Category Archives: usability

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]

USNews Best Careers in 2008: User experience specialist

Usability specialists make sure that products, especially technical ones, are easy and pleasurable to use. How? First, they observe and interview potential users to identify their needs and preferences. After a prototype is developed, they watch and interview potential users again and suggest revisions. Not surprisingly, the job outlook for usability specialists is strong. The number of new, complex products is proliferating, and many of them demand a usability specialist.

[link to USNews]

“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]

“Domestic products bad designs are out of control”

A very nice main-stream article on the problem of bad human factors in consumer products. In retrospect, I am often suprised how tolerant *I* am of bad design/usability.

If the cockpit of a Boeing 747 were as badly designed as some kitchen appliances, most of us would never make it to Denver alive. Imagine a jet pilot having to fumble around for the landing gear lever because it looks just like all the other controls.

Thankfully, truly savvy designers are finally returning to basic ergonomic principles – simple, comprehensible and intuitive controls that can be distinguished by position, shape, color or touch. Now, if only Bosch would hire one of them.

[link to SF Chronicle]

Intuition vs Experience with Roundabouts

Some people might say a traffic circle is obvious. There is only one way to go.. who yields might be more difficult, but at least we are all driving in the same direction.

Not so.

The following two articles come down on the side of experience for the usability of roundabouts.

New Traffic Circle Causes Confusion

Death-crash car launches off the road and into a first floor flat

I am sure the designers believed that if millions of people in London and hundreds of thousands in New Orleans can handle a roundabout, these citizens of a town so small they don’t even bother to mention where it is would do fine.

Facebook privacy issue may be a usability issue?

I am not on the Facebook wagon but I found the controversy over Facebook’s Beacon interesting. Users were inadvertently displaying their online purchases to their friends on Facebook. Facebook claims that users could opt-out of showing this information but many users said it was not obvious. Here are some before and after screenshots [from the NYT blog entry]:

BEFORE [note the very faint X on the right]:

americangangster533.jpg

AFTER [note the word remove after the X]:

epicurious533.jpg

[link]

Why Human Factors is more than providing safety equipment

The new math and physics building is going up outside my window at North Carolina State. I see the workers out there each day, and as the building gets higher they are obviously required to don different safety gear.

The fuzzy picture below shows two workers on the top level (7th floor) and the green highlight is my outline of the full body harness and safety cord the man is wearing. Indeed, it seemed necessary as whatever tool he is using seems to push him off balance with every use (some sort of nail gun?)

workers.jpg

However. Unlike the man behind him, this worker has not attached his safety cord to anything. It merely drags along behind him as he walks around the platform and crawls in and out of the scaffold. In fact, it seems to get in his way when the clasp on the cord catches on the corrugated surface of the platform.

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.