Sunday, December 31, 2006

Another funny cost/benefit example

This one would be funny if it weren't so dangerous. In some states, teen drivers are not allowed to have more than 1 or 2 passengers in the car. So to get around this rule, they have their friends ride in the trunk. Doing this at 5 mph to sneak into a drive-in movie is one thing, but doing it during normal driving, especially 65 mph on the highway, is very dangerous. But the teens do it because their perception of the risk is lower than the perceived benefit of transporting their friends.

So California passed a law making it illegal for anyone to ride in the trunk of a car. On its surface, it sounds like a funny law. But when you think of why they had to do it (increase the costs of this behavior), it makes perfect sense.

Looking at things differently

I am almost embarrassed to admit how much I 'live' human factors. Everything I see around me, I interpret in terms of how well it meets user needs as defined in context. So for example, when I am at the gym, they have an indoor track that has a simple rule. Users run clockwise Mon, Wed, and Fri and they run counterclockwise Tue, Thurs, and Sat. This is because running on a short loop puts a lot of pressure on the outside leg. So running different ways is better for you.

So why is the scheme MWF one way and TTS the other way? It seems that they are spreading the days around the week. If you go to the gym every day, this would be ideal. But if you look at real people, what gym schedules do you think are most common? Experts tell us that we shouldn't work out every day - it takes about 48 hours for our muscles to recover from a workout. So we should do each exercise every other day instead of consecutive days. Of course, this means that users who run on the track are probably running either MWF or TTS. So the way they designed this rule causes each person to run around the track the same way every time, exactly what the schedule is trying to prevent.

This error is caused by the gym management not thinking about how real users use their product. If you ask anyone naive to HF, they will probably go with the MWF and TTS schedules too. But when you point out the irony I describe above, they immediately realize the error. So how come the gym management never does?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tradeoff between safety and speed

I saw a great example of how workers sacrifice their safety to save time. Why do they do this when their safety is their own, whereas their labor profits their company? It is not a pure economic decision. In general, it is just the assumption that the loss in safety is not very big (even though they are often wrong about this) and saving time is a natural human objective, even when there is little direct benefit. And there may be some benefits in terms of making the boss happy and getting good evaluations.

So here is the example that I saw: lets call it the ladder wiggle. A contractor was near the top of a 15 foot ladder leaning onto the roof of a one-story storefront. He needed to move the ladder about a foot forward to reach what he was working on. It would have taken maybe 30 seconds to climb down the ladder, move it, and then climb back up. But instead, he grabbed onto the edge of the roof to support some of his body weight, and wiggled the ladder side to side and shuffled it forward. Watching this with some fascination, I estimated about a 10% chance that the ladder (and the worker) would fall. 10% is not bad, but is it worth saving 30 seconds? Apparently, it was to him.

The cognitive process is simple. There he was on the ladder and the most direct way to move it was the ladder wiggle. Rather than a cost/benefit analysis, which would have resulted in a safer solution, he evaluated his first option, determined the risk was acceptable, and did it. As with RPD decisions, it was not a comparison of alternatives.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Human Factors is a state of mind

As usual at the end of the semester I get students who tell me that they see the world in a whole new way after taking my human factors course. They way I (and many of my colleagues) teach Human Factors really does become a perspective rather than a set of theories or tools to use at work. On the very first day, I tell them that they will not only be better designers, but also better and dealing with friends, relatives, coworkers, and significant others. They don't believe me then, but by week 4 they sure do.

Maybe I should start a religion and become a preacher instead of a teacher???

Sunday, December 10, 2006

risk / safety tradeoff

We have known for a long time that many safety features do not actually make people safer because they use this opportunity to work faster/riskier/etc and thus revert to the individual's own risk tolerance (modified by external incentives such as productivity bonuses).

