Tag Archives: design

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]

Automation, Consumer Products, and Energy Usage

Interesting article on the use of automated decision aids on consumer devices. The researchers used a vacuum cleaner that indicated when an area needed more cleaning or not. They wanted to determine if users would use less energy if they were told that an area was clean. They found that energy consumption was not reduced. This is contrasted with some research (I can’t think of the exact citation) that showed that when users saw their household energy consumption, they tended to be more mindful about reducing their usage.

Sauer, J., & Ruttinger, B. (2007). Automation and decision support in interactive consumer products. Ergonomics, 50, 902 – 919.

Abstract. This article presents two empirical studies (n = 30, n = 48) that are concerned with different forms of automation in interactive consumer products. The goal of the studies was to evaluate the effectiveness of two types of automation: perceptual augmentation (i.e. supporting users’ information acquisition and analysis); and control integration (i.e. supporting users’ action selection and implementation). Furthermore, the effectiveness of on-product information (i.e. labels attached to product) in supporting automation design was evaluated. The findings suggested greater benefits for automation in control integration than in perceptual augmentation alone, which may be partly due to the specific requirements of consumer product usage. If employed appropriately, on-product information can be a helpful means of information conveyance. The article discusses the implications of automation design in interactive consumer products while drawing on automation models from the work environment.

50th Anniversary of the Eames Lounge Chair

The chair has three upholstered pieces, each attached to a curved plywood shell. The larger one is the seat; the smaller two are back supports. All three are strategically angled to maximize your comfort. Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife design team behind the chair, had a remarkable understanding of ergonomic principles long before these were developed into a science in the 1970s.

[washington post]

“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]

Design out, Guard, then Warn

Check out this fascinating solution to protecting users from the blade of a table saw.

The way it works is that the saw blade registers electrical contact with human skin and immediately stops. I can’t imagine not having this safety system in place, now that it is available. However, I still have some questions that commenters might want to weigh in on:

1. Unless the system is more redundant than an airplane, it must be able to fail. How do you keep users to remain vigilant when 99.999% of the time there is no penalty for carelessness?

2. To answer my own question, is the fear of a spinning blade strong enough to do that on its own? I know I’m not going to intentionally test the SawStop.

3. Can we use natural fears such as this in other areas of automation?

4. For great insight into human decision making, read this thread on a woodworking site. What would it take to change the mind of this first post-er?

When do we as adult woodworkers take responsibility and understand the dangers of woodworking. Most accidents happen due to not paying attention to what we’re doing. If we stay focused while we’re using power tools, or even hand tools, we eliminate accidents.”

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.

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:


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.