Category Archives: websites

Another tool to keep up with election news

TechCrunch posted a link to another tool to keep up with the flood of election-related news coming from news services and each of the presidential campaigns.  Dipity Election Center presents news items in a time-line format.

The interface is very cluttered and not exactly intuitive (e.g., unclear what all the little icons below the timeline mean), but an interesting way to present news for news junkies like me.  It presents less at-a-glance information than the website everymomentnow.

How do you keep up with election news?  (if you do at all).

Mac-based usability testing software: Silverback

Easy usability testing on the Mac is now possible with Silverback.  The software looks incredibly simple and is quite inexpensive.  Although it appears to have much less functionality than Morae (on the PC), it is about 30 times cheaper!  They probably shouldn’t be compared since Morae has so much more functionality, but Silverback looks like a good solution to capture footage like users reacting to the game Spore.

Using the built-in camera on the Mac, it records user facial expressions as well as on-screen activity.

Silverback — guerrilla usability testing

Pew Internet: Use of Cloud Computing Applications and Services

A new Pew report examines the usage of cloud computing applications and services which is a topic I’ve been interested in recently.  Something noteworthy was that, as we suspected, older adults don’t appreciate the benefits of cloud computing compared to other age groups:

Older adults’ are seemingly the ones who could benefit most from cloud computing.  Keeping mail or other information in the cloud means that the user doesn’t have to configure their mail client, maintain their computer, etc.

Pew Internet: Use of Cloud Computing Applications and Services

On a semi-related note, here is a slightly long video description of cloud computing:

Visualizing election news

Here is an interesting website that aggregates news items about both US presidential candidates and visualizes that data providing a nice dashboard-like “snapshot”.  Once you click on a bar or candidate name, it shows you word-sized historical graphs (sparklines) of their popularity.  For more information on sparklines or other ways of visualizing data, see Edward Tufte.
Sparklines for Obama-related terms
Sparklines for McCain-related terms

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,, and the photo sharing Web site

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

With automated tagging, Web links can surprise

I‘ve previously posted on the topic of tagging. As more products attempt to automate the process of creating tags from content, more problems are bound to appear like below.  A pretty clear case of automation gone wrong!:

It wasn’t what anyone expected to see while perusing a news article. But there, in the final paragraph of an online story about the call girl involved in the Eliot Spitzer scandal, Yahoos automated system was inviting readers to browse through photos of underage girls.

Yahoo Shortcuts, which more frequently offers to help readers search for news and Web sites on topics like “California” or “President Bush,” had in this case highlighted the words “underage girls.” Readers who passed their mouse over the phrase in The Associated Press story were shown a pop-up window with an image from Flickr, Yahoos photo-sharing Web site.

With automated tagging, Web links can surprise – Yahoo News

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.

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).

Google and the Mind

A recent article in Psychological Science on using Google’s PageRank algorithim to explore fluency effects in memory.


Human memory and Internet search engines face a shared computational problem, needing to retrieve stored pieces of information in response to a query. We explored whether they employ similar solutions, testing whether we could predict human performance on a fluency task using PageRank, a component of the Google search engine. In this task, people were shown a letter of the alphabet and asked to name the first word beginning with that letter that came to mind. We show that PageRank, computed on a semantic network constructed from word-association data, outperformed word frequency and the number of words for which a word is named as an associate as a predictor of the words that people produced in this task. We identify two simple process models that could support this apparent correspondence between human memory and Internet search, and relate our results to previous rational models of memory.

Volume 18 (2), December 2007, pages 1069-1076.