But there are also negative externalities to worry about. In a new study, Ian Walker at the University of Bath found that cyclists who wear helmets have a higher chance of getting hit by a car than those who do not. So does this mean that cyclists adjust to their added safety by riding more aggressively? It turns out the answer is no. The people who adjust their behavior is the driver. Drivers passing cyclists with helmets drive closer to the bike than drivers passing cyclists without helmets. So even though the biker doesn't change his/her behavior, his/her risk goes up.

An earlier study by Sam Pelzman found that drivers who wear seat belts drive more aggressively. So their risk stays the same overall. But the people around them have higher risk. So the total system risk is higher. Paradoxically, adding safety features increases total system risk.

There is not enough data to know how significant this effect is in general or whether it would really be better to get rid of some safety features to increase safety. Sounds like a good research proposal for an ambitious safety researcher.

Human Factors and biblical interpretation

I had a very interesting conversation with some students last night. Normally, I don't like to bring up religion at dinner because it tends to be an emotional topic. But one student seemed really interested in my view, so I thought I would share it with her. I was explaining that something in the brain's function likely evolved because of the needs of humans as the emerged from the African savannah.

She asked me if I believed in evolution or creation. I told her both, and the explanation is pure human factors. I believe that G-d created evolution. It makes much more sense to set in place a system of physical laws and cosmic raw materials than it does to preset each and every species of animal and plant.

So the next question of course is "Why does it say in the bible that it took six days etc?" But this is where human factors comes in. Imagine the state of human knowledge at the time that G-d was explaining the history of the world to Moses on Mt Sinai. Moses would not have understood any of it. I am sure that G-d would have loved to explain how the double helix structure of DNA leads to natural selection, but it would not have been a good use of time. So he explained in using stories in the same way that scientists explain their work to their families, or parents explain sex to young children. And then Moses told the rest of the Hebrews, who told their kids, who told their kids etc for about 1500 years before anyone wrote it down.

Given this reality, it is remarkable how many things do fit the historic record, not the several inconsistencies. When my students copy class notes from friends after they miss a class, there are huge discrepancies. I can't imagine going 1500 years without the content changing completely.

So, G-d created evolution, told Moses the story allegorically in a way he could understand, and 1500 years later, we get Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, etc. I don't see how it could be any other way.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Human Factors in Incident Investigation

For those of you who know me personally, you know that I injured my knee last weekend and may need surgery. One of the common areas of human factors consulting that I get called in for is to do incident investigation of these kind of events (usually a worker or a customer in a workplace or store) to find out what happened and why. In my case, the injury was the result of many aspects of human factors.

At the most basic level, I was injured because I stepped out of the way of another pedestrian walking down the sidewalk in downtown Boston. My foot landed half on a curb and half over the edge. I slipped straight down, cracking my kneecap and partially tearing my anterior cruciate ligament.

The abundance of HF causes are typical of the kinds of analysis I do in my consulting. Here are some examples:

The person I was avoiding was not looking where he was going. Why not? It was the day after Thanksgiving (the biggest shopping day of the year) and I was walking in one of the busiest shopping districts in Bostong. His attention was dominated by his current task (Christmas shopping) as well as the very salient sales signs in the store windown. This leaves very little attention for where he was going. And since he probably did not have much of an association beween walking down the sidewalk and risk, there was little drawing him towards looking at his path.

I noticed him just before he walked into me. So my time to make a response decision was very limited, leading to a quick decision. The initial schema activated was to step to the side because that is the most common response (having the lowest threshold for activation). Since I had no time to evaluate the quality of the decision or its risks, I simply stepped to the side. This did not allow time to look at the ground first. This led to the poor location of my step and my fall.

After the fall, my knee clearly hurt, but really only when I tried to bend it. There was no visible damage except a small scrape. Since I had experienced minor injuries many times before, some of which involved more pain than this event, I was certain that it was minor. My schema for this kind of injury is a little rest and a little ice and I would be fine in a day or two. This conclusion was further supported by the cost/benefit analysis. This response was easy and cheap and had a happy ending. Going to an emergency room to get it checked out was expensive, very time consuming, and could end up with a sad ending (bad news).

