Tag Archives: signs

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.

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”?

The Double-Bubble Ballot

U.S. news agencies are reporting on the California ballots that ‘may have lost Obama the California primary.’ The argument is that he would have pulled in the ‘declined to state’ voters (those who have not registered as either Democrat or Republican), but that because of a human factors error with the ballot, those votes may not have been counted. (The inference is that these voters would have supported Obama.)

Succinctly, declined-to-state voters have to ask for a Democratic ballot. Then they must fill in a bubble at the top of the ballot, saying that they wanted to vote in the Democratic primary. Obviously, many users might not do this, as it seems a redudant code… the ballot they are holding is the Democratic ballot, so why indicate again that it was the ballot they requested? If you look at the ballot below, it says at the top to “select party in the box below.” Of course, there is only one option, which makes it not much of a selection.


It’s likely this area of the ballot was inserted to produce some interesting statistical information (rather than a pure answer of who received the most votes.) If only declined-to-state voters filled the bubble, you could get a count of how many of those voters came out to vote compared to other years, how many chose to vote Democrat, and which candidate received most of their support. While interesting (I would like to know all of those things) it complicates the purpose of primary voting: to count the number of Americans who support a particular candidate.

Why I am not a conspiracy theorist: People with the best of intentions make critical human factors design errors, even errors that cost people their lives (see “Set Phasers on Stun.”) Sometimes, these errors are created by specific good intentions, as in the Florida hanging-chad fiasco.


The reason the choices were staggard on each side of the ballot was to increase the font size, supposedly making the ballot more clear for older voters. This perceptual aid was trumped by the resulting cognitive confusions. These ballot designs may suffer from a lack of user testing, but not from an intentional ploy to keep declined-to-state voters from being counted or to get Pat Buchanan more votes.

Thus, let’s tackle the problem rather than using ‘double bubble’ for a slow news day. Why don’t we demand all ballots and voting machines be user tested? (Security is another issue, for another blog.) If you have an idea of what action to take, please comment so a future post may provide detailed instructions.

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.

“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]