Category Archives: academia

“All Too Human” Now Available

I remember the day I discovered human factors. I took the course as an elective, because I’d already taken every other psychology class available to me.  At the time, I knew I loved psychology but also knew I didn’t want to be a clinician or a counselor. The first day, we were assigned a typical “bad design” project – find a frustrating object in the world and write about what was wrong with it. The hardest part of the assignment was limiting myself to one bad design – I had a grievance list pages long. I knew then that I had found a field that matched my desire to ‘fix’ the world.

So many of us who work in human factors had a similar epiphany, and yet our field is virtually unknown to the public. I wanted to change that by writing the kind of non-fiction book I like to read: jargon-free content augmented by stories from history, the news, and the author’s own experiences.

This month my book was published by Cambridge University Press:  All Too Human. The intended audience spans the general public, students, and practitioners in related fields like engineering and computer science.

The Process

I began this project over three years ago. For my cognitive class (undergraduate), I wrote chapters to show the application of basic processes: perception, attention, memory. For my human factors psychology course (graduate), I wanted to tell stories that paired with the primary source readings and spurred discussion.

Each semester I user-tested the chapters by having students write reaction papers, and then iterating on the text to make sure I met my three goals: 1) jargon-free and accessible writing, and 2) conveyed the message that to build our world, we must understand the capabilities and limitations of the human mind, and 3) there’s a profession that does just that: human factors psychology. I edited the chapters repeatedly to make them approachable with fun figures and end-of-book notes rather than in-text citations (to keep the text clean and easy to read.)

The Audiences

For educators: At the undergraduate or graduate level, I wrote this book to be a companion to text and lecture. I often use companion texts in my own courses, such as The Design of Everyday Things or Set Phasers on Stun, to grab students’ attention and generate discussion. Email collegesales@cambridge.org to ask for an examination copy.

For practitioners: I envisioned this book as one you could recommend to co-workers to give them a fun overview of “what we do” and what we can do. I want it to inspire multi-disciplinary conversations. I want others to understand where our recommendations come from.

For non-fiction lovers: This book has a message for you. It is that we can control the design of our human world. Products and systems should work for us, offer us pleasure, efficiency, and safety. But for that to happen, we must demand it. This book will give you the background to help you understand just how much control we deserve, and in how many ways we can influence companies, governments, and ourselves to make a better world.

Where to Buy

Available from all bookstores, including:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Cambridge University Press

Excerpt from the chapter Needles in Haystacks, on signal detection theory:

Sensitive and Specific

In August of 2020 Magawa received the PDSA Gold Medal for bravery and devotion to duty. A native of Tanzania, he was described as brave, friendly, and a determined worker. Over the course of four years, he found thirty-nine buried landmines in Cambodia. In a country with millions of mines there is still a ways to go, but experts like Magawa are on the front lines of mine detection. Also, Magawa is a rat.

A great attribute of mine-seeking rats is their weight. Although this particular species, African giant pouched rats, are very large for rats, they are still too light to trigger a landmine. They are also smart, have noses at least as discerning as the eyesight of pigeons, and are easy to train. Their training is a real rat race – they work about five hours each weekday on learning to discriminate the smell of a landmine from other scents, all for some mashed banana. They indicate finding a mine by stopping and digging with their little paws.

Magawa was trained by the APOPO, a Belgian non-profit with a mouthful of a name (the Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling, which translates to “Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development”). The rats’ training is extensive and their success is measured in hits, misses, false alarms, and correct rejections, with more available data than the Project SEA HUNT pigeons. Why not just use a metal detector? The answer fits the theme of this chapter: the high cost of false alarms. The ground is full of nonexplosive metal bits and trash and one estimate is that there are 1,000 false alarms per mine found using just detectors. The rats, meanwhile, can only graduate by demonstrating a 100 percent hit rate on four buried mines and no more than one false alarm. The rats have to be both sensitive and specific. The sensitivity rate is calculated as the number of mines they identified in an area created by their handlers divided by the number of total mines in that area. Their specificity is the number of false alarms per 100 square meters – a slightly different calculation than for other signal detection where specificity is the probability of a false alarm. It may be too much to ask of any single rat to be such a perfect performer, so typically every area is searched by a few rats and their combined scores make the final sensitivity and specificity rates for the team.