Then, confirmation bias set in. Even though the pain grew over the next few hours, I was able to attribute that to the fact that I kept walking on it and didn't have time to ice it. The swelling could be attributed to the same thing.

8 hours later, I went to the hospital. At some point, the cost of not going, plus the predominance of evidence that my first hypothesis was wrong, cause me to inhibit the hypothesis and consider others. Going to the hospital was both my only other existing schema and the recommendation of a reliable source (my brother the surgeon).

In this case, I was not trying to allocate blame or develop design solutions to prevent the class of incidents from occurring again. But if this had been such a case, I would probably have found no individually to be legally liable and perhaps recommended signs in busy retail neighborhoods reminding people to watch where they are going. The design of the signs would have to be salient to attract attention (with humor rather than fear), and change often to avoid habituation.

Monday, November 13, 2006

politics and entrepreneurship

As many of you know, I am a Director at FIU's Entrepreneurship Center. I am also a student of American political and public policy history, especially the Founding Fathers. So this topic will not surprise you as being something I am interested in.

A was watching a conference on CSPAN this weekend (yes I am a geek) and something a panelist said got me wondering. I don't remember what he said exactly or who he was (but he was a Fellow at Brookings), but it was about the challenges of the current political environment in DC. What I realized is that politics is not necessarily more hostile these days - The personal hatred between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay of the early 1800s will hopefully never be reproduced. But the hostility is more visible to the average person because of advertising. And negative ads work (but this is a topic for another time).

What has changed is that politics has gone through the same transition as companies do - from entrepreneurial venture to corporate bureacracy. It used to be that individual politicians developed their own ideas, debated them in Congress, and could influence policy. Now, everything has to go through the committee system, get vetted by party leadership, and often only involve the party in power. Even lobbyists get politicized through initiatives like the Republican's K-Street project (where they tried to get all lobbying firms to hire only republicans or get shut out).

And so the same problems we see with large corporations are occurring with the current political parties. They can't be entrepreneurial anymore and new ideas get shut out. Large corporations are better at dealing with expected change (because of economies of scale) but much worse at dealing with rapid or unanticipated change. The same thing is happening in DC. The new world order (rising power of China, independence of Iran, etc) is beyond what our current system can deal with. But in the business world, there are openings for new ventures in most industries. The problem with politics is that it is easier to create monopolies and barriers to entry. Maybe we need a new Whig party. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader were able to play spoiler, but not much more than that. Maybe we need to change some of the rules to make it easier for new "ventures" to compete with the establishment. That could breathe some new life into the political process.

Just a thought.

Friday, November 10, 2006

the myth of the rational voter

This is a great article on its own merits, but also has a lot of Human Factors to it, especially considering that it was written by an economist.

If political bias were systematic, then politics would work. The average voter would be in the middle. But Caplan found that voters make the same mistakes, in some cases way off the middle. They significantly overestimate the amount spent on foreign aid and underestimate the amount spent on entitlements. I wonder if this is confirmation bias (their ideology wants to believe one thing and so they only focus on evidence in support of that - such as listening to partisan talk radio) or if the media misleads people by selecting stories based on salience rather than providing a full source of information.

Another finding is that expert economists have very different views than voters. They tend to be more libertarian. Caplan says this shows voters are wrong because economists are probably right. But I suspect that they are also wrong to some extent, because they trust theories that do not always hold up in the complex, naturalistic world in which we live. I am a free market guy, but I think most economists put a little too much faith in Adam Smith's invisible hand.

Interestingly, he says that voters tend to vote based on what they think is best for society, rather than what is best for themselves. This is encouraging in terms of belief in people's inherent goodness. But if most voters have no clue what is really best for society, it doesn't really help.

