Category Archives: warnings

More blurred lines between slaking and slaying

Reader Kim Wolfinbarger sent me this picture of sport drinks looking enough like drain cleaner to make her do a double-take.

Just read your July post on poisons that look like sports drinks. An interesting twist is sports drinks that look like poisons. I did a double-take at the grocery store last weekend, thinking that drain cleaner had been shelved with the sodas. Note the triangle icon–looks an awful lot like a hazardous materials

Do you think perhaps there is some commonality in the marketing backgrounds of the designers? Bright colors and strong lines make you believe you’re getting something powerful (whether it be a cleaner or a “performance” drink?)

In case you missed their point, it does say on the back “CAUTION: POWERFUL” and is not recommended for children.

Live… from New York, it’s HFES!

Richard and I are currently attending the Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. I thought I’d report on some of the interesting work we saw this week.

First, a shameless plug for research conducted at my own university. David Sharek and Mike Wogalter presented data on how clueless and careless the “wired” generation can be when it comes to computer security. Briefly, undergraduates treated real and fake “security” announcements on PC’s similarly: by clicking “ok” to whatever it asked them. My mother has personal, recent experience that this is a GREAT way to get spyware and viruses on your computer. You might think that 20 year-olds would not be so easily fooled… but then David and Mike wouldn’t have their study buzzed on: Slashdot, ScienceDaily, Reddit, and the BBC.

Second, we have a new “technical group” called Augmented Cognition. Talks in this session included two talks on using physiological markers to predict display needs (an area long pursued without as much progress as one might hope). Check out “Using physiological measures to discriminate signal detection outcome during imagery analysis” and “Biomarkers for effects of fatigue and stress on performance: EEG, P300, and heart-rate variability.”

There is much more, too much to mention individually, but I’d like to invite the readers to comment on their personal favorites from the week.

  • Berka, C., Johnson, R., Whitmoyer, N., Behneman, A., & Popovic, D. (2008). Biomarkers for effects of fatigue and stress on performance: EEG, P300, and heart-rate variability.Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Santa Monica, CA, 192-196.
  • Hale, K. S., Fuchs, S., & Axelsson, P. (2008). Using physiological measures to discriminate signal detection outcome during imagery analysis. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Santa Monica, CA, 182-186.
  • Sharek, D., Swofford, C. & Wogalter, M. (2008). Failure to recognize fake internet popup warning messages. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Santa Monica, CA, 557-560.

Pew Internet report on mobile internet privacy

Many Americans are jumping into the fast, mobile, participatory Web without considering all the implications. If nothing really bad has happened to someone, they tend neither to worry about their personal information nor to take steps to limit the amount of information that can be found about them online. This finding dovetails with our previous work related to spyware — software that covertly tracks a user as they navigate the net. Internet users who said they had not encountered spyware were less likely to view it as a serious threat and more likely to say it’s just part of life online.


Welcoming the Fireproof Elevator


NPR ran a story earlier this week on an intriguing new human factors problem: fire-safe elevators.

The fall of the World Trade Center made it painfully obvious that stairs in skyscrapers do not function adequately in emergencies. We’ve always been warned away from elevators in case of fire, and I would go so far as to say it part of our collective knowledge from a young age. With the advent of elevators you should use in a fire comes a host of difficulties.

1. Training the zeitgeist: Not all elevators will be replaced, though new tall buildings will all have fireproof elevators. There may be new rules requiring older buildings over a certain size retrofit at least one elevator as fire safe.

  • This still makes fireproof elevators the exception instead of the rule. A great research question would be how to train people for a small-percentage case? You want the public, of all ages and experience levels, to know “In case of fire, use stairs, unless there is a fireproof elevator around, which you may or may not have noticed while you were in the building.”

2. Warnings and Information: The symbol in this post is probably familiar to all of you. I’ve occasionally seen it in Spanish, but not often. How will we indicate the difference between fire-safe elevators and other elevators?

  • Decals, signs and other indicators will not only have to indicate which elevators are safe and their purpose, but whether other elevators in the building are safe or unsafe. My building is square, with elevators on mirrored sides. If one were safe and the other not, I am sure I could remember which was safe, especially under the cognitive demands of an emergency.

3. Wayfinding and luck: Use of the elevator may depend on the location of the fire.

  • One of the original problems was that elevators opened onto smoke-filled or fire-filled floors. The story did not specify how the new elevators would avoid this. If there is a sensor that prevents them from opening onto such a floor, what if there are people desperately waiting for the elevator on that floor (as they have been re-trained to do)?
  • Should the system be even more complex, with people gathering on certain floors to await the elevator rescue? And then, if those floors are on fire..

In short, researchers start your engines! We have some training, warning, design, and way-finding work to do.

Warning compliance


Authorities on the densely populated Indonesian island of Java concluded in mid-October that the threat was imminent enough to require sending troops to forcibly evacuate tens of thousands of villagers living on the mountain’s slopes, directly in the way of volcanic ash falls, mudslides and perhaps even lava flows …

that didn’t come. The government said on Thursday that the threat had now subsided enough for most evacuees to return to their homes and lands, and learn whether they had been looted or ruined over the weeks they were left untended.

In just two days, we’ve gotten two more big datapoints for the age-old quandary facing public officials around the world about where to set the threshold for public warnings of less-than-certain disaster.

There doesn’t seem to have been a crying-wolf issue in either case: both Mount Kelud eruptions and North Sea storm-surge floods have wrought devastation in living memory, and the authorities could offer plenty of objective physical grounds for their concerns.

Still, erring on the safe side takes its own toll, both material — the evacuated Indonesians apparently had ample cause to worry about looting — and psychological. Even when they are issued in good faith for good reason, every false alarm can drain some of the menace, and some of the effectiveness, out of the next warning.