Category Archives: multi-tasking

Recent developments in in-vehicle distractions: Voice input no better than manual input

A man uses a cell phone while driving in Burbank, California June 25, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser
Earlier this week the United States Department of Transportation released  guidelines for automakers designed to reduce the distractibility of in-vehicle technologies (e.g., navigation systems). :

The guidelines include recommendations to limit the time a driver must take his eyes off the road to perform any task to two seconds at a time and twelve seconds total.

The recommendations outlined in the guidelines are consistent with the findings of a new NHTSA naturalistic driving study, The Impact of Hand-Held and Hands-Free Cell Phone Use on Driving Performance and Safety Critical Event Risk. The study showed that visual-manual tasks associated with hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times. [emphasis added]

But a new study (I have not read the paper yet) seems to show that even when you take away the “manual” aspect through voice input, the danger is not mitigated:

The study by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University was the first to compare voice-to-text and traditional texting on a handheld device in an actual driving environment.

“In each case, drivers took about twice as long to react as they did when they weren’t texting,” Christine Yager, who headed the study, told Reuters. “Eye contact to the roadway also decreased, no matter which texting method was used.”

Pilots forget to lower landing gear after cell phone distraction

This is back from May, but it’s worth noting. A news story chock-full of the little events that can add up to disaster!

From the article:

Confused Jetstar pilots forgot to lower the wheels and had to abort a landing in Singapore just 150 metres above the ground, after the captain became distracted by his mobile phone, an investigation has found.

Major points:

  • Pilot forgets to turn off cell phone and receives distracting messages prior to landing.
  • Co-pilot is fatigued.
  •  They do not communicate with each other before taking action.
  •  Another distracting error occurred involving the flap settings on the wings.
  • They do not use the landing checklist.

I was most surprised by that last point – I didn’t know that was optional! Any pilots out there want to weigh in on how frequently checklists are skipped entirely?

 

 

Photo credit slasher-fun @ Flickr

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>

Paper isn’t so bad…

One thing that annoys me is the silly argument that paper is bad or paper kills. Such hollow arguments are used to encourage technology adoption in airplane cockpits, the class room, and hospitals. Usually they are associated with silly statistics about how much paper is saved or how much less weight is carried, or how much easier it will be to look through documents (I use an iPad to hold hundreds of articles and while I can *hold* more articles, it has not translated to more reading and it does not improve my reading comprehension at all).

We are now finally starting to see a more nuanced view of technology.  The NTSB recently proposed banning all distracting technology while driving and this NYT article discusses the downsides of blind technology adoption in hospitals.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices, hoping to curb medical error, have invested heavily to put computers, smartphones and other devices into the hands of medical staff for instant access to patient data, drug information and case studies.

But like many cures, this solution has come with an unintended side effect: doctors and nurses can be focused on the screen and not the patient, even during moments of critical care. And they are not always doing work; examples include a neurosurgeon making personal calls during an operation, a nurse checking airfares during surgery and a poll showing that half of technicians running bypass machines had admitted texting during a procedure.

I hope this brief period of common sense lasts.

Update on the BMW iDrive

Nice writeup by BimmerFile on the iDrive, a single-button input device for the non-driving functions of the BMW. I’ve excerpted my favorite portions below — specifically their connection of iDrive design to the proximity-compatibility principle and the principles of importance and frequency of use.

 BimmerFile was recently invited to Munich and into the very secret BMW labs that birthed the original HMI interface known as iDrive. There we sat down with Dr. Bernarhd Neidermaier, Head of Human Interface at BMW to talk about iDrive, the concept, and testing behind the ideas we see in modern BMWs.

As Dr. Neidermaier explained, it all starts with the study of driver distraction. In fact, it’s an idea that BMW has been studying closely since the mid 1990′s. In recent year,s BMW has moved to using eye tracking technology to better quantify what it really means to take your eyes off the road in order to interact with technology. With a special rig that consists of tiny camera attached to glasses (focusing on the eye) and another focusing on what the driver looks at, the eye-tracking process allows BMW to calculate the exact time it takes to perform any function within the car.


Finally BMW has found that controls should be located downwards (towards the center console) so the driver can operate them without having to lift their shoulder from the seat. According to BMW engineers, if your shoulder lifts and you have your seat properly adjusted the HMI design isn’t optimal. As you can see in the photo below all modern BMW’s (in this case an F10 5 Series) have been following both of these philosophies that were initially established with the E65 7 Series in 2001.

Furthermore, those functions that are needed for driving must be situated directly in front of the driver. It sounds obvious but there have been many examples over the years of driving related displays pushed towards the center. In the case of the MINI, the center speedometer. Although BMW made sure to give the driver a digital speed read-out in the tachometer directly in front of them. Without it, BMW’s smallest car would fail their own usability testing.

Based on the research a driver’s information goes from center to the sides in order of importance. That means the tertiary stuff like oil temp etc. should be well out of the way of the speed and engine RPMs.