For example, voters are susceptible to salience bias. A great story on the news can overcome dozens of small experiences in the real world, especially when focus of the story is on the policy issue but in the real world we are just trying to get on with our lives.

This can also manifest in the effect magnitude. If 100 people lose their jobs but 30 million people save $10, it is good for the economy, but whose story is more salient on the news, the laid off retail worker or the family who saved a few bucks at Walmart?

One conclusion we can draw from all of this goes against what I have always believed (wow - Caplan changed my world view to some extent). I always thought that people should become familiar with the issues and vote for the candidate who supports those policies. But in fact, few voters really have the time to do this well. So really, we should select candidates based on their core values and trust that they will study the issues for us and make the best decisions. Then we shouldn't question them on it unless something seems really fishy.

A different Human Factors issue he talks about is that voters tend to be very confident in their judgments, even getting angry if you contradict them, when they clearly have very little evidence to support their views. He talks about how it is much easier to believe in the emotionally appealing side than the correct one (which requires studying). He uses as an example the immigration debate, where it is easier to blame "sneaky foreigners" than the laid off worker.

Also, there is very little feedback when you are wrong. When do we ever get to see a controlled study where two otherwise identical countries try different immigration policies and then analyze which one worked better? Econometricians do this, but most people don't read the results and wouldn't understand the statistics even if they did read them.

To prevent this problem, Caplan suggests putting more power in the hands of unelected officials who are experts in their field, such as the Fed and Supreme Court. This is OK as long as you are consistent. I suspect that the libertarian Caplan would not want nutritional experts deciding to limit his ability to eat trans-fat laden foods at McDonalds, even if they know better than he does that the negative health consequences outweigh the great taste and that these costs transfer to all of society in the aggregate.

Maybe we need to replace all political consultants with Human Factors practitioners. The pay would be better. At least, that is my inexpert perception :-D.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Anything can be improved with Human Factors

Shout out to one of my students for giving me this lead. I have always said that anything can be improved with human factors. Here is one I hadn't thought of.

Pronto has created a new packaging system for condoms that makes it easy to put on. I haven't tried them, so I can't attest to the truth of their claim, but I have read that much of the spread of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is tied to men not wanted to use condoms because they take too long to put on and are often put on backwards. So it is "ease of use" and "mapping" that cause the problems. The same goes for a lot of Western populations, although I have less sympathy for them.

Hurray for Human Factors.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Dolphin Stadium

Here is a better example of finding a customer need and satisfying it. One of the worst part of going to a live sporting event is that the lines to get food take longer than the time-outs. So if you want to eat, you either have to find someone hawking your favorite food row by row, or you have to miss some of the game.

Not anymore at Dolphin Stadium (and many others). Their new wireless Internet will include a system where you can order food and have it delivered to your seat. They have not set any delivery fee yet, but at the prices of stadium food, it can't be that much worse. This is a customer requirement that is worth some design effort !!

They are also adding a service to take pictures of the fans in their seats using the kinds of camera angles you see on TV. Is this a need too? I guess even if they get 1% of the fans, that is still thousands of sales a year. But I would rather bring my own camera.

Sony's new eBook

Here is a recent review of Sony's new eBook. Forgetting about the price issue for a moment, the biggest drawbacks of eBooks in general has always been the flexibility and readability of the hardware. If you can't read them comfortably over long periods of time (many people read books for an hour or more straight), they will not replace paper books.

So how should you test an eBook? I suspect that the reviewer at Tech Review (linked above) read it sitting in a chair in his office or home. Where do you read? Personally, I lie down on my back on my couch or on a lounge chair by the pool. And I prefer magazines and soft paperbacks so I can fold them up into smaller footprints (so I don't block the sun by the pool). If I tried to do this with an eBook, I wonder if it would be as easy to read as the reviewer found in his test?????