In a study led by psychologist Alan Poling, a professor at Western Michigan University, the trained rats were taken to Mozambique where they explored 93,400 square kilometers of mine-infested area. The rats found 41 mines. Humans used other tools to check the area as well, like metal detectors, but found no additional mines. The rats succeeded with extreme sensitivity (100 percent hits and zero misses). But what about their specificity? In this real-world test, they had about 0.33 false alarms for every 100 square meters searched (617 false alarms), or about 39,383 fewer than would be expected from a metal-detecting human. My math is undoubtedly a brash generalization, as the mines aren’t distributed equally and differ by country, but in terms of both hits and false alarms the rats are clear winners.

So you want to go to school for Human Factors: Final Steps

This is Post 4 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1 & Post 2 & Post 3)

1. Prepare your materials and apply

  • Take the GRE. Most programs will require your GRE scores. You’ll want to do this early, in case you need to take it again. You can and should study for the GRE – no matter what people tell you, studying affects scores. Why is a good GRE so important? It is not only about getting admitted. GRE scores are often used in allocating fellowships, RAs, and TAs. A bonus fellowship could mean as much as a 30% increase in your funding offer.
  • Select at least 3 people to write letters of reference on your behalf. They should be faculty who know you well and can speak about your ability to succeed in graduate school.
    Do not include letter writers such as family, friends, pastors, or other “character references.” They hold little to no weight and may count against you if the review committee assumes you couldn’t find academic references.
  • When selecting letter writers, ask them if they can write, “a positive recommendation” instead of just “a recommendation.” You want an honest answer. A recommendation from a class instructor that just says “This person was in my class. They seemed interested. They received X grade” doesn’t mean much to the review committee. You should alert letter-writers ahead of the first deadline, at least a month preferably two.
  • Even for professors you know well, it never hurts to remind them of all the research activities you’ve had and what you learned from them. A page with a bulleted list will help jog the memory of your letter writer to help them write a detailed and personal letter.

2. Wait!

  • You’ll probably hear in February about acceptance, but it may be as late as the end of March. If you were put on a waitlist, you might not know until just before the April 15th deadline. This is because schools may have put out offers and are waiting to hear if they are accepted before making an offer to you. There is no shame in coming from the waitlist – even the waitlists are very competitive for PhD programs.

So you want to go to school for Human Factors: The Approach Email

This is Post 3 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1 & Post 2)

Your initial email communication is your first impression and should be managed carefully. Address all communications formally and you may want someone to proof-read before you send it. That means:

1. Address everyone by their proper title

  • Bad: “Hi Rich…” or, “Hey” or just launching into the message
  • Good: “Dr. McLaughlin,” or “Professor McLaughlin,”

2. Be specific.

  • Bad: “I am very interested in your research on X. It is very interesting. The more I read about it, the more I am interested in it. It seems very interesting and important.”
  • Good: “I recently read a collection of your papers on X. It was very interesting to me as I saw connections with the topics I have been studying, such as Y.”

3. Be succinct! Omit needless words.

4. Stay on topic/avoid excessive personal anecdotes:

  • Bad: “After my house burned down and I lost everything, I sat back and thought about what I really wanted in life and discovered it was to work in your lab.”
  • Bad: writing a wall of text (e.g., one giant paragraph with no line breaks)
  • Good: “I was fortunate to learn about the field of human factors when we had a special topics course in Ergonomics at my university. For that class, I did [describe project] which lead me to your work on X.”

5. Avoid inadvertently selfish language

  • Bad: “Your lab would help me in my interests and my career. It would be the best thing for me.”
  • Good: “I have experience in multiple statistical programs, including SPSS and MATlab. As a research assistant in Dr. X’s lab, I have experience with data entry, cleaning data, and analysis. Although I have not yet gotten to run participants through a study protocol, I have been allowed to observe the graduate students in that task.”

6. Proofread for grammar and typos

  • Bad: your vs you’re, any misspelled words, and so on.

7. Avoid carelessness: Sending an email to Dr. A but writing your emails addressed to Dr. B.

Below is a sample “approach email” to the professor you are considering as an advisor. Yours will differ, but this is an example of the level of formality and what to include.

Dear Dr. FutureAdvisor,

I am a senior psychology major at My University and interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology after graduation. I came across your research when I was collecting articles for a literature review on user trust in automated systems and am interested in applying to your lab to work on similar topics.

In the past two years, I have worked as a research assistant in a lab here at My University and spent a summer in an NSF REU program at Bigger University. In the MU1 lab, I worked with Dr. So Andso on research into motivation changes across the lifespan. I learned to enter and clean data for analysis with SPSS and SAS, follow a research protocol to run participants, and write SPSS syntax. One specific project I worked on was investigating whether people over 65 reported different motivations for performance and whether they responded differently than younger adults to reinforcement schedules on an implicit learning task. This gave me an interest in aging but more generally an interest in individual differences.