Click here to read the entire article.

There is also a publication of this process available through the ACM Library.

Niedermaier, B., Durach, S., Eckstein, L., & Keinath, A.(2009). The new BMW iDrive – Applied processes and methods to assure high usability. ICDHM ’09 Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Digital Human Modeling: Held as Part of HCI International 2009.

Photo credit _benj_ at Flickr (I could not find any creative commons pictures of the 2011 iDrive, so this is older. Pictures are available in the linked article, however.)

Also, check out the DESIGNING*for humans blog section on Control & Display Design.

HF Potpourri

Blogging APA Division 21: The Cost of Automation Failure

Arathi Sethumadhavan, currently of Medtronic and recently of Texas Tech, was this year’s winner of the George E. Briggs dissertation award, for the best dissertation this year in the field of applied experimental psychology. Her advisor was Frank Durso.

Her work was inspired by our need to increase automation in aviation, due to increases in air traffic. However, automation does not come without costs — what happens the performance of air traffic controllers and pilots when the automation someday fails? At what point is the operator so “out of the loop” that recovery is impossible?

Sethumadhavan addressed this question by giving people different levels of automation and observing their performance after failures of the automated system. The more automated the system, the more errors occurred when that system failed.

She also measured the situation awareness of her participants in the different levels of automation — results were similar. Those who had more of their task automated had less situation awareness, and even after a system failure their awareness continued to be lower. In other words, they weren’t shocked out of complacency, as one might predict.

Sethumadhaven’s work directly contributes to understanding the human in the loop of the automated system, so that we can predict their behavior and explore design options to prevent errors due to putting the controller out of the loop.

You can read more on Dr. Sethumadhavan’s work here. Congratulations to her on this award!

Photo credit isafmedia under a Creative Commons license.

Driving, texting, and eating?

Multiple behavioral studies have demonstrated our difficulties with multi-tasking. A new study provides the neurological mechanisms for those findings (and more behavioral data, of course!).

From the LiveScience article:

For those who find it tough to juggle more than a couple things at once, don’t despair. The brain is set up to manage two tasks, but not more, a new study suggests.

That’s because, when faced with two tasks, a part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MFC) divides so that half of the region focuses on one task and the other half on the other task. This division of labor allows a person to keep track of two tasks pretty readily, but if you throw in a third, things get a bit muddled.

Scientific American also has a nice writeup of this work by Etienne Koechlin and his lab. The SciAm article even gets into a bit of the task sharing/task switching debate:

The new work does not, however, show that the brain can actually execute two distinct tasks, such as letter matching, at precisely the same time, Paul Dux a psychology lecturer at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Australia, noted in an email to ScientificAmerican.com. The data reveal that though separate goals might be running concurrently in the brain, “there are still large dual-task costs” when people have to switch between two tasks making for “non-efficient multitasking,” cautioned Dux, who was not involved in the new research but has also studied attention in the brain. (Some commonplace activities, such as driving and talking on a cell phone frequently go hand-in-hand, but the brain is likely switching its main focus quickly between the two activities, perhaps a reason the pairing has been so dangerous.)

The tasks in the imaging study were letter and word matching tasks and appeared to require controlled processing. These types of tasks are resource demanding, error prone, and performed serially. I’ll go on record as saying I’d expect different results with more than two tasks trained to automaticity and with non-overlapping resource demands.

Here is a link to the original source*:

Charron, S. & Koechlin, E. (2010). Divided Representation of Concurrent Goals in the Human Frontal Lobes. Science, 328, 360 – 363.

*You may have to be on a network that subscribes to Science.

“Sully” Sullenberger to Speak at the HFES 2010 Conference

I received word today that Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will give the keynote address at the 2010 Human Factors and Ergonomics Conference in San Francisco this October.

Not only am I excited to hear him speak, I am excited because he is the perfect choice for a Human Factors audience: he has spoken publicly on interface and instruction issues in aviation and should have an interesting take on responding to an emergency in the midst of a complex task (albeit one he was well-trained for).

Check out this clip of him on The Daily Show, where he talks about the disconnect between design for everyday use versus emergency use when referring to tabs on emergency manuals. The HF starts right at 3 minutes.

Here is a 3-D recreation of the flight complete with audio tape.

I often use this clip in presentations when discussing expert performance.

Photo credit Jim Davidson

Distracted Driving: The Experience

We’ve posted quite a bit on driving before, but these new links are too good to be missed.

This first video from the NYT goes over the dangers of multi-tasking while driving (including on-the-street interviews of what American’s might think) and ends with an interview with David Strayer of the University of Utah, including a video of his lab simulator in action.

This second is a game you can play to prove to yourself just how bad driving while texting can be. I won’t give away the surprise ending, but let’s just say I’m dangerous. (Your hint about the surprise is Simon and Chabris (1999).)

Thanks to Travis Bowles of Oracle Corp. for bringing these videos to my attention.