Category Archives: training

Careers in Human Factors & Aging

A graduate student contacted me with questions about career paths for those of us in HF with an aging background.  This sounded like a great opportunity for discussion so I’m posting it here.  If you can contribute responses to any or all of these questions, please leave a comment!

I am giving a presentation on the Aging Technical Group [of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society] in my Human Factors Professional Issues course and the focus is on potential career options in this area. I am gathering information from past ATG newsletters and publications within HFES Proceedings in recent years.

I am emailing you to ask if you could provide any additional career-related information. Some questions that I thought might be relevant are listed below.

  1. What are the most common areas of research within human factors in aging?
  2. What are some of the largest changes in research trends within this area?
  3. What are the most common types of careers that individuals working in aging within the realm of human factors typically hold?
  4. What are some unexpected places that one may find hf aging professionals employed?
  5. Is there anything in particular that sets careers in aging apart from working within other areas of hf?
  6. Any other information you can provide about careers in this area

Also, if you could provide any additional suggestions for resources where I might find more information (other than what I listed above), I would very much appreciate it.

Redesigning Toyota’s Keyless Ignition System

The LA Times reporters Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian recently wrote a story about keyless ignition systems and the associated HF issues (we blogged about it here).  In a follow-up story, they report that Toyota is considering redesigning the system so that instead of requiring a single 3-second press to shut off the engine, it now requires 3 consecutive presses.  This is to address the fact that drivers, in emergency situations, don’t readily know how to stop the car:

Amid its widening recall crisis, Toyota Motor Corp. said it had moved closer to adopting changes to its push-button ignition system to give drivers an added margin of safety if their vehicles accelerate out of control.

Executives at the company’s headquarters in Japan are considering redesigning the keyless ignition system, known as Smart Key, to allow drivers to shut off the engine by tapping the button three times in a row, company spokesman Brian Lyons said.

But it might be a hasty fix since very little research has gone into how users expect it to operate:

Paul Green, a human factors expert at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said Toyota and other carmakers have designed push-button start systems with very little research about how consumers naturally expect such systems to operate.  Green said that if Toyota now rushes a redesign into production without any new research, “it is really risky.”

I was quoted too:

According to Richard Pak, a professor of psychology at Clemson University who studies human interaction with technology, the safest kind of ignition switch is one that works in an intuitive manner. That’s because in a panic situation, humans “revert to [very well] learned behavior.”

“When you’re out of control at 80 miles per hour, you’re not going to remember complicated things,” Pak said.

HF Graduate Programs: North Carolina State University

This is the second post in our 2-part look at some HF programs.  Rich’s post about Clemson’s program can be found here.

The psychology graduate program at NCSU in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A, boasts eight faculty in the Human Factors and Ergonomics specialization. This is in addition to the faculty in our sister program in Industrial Engineering and related faculty in areas as diverse as Industrial Design and Education.  Graduates of the program can be found both in academia and industry (e.g., Virginia Tech faculty, IBM, HumanCentric, Dell).

A sampling of the kinds of research we do here:

  • Warnings – when are they appropriate, how to create them, how they can be misunderstood
  • Medication adherence – when do people share their prescriptions with others?
  • Methods of knowledge acquisition for collecting data from experts to be used to create artificial intelligence, training programs, and display formats
  • Designing instruction and feedback for diverse cognitive ability levels
  • Controlling robots
  • Spatial math
  • Visual spatial perception, auditory spatial perception
  • The intersection of technology and human aging

We also have an active Human Factors and Ergonomics Society student chapter.

Our admissions process begins in the fall, when we start accepting applications for review in January. The current deadline for applications is January 1st of each year, but check the website to be certain.

I’m happy to answer emails from prospective students. Let me know what areas you are interested in and I can help connect you with the faculty here closest to those areas.

The director of our graduate program is the best person to ask about admissions and requirements:

Donald H. Mershon, Ph.D.

email: don_mershon at ncsu.edu

The website for the Director of Graduate Programs

Keyless Ignition in Emergencies: Do you know what to do?

This story in the LA Times illustrates several important HF/usability issues.  First, the  importance of knowing what the user knows before introducing new, seemingly “simple” technology, or changing the way they currently do things (in this case, what people know about ignition systems and how they start their cars).  Second, like the story about the alarms, it also clearly illustrates that using things under normal circumstances is different for people under stress.

The sleek Infiniti G37 Cindy Marsh bought last August was the car of her dreams, equipped with the latest keyless electronics technology that allows her to start the engine with the touch of a button.

Button in the G37

But right away, the system gave her trouble. To get the engine started, she would sometimes have to tap the power button repeatedly. Sometimes it wouldn’t start unless she opened and closed the car doors, Marsh recalled.

She eventually adapted to the system’s quirks but said that even now she isn’t sure how to shut off the engine in an emergency.