This is a great example of what call Activity-Based Evaluation. You always need to design realistic tasks to test a device like this. I don't know what variety of environments and postures people like to read in, but a good test will have the most common, most important, and most likely to cause problems. If Sony's eBook can be successful in all of these (and the price comes down), I would be a likely customer for them.

human factors in election news coverage

As most of you know by now, I am a big advocate of understanding what users want before designing a system so you can best meet their needs and expectations. The news coverage of this critical election sucked in this regard.

What most people wanted to know in this situation, besides the results of a particular race, is what the democrats' chances of taking the House and/or Senate were. So what we would have liked to know during the coverage is "of the races that are still too close to call, the dems need 4 out of 5 in the Senate and 3 out of 10 in the House" or something to that effect. That would help us to estimate they have a 70% chance of taking the House and a 20% chance of taking the Senate.

Instead, the news said "The democrats need to take 3 more seats from Senate Republicans and 20 more from House Republicans." But this is totally not helpful because some of those races could be easy to call (for either party), and some of the democrat encumbents could also be in close races. And we don't know how many close races are left. From this information, it is impossible to even estimate the odds. There is too much missing information.

So news guys, listen up. Think about what the viewers need and present information in a way that helps!!!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Good information supports retail usability

I haven't decided yet if this constitutes really good information or just enough to make a decision even more confusing, but this article about Hannaford Brothers grocery chain in New England brings up some interesting thoughts.

In order for consumers to make good retail decisions, we need good information. Whether we like it or not, nutritional information is important. Too many of us are obese, diabetic, and getting worse. And the current standard practice for labeling food is confusing to many. I did some research on these labels (send me an email if you want a copy) and it shows most people don't really pay attention to details and just trust a generic claim like "reduced fat" to indicate the product is healthy. This is not true.

In Hannaford's system, all important criteria (transfat, total fat, sodium, sugar, calories) must be at reasonable levels to get three stars (on a zero to three star scale). Even otherwise healthful products (V8 vegetable juice) get zero stars when something is too high (sodium). This is why it is a little confusing because for those of us who are not diabetic and don't get too much salt, V8 is very good for us. But the idea is good, because labels like "antioxidant rich" "zero fat" etc can make someone think it is a great food choice when it may not be.

So I applaud Hannaford's strategy, but maybe they need to update the implementation a little bit.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

HF drives the politics of religious fundamentalism

Here is a really interesting one.

Originally, religious fundamentalism included values such as fighting poverty, creating world peace, ending hunger as well as outlawing abortion and gay marriage.

But those first few are very difficult to do, can't be done 100% or permanently.
On the other hand, outlawing abortion and gay marriage are binary laws or Supreme Court decisions. They are easier to accomplish and certainly easier to talk about in sound bites.

So abortion and gay marriage got more repetitions in ads and speeches. They therefore became stronger connections in the schema of both the population listening and the fundamentalists and politicians speaking. So eventually, these issues dominated the agenda at the virtual exclusion of the rest.

So the human factors of the process drove the setting of the fundamentalist agenda.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

media effects on schema

A study by Pew found that the approval rating of the US in Turkey has been really low. At first, they hypothesized it was related to the Iraq war. But further analysis discovered that some recent very popular movies in Turkey are shoot-em-up action movies where the bad guys are Americans. This led to the lower approval ratings.

It is not surprising that media, even though we know they are fictional, can impact the affective connections of real schema. These movies were very salient because they were fun, violent, action-filled, loud, etc. So it didn't matter that they were also tagged as fictional, they can't help but influence the development of ethnic schema of Americans.

The same thing happens in the US when communities with few minorities see our movies that depict African-American and Hispanic characters as drug dealers, criminals, etc. Because the movies are salient, they are the only experience some people have with minorities, and they are repetitive (most movies do this), they strongly impact schema. It is a shame that the media have such a deleterious affect on so many people. And we do know that they are fictional, so it is hard to argue for any kind of regulation.

