Tag Archives: design

Text Input in a Mobile World

I‘ve always thought text inputs from anything other than a keyboard were clunky. Cliff Kushler, the man who invented T9 (a word completion aid) has developed Swype, a new text entry method that capitalizes on eliminating the press and release component of the touchscreen. What was once a discrete target acquisition task becomes a continuous one.

In the CNET interview, Kushler points out his age (55) and his words-per-minute with Swype (50). Not bad.

If you’re interested in research on alternate text input devices, check out some of the following:

Tag-based interfaces and Aging

I was recently interviewed by our campus news service about receiving a Google Research Award to study information retrieval and aging. The research involves designing information retrieval interfaces around the capabilities and limitations of older adults (those age 60 and above). Here is a snippet from the press release:

Richard Pak, an assistant professor of psychology, has received a $50,000 gift from Google to study how older adults navigate the Web and what Web site design features make searches easier. The grant will fund an extension of his research on aging and technology.

“The findings are that when you take a Web site and organize it hierarchically — like how you might organize your documents on your computer with folders within folders — older adults are much slower and make more errors when they are searching for information compared to younger adults,” Pak said. “We think that this is the case because the situation does not allow older adults to use their greater knowledge toward the situation. However, when you take that same Web site and organize it around keywords or concepts instead of folders, older adults are able to bring their wealth of general knowledge to the situation and perform almost equivalently to younger adults in the task.”

That is, older adults seem to perform better using so-called “tag-based sites,” which are Web sites that organize their information around frequently used keywords. Pak said that while tag-based sites are still relatively new, several popular sites use tags. These include Amazon.com, Gmail.com, and the photo sharing Web site Flickr.com.

The recently published paper, “Designing an information search interface for younger and older adults” appears in the latest issue of the journal Human Factors.

Everything in, Garbage out!

But where? Well, that probably depends on where you live. I ran across this post on the Freakonomics Blog (part of the NY Times) bemoaning the difficulty of sorting recycling in Germany*.

We have four different containers in front of our building: paper (blue), packaging (yellow), biological (green), and the rest (gray) — and that doesn’t include the containers for three different kinds of glass (green, brown, and old) at the local park.

Japanese recycling station

We are confused about what goes where and spend lots of time transferring refuse from one container in our apartment to another before deciding where to throw them outside. We’re probably right most of the time — and the additional sorting beyond what we do in the U.S. (where we only have garbage, paper, and glass/plastic containers) does reduce the negative externalities to the environment.

At the same time, the transactions costs of garbage sorting here are substantial, and I wonder if they can be justified by the environmental improvement that results. Our time has value, and that is being ignored.

Oddly enough, over the weekend I talked with a recent German transplant bemoaning the American recycling system as being too confusing because there wasn’t a separate container for each category of garbage. (He specifically wanted a place to put leftover foodstuffs rather than just in the regular trash.) If you think about it, it does take general knowledge and specific experience to put “plastic coated cereal box” and “chicken trimmings” together in a container. Both cultures believe the unfamiliar system slows them down.

Of course, there are still other examples of cultural recycling conventions. In Japan you must divide your garbage into burnable, non burnable and recyclable items. But don’t worry, you don’t have to rely on your own opinion for what is burnable or not (my father puts plastic soda bottles in the “burnable” category, for example):

The exact definition of what is burnable, non burnable and recyclable depends on the municipality.

I would be willing to bet the Japanese make signs in their home to hang above the garbage as a checklist of what to recycle… just like I finally did for Raleigh, North Carolina.

*I wonder if they did a card sort to come up with the categories of items for each bin.

Infographics in Movies

Have you ever seen those cool interfaces or graphics that are shown in movies, mostly sci-fi, and wondered who created them?  I ran across this old post on Flowing data about a guy who creates those “infographics”.  Sounds like a very cool job!  I think I first became aware of infographics/visualization in the 1997 movie Event Horizon (which is when I became interested in HF) and have been a keen observer ever since.  The movie was so-so but I distinctly remember the interfaces for the ship being fluid, novel, and cool.