In complaints to federal regulators, motorists have reported that they were unable to shut down engines during highway emergencies, including sudden acceleration events. In other cases, parked vehicles accidentally rolled away and engines were left running for hours without their owners realizing it.

And although traditional keys all work the same way and are universally understood by consumers, automakers have adopted different procedures for using the keyless ignition systems. As a result, owners may not know how to operate their own cars in an emergency, let alone a rented or borrowed car.

(Post image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/7755055@N04/2881681649)

HF Graduate Programs: Clemson University

This is the first post in our 2-part look at some HF programs. Anne’s post about North Carolina State University’s program can be found here.

Did you know that Human Factors is not only a fun blog, but something you could get a graduate degree in?  The field is known by many names but they are the same, more or less¹ (for example, Anne and I received our degree in “engineering psychology”).

The degree is fairly generic and is defined further by specialization (for example, human-computer interaction and usability are closely associated with HF but by no means limited to it).  Human factors graduates work in industry (evaluating software/hardware usability, designing), government, and research.

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) website has a non-exhaustive list of accredited programs in the U.S.  Clemson’s HF graduate degree program [link to Clemson’s program, HFES link to Clemson] is the only accredited program in South Carolina.  Anne will highlight her own university (North Carolina State University).  If you’d like to mention your program (or Alma mater, please comment, especially our international readers).

Unfortunately, we probably should have done these posts months ago when students were researching and applying to programs but better late than never!  Still deciding on whether to do the M.S. or PhD?  See this article (PDF link) provided by HFES.  It’s old but still has great information.

Clemson University

Clemson University is located in Clemson, South Carolina which is situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains (in the upper left corner of the state).  The area is known as the “upstate” of South Carolina and is adjacent to one of the largest metropolitan areas of the state (Greenville-Spartanburg area).

The Department of Psychology at Clemson University offers both master’s and PhD degrees in Human Factors.  Clemson’s program is newer than most (established in 1988) but already has graduated several PhD students who work in academia and industry.  The faculty have a wide variety of research interests.  My own interests are pretty well covered by my posts on this blog.

We do not have rolling admissions; instead, applications are accepted yearly and acceptances are made in mid-late spring.  It is probably a very good idea to target people who’s research sounds interesting to you and then ask them if they are taking students that year.

Feel free to ask me questions about the program but the best person to ask is our graduate coordinator:

Dr. Robert Sinclair
Clemson University
Department of Psychology
418 Brackett Hall
Clemson, SC 29634
(864) 656-3931
(864) 656-0358 (fax)
rsincla@clemson.edu

¹similar terms to human factors:  applied cognitive psychology, applied experimental psychology, engineering psychology

When Users Complain: Blackboard

There is a great article over at Inside Higher Ed. describing what happens when a company without evidence of a usability process finally asks its users for feedback.

At an open “listening session” with top executives of Blackboard here Wednesday at the company’s annual conference, college officials expressed frustration with many of the system’s fundamental characteristics. At times, the meeting seemed to turn into a communal gripe session, with complaints ranging from the system’s discussion forum application, to the improved — but still lacking — user support, to the training materials for faculty members. Participants’ concerns were often greeted with nods of agreement and outright applause from their peers as they spoke of their frustrations with the system.

“Every time we have a migration [to an updated version of Blackboard], we have new features to figure out. You should be providing us workable faculty materials with your product,” one commenter said amidst applause by those in the audience. “You put the burden on ourselves … and then create the documentation and then train. That’s why so many of us struggle to move forward to the next [version]. We are Blackboard on our campuses, and for us to be advocates, you have to give us the tools to be successful — training.” She emphasized that she would rather see more of a focus on fundamentals like training than updated versions of the software.

As a long time user of Blackboard (at two universities) I can speak about it in HF terms. One of the biggest usability problems with the system comes from mode errors.

  • There are multiple modes, each with their own set of sometimes overlapping (sometimes not) features.
  • You can perform 60% of a complex, time-consuming task in one mode, only to realize that it cannot be completed in that mode and you have to start over in another.
  • I can see how users would blame themselves, thinking “I KNEW I had to be in build mode to do that. I just didn’t remember to change from teach mode.”

Here is an example screen. The left screen shows “build” mode, with the sidebar options open. Once the user realizes the task can’t be completed in build mode and must be done in “teach” mode, he or she clicks “teach” and the left screen appears. (Screens are overlapped for this example only).

blackboard

Notice the similarity of the pages. No longer can you add a file because you are ‘teaching.’ Adding content to your course is not considered teaching. Last, the sidebar collapses when a mode is changed. Because the icons are not helpful, this means navigation in the new mode requires the extra click on the sidebar to open it back up before starting the task anew.

