Category Archives: usability

Potpourri–Lazy Summer Edition

It’s summer and we (along with some of you) are taking a break.  But here’s a list of interesting usability/HF-related things that have crossed my path:

  • After much complaining, Ford is bringing back physical knobs in their MyTouch in-car controls.  Anne and I worked on some research (PDF) in our past lives as graduate students that directly compared touch-only interfaces to knob-based interfaces so it’s nice to see it is still a major issue; if only Ford read our 9 year old paper 🙂
  • Trucks driving under very low bridges is such a large problem in Australia that they are deploying a really novel and clever warning system.  A waterfall that projects a sign that’s hard to miss!
  • tags_finderApple will introduce their next version of OSX in the fall. One of the features i’m most excited about is system-level tag support.  Tags allow users to organize their files regardless of location or type.  I’m particularly interested in personal, single-user-generated tagging (compared to collaborative tagging like that used in flickr) as it appears to benefit older adults information organization and retrieval (PDF).  This pleases me.


Another edition of potpourri where I surface some of the more interesting HF/usability links that have crossed my path.

Usability of a Glass Dashboard?


I had heard that the Tesla Model S (the luxury electric car) had a giant touch screen as one of the main interfaces for secondary car functions and always wondered what that might be like from a human factors/usability perspective. Physical knobs and switches, unlike interface widgets, give a tactile sensation and do not change location on the dashboard.

This post is an interesting examination of the unique dashboard:

Think about a car’s dashboard for a second. It’s populated with analog controls: dials, knobs, and levers, all of which control some car subsystem such as temperature, audio, or navigation. These analog dials, while old, have two features: tactility and physical analogy. Respectively, this means you can feel for a control, and you have an intuition for how the control’s mechanical action affects your car (eg: counterclockwise on AC increases temperature). These small functions provide a very, very important feature: they allow the driver to keep his or her eyes on the road.

Except for a the privileged few that have extraordinary kinesthetic sense of where our hands are, the Model S’s control scheme is an accident waiting to happen. Hell, most of us can barely type with two hands on an iPhone. Now a Model S driver has to manage all car subsystems on a touchscreen with one hand while driving.

The solution, however, is may not be heads-up displays or augmented reality, as the author suggests (citing the HUD in the BMW).


While those displays allow the eye to remain on the road it’s always in the way–a persistent distraction. Also, paying attention to the HUD means your attention will not be on the road–and what doesn’t get paid attention to doesn’t exist:

Begging robots, overly familiar websites, and the power of the unconscious?

Hello readers, and sorry for the unintentional hiatus on the blog. Anne and I have been recovering from the just-completed semester only to be thrown back into another busy semester.  As we adjust, feast on this potpourri post of interesting HF-related items from the past week.

In todays HF potpourri we have three very interesting and loosely related stories:

  • There seems to be a bit of a resurgence in the study of anthropomorphism in HF/computer science primarily because…ROBOTS.  It’s a topic I’ve written about [PDF] in the context of human-automation interaction.  The topic has reached mainstream awareness because NPR just released a story on the topic
  • The BBC looks at the rise of websites that seem to talk to us in a very informal, casual way.  Clearly, the effect on the user is not what was intended:

The difference is the use of my name. I also have a problem with people excessively using my name. I feel it gives them some power over me and overuse implies disingenuousness. Like when you ring a call centre where they seem obsessed with saying your name.

Paper prototyping made easier

Paper prototyping is a common usability technique to quickly test out an interaction before expending too much effort on programming or designing.  The value in paper prototyping is that with extremely low effort, you can test the interaction rather than the appearance of an interface.

I just came across a great iOS app that lets you add some real interactivity to your paper prototypes:  POP Prototyping on Paper.  You simply sketch out your screen, take a picture using your iPhone camera, and then add interactivity.  It’s a brilliantly simple idea.


Principles of Animation in UI Design

Smashing Magazine posts a great article on some principles for including animation in mobile UIs.  I think the use of animation is under-estimated by some HF people because it’s hard to quanitfy the “performance benefit” (e.g., they may not increase the speed at which a user completes a task).

Some notable examples of animation are the infamous Apple’s page bounce-back, the page-curl in e-book apps or the bouncing icons on a Mac (or expanding/minimizing windows on Mac/PC).  Difficulty in quantifying objective benefits may lead some to dismiss animations as superfluous and unneccessarily ornate.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  Animations provide a fluidity that makes interfaces feel responsive even delightful.

The article provides a lot of reasons for the benefits and most appropriate use of animation. It’s typical Smashing Magazine (i.e., LOOONG) so save it to read later!

(post image from the article)

Goodbye Mouse?

Story in the Washington Post about the impending demise of the computer mouse in favor of touch screens:

“Most children here have never seen a computer mouse,” said Hannah Tenpas, 24, a kindergarten teacher at San Antonio.

“The popularity of iPads and other tablets is changing how society interacts with information,” said Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “. . . Direct manipulation with our fingers, rather than mediated through a keyboard/mouse, is intuitive and easy for children to grasp.”

I realize the media needs a strong narrative to make an interesting story but the mouse is nowhere near dead.  The story is more complicated and completely depends on the task.  There are certain applications where the precise pointing afforded by mice are just too cumbersome with touch screens.

