumer reports tested the claim. Head on over to see the results.
Remember, trust your instruments, not your perceptions. 😉

More reading:
Nakano, M., Tanabe, S., Mori, Y., Ikegami, B., & Fujita, I. (2005). Expansive and contractive size perception with color patches. Journal of Vision, 5(8).

Photo credit Mujitra at Flickr.

Trashcan Affordances

The picture above shows the front and back of a trashcan designed to be lifted by machinery.

This past weekend I helped my parents start to clear their home for an upcoming move and filled this trashcan to capacity. I didn’t want my mother to have to haul it to the street, so I went to go do that before I left.

I looked at the front of the can and saw the metal bar (left picture). I looked at the can and saw the wheels were on the other side and thought “I guess I grab the bar so it tilts onto the wheels.” When I did it pretty much instantly tipped over and dumped out all of the items it contained (many of which weren’t in bags, since I knew it was dumped by a machine into the truck).

Because, of course, you should grab the handles at the top (right picture) and lean the can toward you on the wheels. But I saw the bar, so I did what you do with a bar and grabbed it. I learned two things: 1. I don’t know much about trashcans (lucky me?) and 2. Sometimes affordances are for non-humans… that bar was to be grabbed by the dumptruck machine, not me!

Usability vs. Providing an Experience

Some humor for 2011: a “Things people have never said about a restaurant” website.

My favorite excerpts:

“I really like the way their cheesy elevator jazz interacts with the music I was listening to in iTunes.”

“I hope the phone number and address are actually images so I can’t copy and paste them!”

“I go to restaurant websites for the ambiance.”

“Who needs the phone number of a restaurant when you could be enjoying stock photos of food?”

A quick search turned up a few more rants about restaurant sites. Looks like an epidemic!

  • Restaurant websites: the great and the terrible
  • “A couple of days ago, a friend was asking me for a restaurant recommendation. Easy task, I thought. I had some restaurants in mind and just needed to check and see if they were open and send her the websites. What should have been a 5-minute email turned into a half-hour nightmare as I slogged through websites that are more intent on impressing me with movies, music, and other annoyances than on giving me direct information.”
  • Why ARE restaurant sites so bad?
  • “Who thinks it’s good idea to blast annoying music at people going to your site? Why do they so often rely on Flash, which doesn’t really add anything to the experience, when half the time people are looking up the site on mobile devices to get basic information? Why this bizarre preference for menus in PDF format?”
  • Restaurant websites: casting the net
  • “… has a notoriously ludicrous website which – granted – may well appeal to the sort of ‘zany’ people who eat there. As for everyone else, it will probably just make you want to smash your fist through your monitor.”

Perhaps I’m still unhappy about spending an hour looking for a place to eat in Little Rock last weekend. Flash websites and PDF menus on a 2007 Sprint Treo is not for the faint of heart.

The Elusive Moodle!

Had to share this funny usability story. Google released the top searches by city today

First on the list for Raleigh, NC was “moodle ncsu.” Topping the list for Charlotte, NC was “moodle nccu.”

Moodle is the recently adopted open source courseware system we (NCSU: North Carolina State University) use. When I use Moodle to interact with my classes, I need to go to

This link is impossible to remember, as it fits none of the conventions used by other university systems. I always expect it to be:

  • (nope)
  • (nope)

For example, the library is The student center is

I laughed when I saw the search results because I personally search for “moodle ncsu” at least once a week! Obviously even frequent users cannot internalize the way it is linked. I suspect that if there were a redirect from to this would no longer be the top google search in Raleigh, NC. I bet the same is true for NCCU in Charlotte.