I could go on, but the amount of time and analysis I have put into Blackboard over the last six years would require a consulting fee from them. 🙂

(post image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8078381@N03/3279725831/)

Time.com article on Anne’s research with Games & Aging

Our own Anne McLaughlin was featured in a recent article in Time.com.  Anne and her colleagues Jason Allaire (NCSU) and Maribeth Gandy (Georgia Tech) were recently awarded a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study using games to moderate cognitive decline in older adults.

Their plan is to study what parts of games might help cognitive performance and then to create a new game based on these components.

There is, of course, no cure for memory loss, and no preventive vaccine. Yet a rapidly growing body of evidence suggests that certain behaviors may reliably slow the effects of age-related cognitive decline. Chief among them: eating right, exercising and engaging in social activity and mentally challenging tasks.

McLaughlin and Allaire’s new study will follow 270 seniors as they play the Wii game Boom Blox. Gameplay involves demolishing targets like a medieval castle or a space ship using an arsenal of weapons such as slingshots and cannonballs. While those particular skills may not seem transferable to off-screen life, McLaughlin says she and her colleagues chose Boom Blox specifically because it does require a wide range of real-world skills, including memory, special ability, reasoning and problem solving.  [ed: ‘special ability’ should be spatial ability]

Why Boom Blox?  Anne tells me that she:

“…actually chose the game after doing task analyses on many games, seeing what fit our profile, then showing those games to OA [older adults] in a focus group and getting “buy in” for what they said they would play.”

Below is an annotated screen shot of Boom Blox and an excerpt of the task analysis of the game and what abilities are required.

Annotated screen shot of Boom Blox
Annotated screen shot of Boom Blox

all
Task analysis (cognitive requirements of the game)

[Can Gaming Slow Mental Decline in the Elderly? at Time.com]

Emergency Checklists and Aviation

The recent water landing into the Hudson is still being investigated. This AP article focuses on whether flight attendants were trained not to open the back door of the plane during a water landing, but the most interesting bit comes at the end:

Another concern is whether the FAA and airlines need to revise emergency procedures for pilots in the event both engines fail. Those procedures usually involve a sequence of many steps called a checklist. There are different checklists depending upon the problem, but most are based on the expectation that the problem will occur while the plane is flying at a high altitude — airliners typically cruise above 20,000 feet, giving pilots time to identify and correct the problem.

Flight 1549’s first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, told a congressional panel in February that he only had time to make it part of the way through a checklist for restarting the engines when Sullenberger sent the plane into the river.

Sumwalt suggested it would be better for airlines to train pilots to remember one procedure for a low-altitude dual engine failure, rather than go through a long checklist of items while altitude rapidly diminishes.

Game Players as Future Warriors

I heard an interview over the weekend on the use of robots in war. A fascinating bit from that story was that as modern warfare moves to soldiers manipulating robots from afar, the military leveraged the existing research and development of game companies in the design of hand held controllers (at 13:43 in the streaming interview).

So the predator drone remote control probably looks very similar to your PS3 or Xbox controller! It makes sense as both tasks are nearly identical (as far as I can tell).

It was also interesting that the 19-year old Army specialist who trains remote operators honed his skill by playing video games (at around 14:30 in the interview).

Related, the Designing for Humans blog has a great, multi-part series on the ergonomics for interaction designers.  Part 3 is very relevant to hand held controller design.

Return of the Checklist!

Paper to the rescue again!

From the January 14th New York Times:

“Surgical complications are a considerable cause of death and disability around the world,” the researchers wrote in the online edition of The New England Journal of Medicine. “They are devastating to patients, costly to health care systems and often preventable.”

But a year after surgical teams at eight hospitals adopted a 19-item checklist, the average patient death rate fell more than 40 percent and the rate of complications fell by about a third, the researchers reported.

We always recommend the primary source at the HFblog, so you can read that for yourself here.

Right-click to download the (PDF).

This is their brief summary of the results:

Results The rate of death was 1.5% before the checklist was introduced and declined to 0.8% afterward (P=0.003). Inpatient complications occurred in 11.0% of patients at baseline and in 7.0% after introduction of the checklist (P<0.001).

I was personally impressed at the scope of this study. They didn’t just look at one hospital, or even several US hospitals. They found these effects in Toronto, Canada; New Delhi, India; Amman, Jordan; Auckland, New Zealand; Manila, Philippines; Ifakara, Tanzania; London, England; and Seattle, WA.

One caveat was the possible presence of the Hawthorne effect. It’s possible, though their data collection spanned 6 months, which sounds long enough for people to relax back into their normal habits.

Reference:

Haynes, A.B., et al. (2009). A Surgical Safety Checklist to Reduce Morbidity and Mortality in a Global Population. New England Journal of Medicine, 360(5), 491-499.