Tag Archives: usability

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.

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).


  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.

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

In Praise of a Good Interface

Those interested in creative usability, learning, and feedback should check out Moe’s Southwest Grill nutrition information website. Of course, as delightful as the menu interface is, it is very difficult to link.

1. Turn down speakers

2. Go to Moe’s home page

3. Wait through annoying splash screen, circa 1995

4. Mouse over “Menu” and click on “nutrition”

5. Enjoy learning about every optional ingredient in your food

I think this interface is especially interesting by comparison. McDonald’s and other restaurants seem to have directly translated the difficult to read “nutrition chart” posted in their stores. Granted, it is probably in their interest to make this information difficult to access and understand. Burger King attempted more advanced interface, though I find it more difficult to use than Moe’s, (and I found their home site almost impossible to navigate. Check out the icons(?) to the right of the “search” bar that isn’t actually a search bar). Moe’s, however, takes full advantage of the computer medium to allow a simple, informative interaction.

What makes it even more interesting than just providing information is that Moe’s allows customers to learn about different choices and maybe even plan their order beforehand. After all, many foods are misleading. Who knew the drizzle of dressing on your taco multiplies total fat by a factor of 6? At Moe’s website you can play around with different choices to compromise with a meal that weighs your preferences against what is good for you. You may still choose that Chipolte Ranch dressing, but at least it’s an informed decision.

Here are some ideas for the Moe’s paradigm:

1. Widely available interfaces like this could be used to teach restaurant “reality” to families as we try to curb the obesity epidemic.

2. The same interface (or one with different “choices”) could be used in studies of decision making.

3. Actually, tweaks to this program could be used to study learning from feedback. I can imagine having a version that provides even more information, such as how the meal you choose fits into a personalized food pyramid and recommended daily allowances.

Some progress in ATM interface design

Wells Fargo hired Pentagram in the fall of 2005 to begin work on a new user interface for their ATMs. Wells Fargo was in the process of upgrading their ATMs with touchscreen monitors. This was a relatively slow process, since there are about 7,000 ATMs in the field, and any upgrades are expensive. But with the vast majority to be converted during 2007, this was the perfect time to create a fresh UI that would fully utilize the touchscreen capability.

That design is money! – physical interface

Report: OLPC may eventually switch from Linux to Windows XP

Update on the usability of educational laptops: Interesting news about Sugar from Computer World:

OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte also told The Associated Press on Tuesday that an insistence upon using only free, open-source software had hampered the XO’s usability and scared away potential adopters.

The article doesn’t make it clear what about the usability of Sugar was problematic.

Report: OLPC may eventually switch from Linux to Windows XP

Educational (low-priced) laptops and cross-cultural Human Factors

In the past year, there has been an explosion of interest in the very low end of portable computing. This started with the introduction of the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC). Quickly followed by the Asus EEE pc, Intel Classmate PC, and Everex Cloudbook. These bare bones and ultra portable laptop computers are ostensibly targeting users who would like a computer but can’t afford one. But one topic I have yet to hear about is an analysis of the usability or human factors aspects of these machines.Only the education-focused OLPC (and maybe the Classmate PC) is explicitly targeting an international, student-aged audience. Incidentally, only the OLPC has a somewhat novel interface (dubbed Sugar). The interface is dominated by pictographs with little use of text:

OLPC screen shot

Given the extremely wide audience for these types of computers, I wonder how much work has gone into testing the usability of Sugar, or the other operating systems in these machines. In addition, given the extremely varied audience (in age, educational level, technological skill level, socio-economic status, just to name a few), does this one-size-fits-all strategy work? There has been research illustrating that even within a culture, pictograms are not universally understood.

My experience with open-source software (which all of these machines can run) has been that ease of use has never been a priority. Here is a quick visual comparison of the current machines.

Continue reading Educational (low-priced) laptops and cross-cultural Human Factors

Response to “Paper Kills”

I was reading a lengthy Q&A with Newt Gingrich in Freakonomics this morning, and came across the following:

Q: You discuss a united American front in your book. What healthcare platforms do you think Americans will unite around?

A: “… This system will have three characteristics, none of which are present in today’s system…. It will make use of information technology. Paper kills. It’s just that simple. With as many as 98,000 Americans dying as a result of medical errors in hospitals every year, ridding the system of paper-based records and quickly adopting health information technology would save lives and save money. We must also move toward e-prescribing to drastically reduce prescription errors.

Newt Gingrich is a powerful man. I am glad he is comfortable with and encouraging of technology. Me too! However, I am terrified of the assumption that information technology systems are inherently better or less error prone than paper systems. “Paper kills” is a nice, tight tag line that people are bound to remember. Is it true?

My earlier post on Paper Protocols saving lives and dollars in Michigan says otherwise. So does research in the context of medical adherence. Linda Liu and Denise Park (2004) identified a paper system as one of the most effective tested when it comes to diabetics remembering to measure their glucose.

It is not the material of the system, it is the design of the system that makes it either intuitive, fail-safe, or error prone. Blindly replacing known paper protocols and records with electronic alternatives is not a guaranteed improvement. This is the kind of thinking that brought us the touchscreen voting system.*

“Oh, it wouldn’t be blind,” one might say. I hope so, but a blanket statement such as “paper kills” doesn’t give me confidence. Paper doesn’t kill, bad design does.

I wouldn’t want to end this post without being clear: We need to stop pitting paper against computers and start solving:

1. Under what circumstances each is better

2. Why each would be better

3. How to best design for each. Paper isn’t going away, folks.


*The linked article mentions reliability and security without mentioning usability. I don’t want to go too far afield, so I will save my post on being unable to vote on the Georgia Flag (thanks to the compression artifacts present in the pictures, making it impossible to tell them apart.)


Liu, L. L., & Park, D. C. (2004). Aging and Medical Adherence: The Use of Automatic Processes to Achieve Effortful Things. Psychology and Aging, 19(2), 318-325.


Usability and Signing up for Campus Safety Alerts

With recent tragic events in the United States, there has been pressure for many University campuses to install emergency alert systems. These systems notify students, faculty, and employees of emergency events via email or mobile text messages.

A few months ago, I signed up to the one offered at my University. Today, I received the following note:

You recently signed up to receive Safe alerts on your cell phone. There is some confusion about the sign-up process and you are among a group of users who did not complete the steps that will enable you to receive emergency messages on your phone. [emphasis added]

Your safety is our paramount concern, so please go to [website] to see instructions to complete the process. You will need to find the checkbox labeled “text message” to receive the CU safe alerts on your phone.

We apologize for this confusion and hope to make the sign-up process simpler in the future.

I thought this was unusual because when I initially signed up, the process did not seem overly complicated. To be sure, it was not intuitive, but not complex either. I was certain that I configured the system to send email and text alerts. I guess I was wrong (along with a few other people).

One thing that makes the system seem so apparently complex is that the system is meant to be a general purpose notification system–not just emergencies. When I log in, I see all of the classes I’ve taught, research groups I belong to, etc. organized into “Channels.” Why can’t the system be just for emergency alerts? Then the sign up process would simply involve entering my email and mobile phone number and opting-in. Instead, it looks like this:


I suppose it has to do with some kind of cost-benefit analysis. Why pay for a system that only handles emergencies when we can extend it to general purpose messaging?

For a future post, I should talk about our new warning sirens (which I cannot hear from my office, unfortunately).