I am excited by the prospect of continuing in a research program after graduation and believe I would be a good fit for your lab. Please let me know if you will be accepting applications this year.

Thank you for your time,
YourName

The optimal time for sending this email is the fall semester of your senior year. This gives you time to communicate, perhaps plan a visit, and let the faculty member know you’ll be applying to their program.

So you want to go to school for Human Factors: General Sequence of Events

This is Post 2 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1)

In this post, we discuss a general to-do list for those considering graduate school in Human Factors. Comments from other faculty welcome!

1. Get Involved in Research as Early as Possible

  • This can be through a senior project, a class at your university where students do a research project, or (optimally) by working as a research assistant in a lab.
  • If your university does not have these opportunities, look around (nearby universities). Many professors will take volunteer research assistants, including in the summer, and train you in their lab. This gives you both experience and a potential reference letter.

2. Start Looking for Departments/Mentors and Evaluate Fit

  • Many programs or labs have information on their alumni. Do they have the kinds of jobs you want? Do their alumni work at places you would like to work?
  • You will work mainly with a single advisor in an apprenticeship model. However, it’s a good idea to consider programs where you match more than one professor.
  • Check out the research interests of potential advisors by reading some of their recent publications or look at their curriculum vitae (the academic term for resume; often found online). We often have an area of expertise but work in other areas as well. You don’t want to choose an advisor based on work from 20 years ago that isn’t being continued today.
  • It is highly unlikely that a potential advisor will initiate a new research area to fit your interests–be flexible in your interests.
  • Create a spreadsheet listing department, contact information/web address to apply, potential faculty (and their major research areas), application fee, deadline, required materials, and your rating of fit.

3. Contact Prospective Mentors

  • When you have identified some potential programs, check their website to see which faculty are affiliated with the program and taking students.
  • Not all faculty take students every year. Some faculty list on their website whether they are taking students. If unsure, a short, formal email to the professor asking if they are accepting new students is appropriate.
  • Just because they are on a departmental website does not mean that they are affiliated with the HF program (that department may have other graduate programs) or that they are taking students that year. If it is unclear, email and ask. It isn’t helpful if, for example, you are applying to a psychology program but list an industrial engineering professor as your preferred mentor.
  • If you would like to evaluate potential fit between you and your potential mentor, you can ask if they are willing to meet with you in-person. Opinions vary, but Skype/video conference meetings may work.

Our next post will give an example of the kind of formality expected in contacting a prospective advisor.

Human Factors Psychology Dominates Best Psychology Jobs

Edited because it’s even more awesome than I first thought…

A recent Buzzfeed article listed the “8 Awesome Jobs That Will Convince You To Be A Psychology Major.” I clicked, despite my oath not to read articles that have either numbers in the title or include the word “actually.”

Turns out… three (edit: FOUR) of the eight jobs are held by human factors psychologists.* Of course, if you want any of these jobs you’ll need a Ph.D, not just a psych major.

Get your graduate applications ready for next year, folks. (And use our handy guide to give yourself a leg up).

*One is officially I/O, but I think HF can claim him since he’s been President of HFES, an HFES Fellow, and Editor of the journal Human Factors.

Psychology Podcasts

Those who know me know I am a fiend for podcasts. Since I’m also a fiend for psychology, I can’t help but notice when it pops up in a podcast, even one not focused on psychology. I use many of them in my courses: for example, the This American Life episode on what having schizophrenia sounds like is a must listen when I hit the Abnormal Psychology chapter in Intro. The Radiolab Memory and Forgetting is a staple in my Cognitive class and I take advantage of the multi-disciplinarity of Human Factors to play clips from every area. Startup had a good one that illustrates what human factors looks like to a client.

Over the years I’ve compiled a list of my favorites relating to psychology. Some are clips from longer podcasts while some are dedicated to psychology (e.g., Invisibilia). Each one has a general area of psychology noted (although some hit two or more areas) and if it’s a clip I put the start and end time of the most related audio.

I hope you enjoy the resource and I will keep updating it as I find more. If you know of any I don’t have listed, please link to it in the comments for the blog and I’ll add it to the spreadsheet.

Radio interview with Rich

Our own Rich Pak was interviewed by the Clemson radio show “Your Day.”

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They cover everything from the birth of human factors psychology to the design of prospective memory aids for older adults. Enjoy!

Continuing Adventures of an Academic’s Use of the iPad (mini)

My previous posts on using the iPad have become some of the most popular posts on this blog. So I thought I would give you an update on my evolving use of the iPad.