Or more recently, the multi-touch, gestural interface used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Mark Coleran creates infographics/visualizations for film/tv.  His demo reel is definitely worth a look (quicktime web plug in required).

Electronic Books–A Human Factors perspective

So I finally made the plunge and obtained an Amazon Kindle E-book reader.  This isn’t a gadget review site so don’t expect a full review but I just wanted to comment on some of the ergonomic/human factors considerations after using the device for the past few days.  The bottom line?  There are some critical “book behaviors” that the device does not afford but are critical to me.  My reading material is primarily articles, reference books; not narrative fiction (that typically flows in a linear, page-by-page fashion).

The GOOD:

  1. The hype concerning the display is warranted.  It is extremely high contrast and easy to read even in dim light.  What makes this different from reading on an LCD is that the pixels are actually closer to the reading surface (just like paper).  The pixel density is also very high (167 dpi) compared to LCDs.
  2. The device is very thin and light.  The screen is small but not unusably so.
  3. Search is a nice function.  However, I am not sure if this perfectly replaces book indexes.  With an index, you can rely on recognition instead of free recall (necessary in search).
  4. Built-in 3G wireless for free.
  5. The software is very simple and the navigation is easy.  It is similar to an ATM with soft-options.

The BAD (in no particular order):

  1. Page turning is a bit sluggish (probably .5 to 1 second).  I don’t have empirical data to back up actual “performance” differences but it bothers me.
  2. The page forward and backward buttons are too easily pressed when you pick the device up (not a big deal but an inconvenience).
  3. I can dog-ear pages and include notes on pages or passages.  My notes are accessible as a text file for use later.  However, the text file is sort of meaningless.  While my note is there, it is devoid of context (I don’t know where it goes).  It would be nice if this functionality was improved.
  4. The on-off switch is located on the back of the device.  So when I want to turn it off, I always inadvertently jump a page or two.
  5. Instead of using page numbers to navigate the text, it uses something called “Locations.”  I still have not figured out what this is.  At the bottom of the screen, it might display, “Locations 203-15”.  Are these lines?  Paragraphs?  Pages?
  6. There is the “previous page” button, but also a “Back” button…and they seem to function similarly under some circumstances but differently in others.

Anne and I are writing a book and I’ve been doing quite a bit of research with articles and books.  Typically, I will read a page from a book or article and make notes.  Currently, there is not an easy way to export these notes or even email them to myself from the device.  As I mentioned, the notes it creates are unusable.  Another big thing is that I cannot open multiple books or articles at once–this is a problem with the whole class of devices, not just the Kindle.

These are just some of my recent thoughts on the device.  The tentative bottom-line is that I probably won’t be buying expensive reference books on the device (it just can’t yet replace a paper book for my use cases).  But reading PDF articles and Word .docs is quite pleasant.

Here are some pictures (the device and the device’s text presentation compared to a real book).

Kindle text compared to real print

Inner and Outer Outed

Redesigned Beltline signs to drop ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’

RALEIGH – No more “Inner” and “Outer” for Raleigh’s Beltline. Soon it will be Interstate 40 and Interstate 440, east and west.

The state Department of Transportation is about to make good on a long-standing promise to get rid of the Inner Beltline and Outer Beltline signs that get lots of motorists mad, confused and lost.

This human factors redesign feels personal. I’ve bemoaned the difficulties with the Raleigh loop signs for as long as I’ve lived here. I know people who have no trouble with it, but I am incapable of translating “inner” or “outer” into actual directions, especially during the multi-tasking required for driving toward an entrance ramp and thinking about where my destination is in relation to my current position.

I think the greatest difficulty comes from translation. To know which way the inner beltline goes, the driver must mentally step through the following (at least until s/he just memorizes what ramp to take).

