Category Archives: training

Facebook and Privacy: A Guest Post by Kelly Caine

Many of my friends have threatened to leave Facebook because of their concerns over privacy, but for the first time, this week one of them actually made good on the threat.

In his “Dear John” letter, my friend Yohann summarized the issue:

I don’t feel that I am in control of the information I share on Facebook, and of the information my friends share… FB has total control of (some of) my information, and I don’t like that.

It’s not that Yohann didn’t like Facebook–he did. He liked being able to see his friend’s latest photos and keep up with status updates. The problem was that Yohann (who is, by the way a very smart, tech savvy guy) felt unable to use the Facebook user interface to effectively maintain control of his information.

The root of this problem could be one of two things. It could be that Facebook has adopted the “evil interface” strategy (discussed by Rich previously on the human factors blog), where an interface is not designed to help a user accomplish their goals easily (a key tenet of human factors), but is instead designed to encourage (or trick) a user to behave the way the interface designer wants the user to behave (even if it’s not what the user really wants). Clearly, this strategy is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which from Facebook’s perspective is that users will stop using Facebook altogether if they feel tricked or not in control.

A more optimistic perspective is that the problem of privacy on Facebook is a human factors one: the privacy settings on Facebook need to be redesigned because they are currently not easy to use.  Here are a few human factors issues I’ve noticed.

Changes to Privacy Policy Violate Users’ Expectations

Facebook’s privacy policies have changed drastically over the years (The EFF provides a good description of the changes and Matt McKeon has made a very nice visualization of the changes).

Users, especially expert users, had likely already developed expectations about what profile information would be shared with whom. Each time Facebook changed the privacy policy (historically, always in the direction of sharing more), users had to exert effort to reformulate their understanding of what was shared by default, and work to understand how to keep certain information from being made more widely available.

Lack of Feedback

In general, there is very little feedback provided to users about the privacy level of different pieces of information on their Facebook profile. For example, by default, Facebook now considers your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, friend list, and Pages to all be public information. However, no feedback is given to users as they enter or change this information to indicate that this is considered public information.

It is unclear what is public and non-public information

While Facebook did introduce a preview function which shows a preview of what information a Facebook friend would see should they visit your profile (which is a great idea!), the preview function does not provide feedback to a user about what information they are sharing publicly or with apps. For example, you can’t type “Yelp” into the preview window to see what information Facebook would share with Yelp through Facebook connect.

You cannot preview what information Facebook shares with sites and apps

No Training (Instructions)

Finally, Facebook does not provide any training and only minimal instructions for users on how to manage privacy settings.


Fortunately, there are some relatively simple human factors solutions that could help users manage their privacy without writing their own Dear John letter to Facebook.

In terms of user expectations, given the most recent changes to Facebook’s privacy policy, it’s hard to imagine how much more the Facebook privacy policy can change. So, from an expectations standpoint, I guess that could be considered good?

In terms of interface changes to increase feedback to users, Facebook could for example, notify users when they are entering information that Facebook considers public by placing an icon beside the text box. That way, users would be given immediate feedback about which information would be shared publicly.

Globe icon indicates shared information

Finally, in terms of training, it’s fortunate that a number of people outside of Facebook have already stepped up to provide users instructions on how to use Facebook’s privacy settings. For example, in a post that dominated the NYT “most emailed” for over a month Sarah Perez explained the 3 Facebook settings she though every user should know after Facebook made sweeping changes to their privacy policy that dramatically increased the amount of information from a profile that is shared publicly. Then, after the most recent changes (in April 2010) Gina Trapani at Fast Company provided easy to use instructions complete with screen shots.

Perhaps if Facebook decides to take a human factors approach to privacy in the future, Yohann will re-friend Facebook.

Kelly Caine PhD is a research fellow in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. Her primary research interests include privacy, health technology, human factors, hci, aging, and designing for special populations.

(post image from Flickr user hyku)

Human Factors Blog @ SXSW

Anne was invited to be a panelist at SXSW on Friday, March 12 at 05:00 PM.  SXSW is a yearly music, movie, and interactive media festival held in Austin, TX.  The title of the interactive panel is With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: The Future of Video Games. Here is a description:

Video games are more popular than ever, and new games are delivering all kinds of social benefits, from video-game therapy for treating PTSD, to sims for train surgeons, to alternate-reality games that actually bring people together in real life. Will video games be a positive force for people and society in the future (as they arguably are today)? This panel is co-sponsored by Discover Magazine and the National Science Foundation.

Take a look at the event page for more information on the other panelists.  If you happen to be there, drop by and say hello.

She promises to document as much HF-relevant aspects of the conference as possible.  Here are just some of the talks she’s planning on attending:

  • History of the button
  • Long distance UX
  • Is the brain the ultimate computer interface?
  • mind control: psychology for the web
  • what guys are doing to get more girls in tech social gaming: lessons from the pioneers
  • products vs users: who’s winning
  • games for good

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

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

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)

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).


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: article on Anne’s research with Games & Aging

Our own Anne McLaughlin was featured in a recent article in  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

Task analysis (cognitive requirements of the game)

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

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.