My history of use of the iPad started with great skepticism, moved into curious and active experimentation, and has settled into routine usage. Now, it’s an integrated part of my work and play. I’ve even done what was once unthinkable: nearly wrote a entire manuscript on the iPad without a hardware keyboard! (read on).

With great skepticism I got the original iPad a few months after it was released in 2010. While I could see the theoretical benefits of such a lightweight device, there was not yet much software that was specialized to do any work. In terms of usage, there were probably days that I did not use the iPad. It was primarily relegated to recreational web surfing or curious novelty.

After the release of the iPad 2, however, my usage increased dramatically. The reduction in weight and size, as well as the release of high quality productivity software meant that I not only carried it along with my then-laptop (Fujitsu P1620 ultraportable tablet), I could start to envision how I might start replacing my laptop. Usage was probably split 20 (iPad)/80 (laptop) in terms of mobile computing. It also helped that it was at this time that I switched my desktop computer and laptop to Mac. This made it much more seamless to use Keynote and Pages as replacements for Powerpoint and Word. I’ve kicked Powerpoint but I can’t yet kick Word to the curb.

The iPad 3 again increased usage mainly because of the high resolution display and dramatic speed increase made everything better, especially reading PDFs.

Now, I have an iPad mini and all the software that I’ve mentioned in previous posts are still usable but the form factor has now truly made it even more my primary mobile device of choice over the laptop. The effects of an always-on, super-ultra lightweight device seems to encourage frequent use in places where even a laptop is clunky (e.g., in bed, passenger in a car). I’m currently working on a manuscript and I would estimate that I’ve written more than 50% of it on the iPad mini (using the software keyboard and Pages). Probably another 10% on the iPhone (reading what I wrote, light editing) and the rest on the desktop or laptop computer.

Keynote is an especially capable presentation app. I’ve worked on full presentations created on the iPad (but presented on a laptop). They are whisked silently through the cloud and are on my laptop/desktop waiting for me.

But there are other things that are making the iPad work especially well for me. One feature that isn’t discussed a great deal in reviews is iCloud. iCloud, in contrast to Dropbox, invisibly keeps my Keynote (class lectures, professional presentations) and Pages (manuscripts) in sync on all my devices (desktop, laptop, iPad mini, and iPhone). I still use Dropbox but iCloud is simpler model with less thinking about spatial file organization (the file is just in the app). I still use Dropbox but treat it like an archive; a folder with many levels of folders. While I treat iCloud as an active area for current work, a work space. iCloud = short term memory, dropbox = long term memory. This setup works quite well for me.

http://reviews.cnet.co.uk/ipad-and-tablets/apple-ipad-mini-review-50008594/

Uses will be different for different people but for me (someone who values portability above all else and is a tinkerer) the Mini is a winner (it replaced my iPad 3). I also did not set unrealistic expectations of the device which may be why I’m so surprised how much of my daily computing can be addressed with such a relatively low-powered device. The size/weight of the Mini simply overwhelms any other benefit of the larger iPads. When I travel, I am now more likely to be carrying just the iPad (with no laptop unless I know i’ll need to program or do statistical analysis). In the end, it allows me to do a small amount of things in more places than at my desk.

To conclude, my most frequently used apps lately are:

  • Keynote (lecture and presentation creation & editing)
  • Papers (reading PDFs, literature searching)
  • Pages (manuscript creation and editing)
  • Email (built-in client)
  • LogMeIn Ignition (for connecting to my desktop computer remotely)

Keynote and Papers are truly exceptional apps that have nearly the full functionality of their desktop counterparts without replicating the same interaction style (i.e., they are optimized for tablets). I actually prefer doing lit searches in the iOS version of papers than using the desktop version!

This list is short because everything else is for fun!

App Usability Evaluations for the Mental Health Field

We’ve posted before on usability evaluations of iPads and apps for academics (e.g.,here, and here), but today I’d like to point to a blog dedicated to evaluating apps for mental health professionals.

In the newest post, Dr. Jeff Lawley discusses the usability of a DSM Reference app from Kitty CAT Psych. For those who didn’t take intro psych in college, the DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which classifies symptoms into disorders. It’s interesting to read an expert take on this app – he considers attributes I would not have thought of, such as whether the app retains information (privacy issues).

As Dr. Lawley notes on his “about” page, there are few apps designed for mental health professionals and even fewer evaluations of these apps. Hopefully his blog can fill that niche and inspire designers to create more mobile tools for these professionals.