  1. Raleigh is surrounded by a loop with 12 o’clock in the north.
  2. I’m at about the 9 o’clock position approaching an on-ramp from outside the city.
  3. My destination is close to the 4 o’clock position, so it would be best to go right to get there.
  4. Right is….
  5. Right is… uh
  6. Right is inner or outer?
  7. Ok, inner means inside the outer. In the U.S. cars go in prescribed directions on certain sides of the street, so looking down at the beltline I can expect cars on the inner side to be going north from where I am.
  8. Wait, is that true 180 degrees on the other side of the circle? I think so…
  9. So that means that the inner beltline is going clockwise?
  10. That means that the outer beltline goes counter clockwise which is to the right and where I want to go
  11. I want the counter clockwise entrance
  12. The counter clockwise entrance is the outer beltline

No wonder I’m always late.

For a bonus, don’t miss out on the typical “common sense” comments attached to the News & Observer article.

Getting Ready for November – Ballot Designs

I‘m impressed by Slate’s detailed look at ballot design. Check out the alternative designs!

The answer: not far. A study carried out by USA Today and seven other newspapers in 2001 concluded that faulty design, not punch-card machines, was responsible for voters’ confusion in Palm Beach County in 2000. Despite this finding, states have focused their election-reform energies on upgrading old punch-card machines to optical-scan systems or on implementing electronic voting. They have dismissed or ignored the butterfly layout’s problematic design as an aberration—a stupid mistake on the part of local officials….

…Developed with a team of graphic and industrial designers, Lausen’s elections redesign proposal convinced the state of Illinois to change its election code to allow candidates’ names to be printed in lowercase, among other things. Oregon is implementing the group’s recommendations, and Lausen was just contacted for consultation by Texas. And this January the AIGA is publishing Election Design: Models for Improvement, a book of templates based on the principles of good typographic design….

Original Design*

Alternative 1

Alternative 2

Alternative 3

From Wanted: A Legible Voting Ballot

How many times do we have to say that paper is not the problem?

*On the original, be sure to note the Cali tagline of “I voted, have you?” Um, when is someone going to tell them that the person reading this is actually IN the voting booth? What’s the right answer… “Yes” “No, forget this! I’m leaving!” “Well, I was halfway done when you asked me”?

Hospital’s Design Keeps Fresh Air in Mind – NYTimes.com


In July, builders broke ground on a new hospital in Rwanda’s Burera district, near the Uganda border. The design relies on simple features to reduce the spread of airborne disease: outdoor walkways instead of enclosed halls, waiting rooms alfresco and large windows staggered at different levels on opposing walls to keep air circulating.

Global Update – Rwanda – Hospital’s Design Keeps Fresh Air in Mind – NYTimes.com

This Human Factors Problem Should Be History By Now

An old problem has hit the news again: chemicals that look too much like drinks. This story just came out in New Jersey, where six people drank tiki-torch fuel the color of apple juice.

It is an interesting problem… what SHOULD you make fuel look like? The tiki-torch fuel bottle did not fall into the Fabuloso problem of looking like a sports drink bottle*. It wasn’t being kept under the bar, like the caustic dish liquid that scarred a father and daughter in “Set Phasers on Stun.” It doesn’t taste sweet like anti-freeze.

Yet when six people all make the same mistake, in a short time span, in a wide geographic spread, are of different ages, etc., it’s safe to assume something triggered them to think it was drinkable. As the executive director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System said in the article from the Star-Ledger:

“During my 40 years in medicine, you get an occasional kid who ingests kerosene, but I have never seen this kind of cluster,” he said.”

But what was it? From looking at the bottle, I don’t have a good answer.

*Fabuloso refused to change their bottle shape but made the concession of adding a child-proof cap. As the other stories show, it’s not just kids making these errors, but the cap should at least make the user think as they try to open the “sports drink.”**

**Of course that reminds me of the time I bought a new contact lens solution and opened it to see a bright red bottle tip. “What a neat retro-looking design,” I thought before filling the contact and putting it in my eye. An hour of rinsing later, I still thought maybe I’d blinded myself.