The article also has a great graphic describing how touch screens work and a short retrospective of input devices.

(post image from flickr user aperturismo)

App Usability Evaluations for the Mental Health Field

We’ve posted before on usability evaluations of iPads and apps for academics (e.g.,here, and here), but today I’d like to point to a blog dedicated to evaluating apps for mental health professionals.

In the newest post, Dr. Jeff Lawley discusses the usability of a DSM Reference app from Kitty CAT Psych. For those who didn’t take intro psych in college, the DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which classifies symptoms into disorders. It’s interesting to read an expert take on this app – he considers attributes I would not have thought of, such as whether the app retains information (privacy issues).

As Dr. Lawley notes on his “about” page, there are few apps designed for mental health professionals and even fewer evaluations of these apps. Hopefully his blog can fill that niche and inspire designers to create more mobile tools for these professionals.

User Testing for Interplanetary Expeditions

I was listening  to the Big Picture Science podcast on my way to work this morning when I heard  a great example of how to test equipment prior to a mission. Hosts are Molly Bentley and Seth Shostak.

The interview was with Dr. Jennifer Heldmann, an astrobiologist who studies “Mars analogues” on earth – the Atacama Desert in South America and the very cold, very dry “dry valleys” in Antarctica. Her main purpose is to investigate whether (and what kinds of) microbial life can survive in these conditions, but she also tests the methods we might use to collect samples from other planets. Here is a transcript describing a usability test in  “A Martian Curiosity”:


Bentley: Well Jennifer, I was looking at a picture of you in a spacesuit. And you were standing in an alien land, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Mars, and it wasn’t even the moon. Where were you?

Heldmann: That could have been a number of places, I’ve worn spacesuits in a variety of places. All on Earth, I might add. Because we do a lot of work here on Earth to study and learn how to go and operate on other planets. So, for example, I would love love love to send people to Mars, so we can explore that planet, it’s really hard to do that, though. And we have to learn “how do you live on Mars?” “How do you work on Mars?” “How do you talk to people back on Earth from Mars?” And so, to answer those really important questions, we go out and we test it. We go to places on Earth that are like Mars. Mars is really really cold and Mars is really really dry, and so we go to cold and dry places.

Bentley: Can you share with us a story about what it’s like to walk around in some of these environments with a spacesuit on? Anything that surprised you?

Heldmann: Yes, there was one time out in Utah, we were at the Mars Desert Research Station, wearing a spacesuit, and we had a camera crew with us, because there was a group doing a documentary about Mars analogues and working out in Mars. So we said “sure, come with us, we’re going to do an EVA, an Extra Vehicular Activity, which means we’re going to wear our spacesuits and walk around, and get some rocks, and get some samples, great, come out with us. So we had little sample bags, and we had them in our backpacks, and we had our spacesuits on, and we get to the rock outcrop, and we pick up the rocks. And these are great, these are just what we were looking for, we’re all excited, and then we go to put the samples in the bag and we couldn’t get the bags open. Because we’re wearing these big, thick gloves.. you don’t think about this ahead of time! You just think “oh I’ll open the bag, and I’ll put the rock in. How hard is that?” It’s really hard when you have a spacesuit on.”

Bentley: What were they, like a ziplock bag or nylon mesh? Velcro? What was it?

Heldmann: Yes, it was a ziplock type of thing. You just had to pull it apart. Really simple, we do it every day in the kitchen, right? But with those big, thick gloves on we could not get our sample bags open. It was very embarrassing to have a film crew watching you for hours try to open a ziplock bag. It would have been really simple to just take the glove off and open the bag, but on Mars you can’t do that.

Bentley: And it would have been a bummer to go to Mars and find great rocks and then not put them into a bag and bring them back.

Heldmann: Exactly!


Then, to my delight, later in the podcast the hosts took it upon themselves to make an analogue of the equipment used in the Mars mission analogue and do a think-aloud. (18:01)

Bentley: Seth, could you put on those oven mitts that I set down in front of you, please?

Shostak: Why, are we getting some pizza out of the oven? What’s the deal?

Bentley: Ok. So you see what else I put down there, in front of you?

Shostak: Yeah, this giant ziplock bag.

Bentley: Yes, this may be the largest ziplock back I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a body bag size.

Shostak: I was almost going to say “Did you order this from ‘Mafia supply company'”? What do you want me to do with this bag?

Bentley: It’s closed, right now. Jennifer was trying to open a ziplock bag, she said, while she was in the desert, and she wasn’t able to do it for the cameras. What I want you to do is open it and describe what you’re doing. Now, you have oven mitts on .

Shostak: Well, actually it isn’t too hard to open this, if you want to know the truth, because it’s so big that even with oven mitts.. watch. (crinkle sounds) Maybe it’s not so easy. Pull it!

Bentley: C’mon, Seth! The Martian rocks are waiting for you. (struggling sounds)

Shostak: Well, those Martian rocks are safe from me because I cannot get this bag open!

Bentley: Ok, Jennifer is vindicated.

Oven mittens or something similarly cheap could be a nice lab-based pre-test for any manual equipment, before it even gets to the spacesuit test.

So.  In closing…  Human Factors isn’t rocket science.

Or is it!?!?



Photo credit veggietothemax @ Flickr