Monday, October 30, 2006

bias in surveys

It is easy to get the answers you want from a survey. All you have to do is write the questions to 'encourage' the answers you want. Of course, the purpose of a survey is NOT to get the answers you want, so this is more of an example of what NOT to do.

Here is a good example. This is a survey to see if the respondent has libertarian views.

Question 1a) Do you believe in free speech? Answer 1a) Of course!!!
Question 1b) Do you believe that terrorists should be able to promote hatred of the United States on college campuses and in town centers? Answer 1b) Well . . . .

Question 2a) Do you believe that the government should end corporate welfare and stop giving handouts to companies? Answer 2a) Strongly!!!
Question 2b) Do you believe the government should provide R&D support for alternative energy and other promising new technologies? Of course they should!!

As you can see, the average person would come out as a libertarian using survey a) but not in survey b).

This also shows the importance of using examples. When you use an example, the question's implication becomes much clearer. But what you have to do to ensure objectivity is to provide an example on both sides so that you don't bias the answer.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

negative political ads

This week, the Virginia Senate race really heated up (article). The Republican incumbent George Allen read a passage from a novel written by Democratic challenger James Webb about 30 years ago. The novels are historical and based on experiences that Webb had as a journalist in Bangkok. But the scenes in question are very sexually explicit and I can see how they would offend the conservative voter.

But what I want to blog about today is Webb's response. I think he did it exactly the wrong way. From a Human Factors point of view, what Allen did was create connections in voters' minds from Webb to sexually explicit scenes. Anyone against explicitness will have connections to negative affect from this. And no one will really have positive connections, because while many people are in favor of free speech, no one is really in favor of explicitness in itself.

But Webb's response just magnified this. He talked about how legitimate these scenes are because they come from his real experiences. But all this does is create salient repetition in voters' minds from Webb to the sexual explicitness. For those who are offended, his logic wouldn't sway them at all, and may make it worse. And for those who aren't offended, it strengthens connections that have no effect. Either way, he doesn't accomplish anything positive for his campaign.

What he should have done is create brand new connections that would appeal to different kinds of voters while ignoring the specifics of the explicit scenes. For example he could have said something like:

"This is clearly a desperate attempt by my opponent to bring up 30-year old news that has nothing to do with the real issues of this Senate race. I am sure that the citizens of the great state of Virginia can see through this ploy and will vote based on the issues on November 7th."

By avoiding any mention of the sex, he avoids strengthening these connections. And he creates several beneficial connections of his own: That Allen is desperate, that he has a high opinion of Virginia voters' intelligence, that the novel is from many years ago, and that it is irrelevant (whether it really is or not).

Whoever advised Webb on his response needs to study his/her human factors.

Monday, October 23, 2006

conflicts of interest

Disclosure is clearly not the answer to conflicts of interest. A 2005 study in the Journal of Legal Studies (recently cited at Business Week) found that when someone discloses a conflict of interest, they are more likely to exaggerate their position. And those who receive the disclosure do not add the grain of salt they should. So the practical implication is that you should admit to any conflicts without worrying about consequences and then feel free to make up whatever you want (yes, I am exaggerating here !!!).

So what does human factors say about this? My sense is that when making any point, there are two competing incentives - personal payoff, which has high salience and strong low-brain instinctive connections, and ethics, which is more deep-brain connected. And recent studies have shown that short term decisions are made more by the emotional than the rational brain areas. So when speaking or presenting, the payoff connections will be activated first and any excuse to use them will overcome the rational ethics of being completely honest. Not that experts would lie, but exaggerating is easy to rationalize when it is based on truth.

But perhaps for long term discussion with long term payoff (writing journal papers) we are better at being rational and can be more honest. That is a study that still needs to be done.

Friday, October 13, 2006

human factors of sleep

The following was just reported in the Harvard Business Review. The authors discussed the results in terms of how the workforce is hurting productivity, but it applies pretty generally. All of these findings can be explained easily with basic cognitive science as global fatigue of activation, particularly inhibitory connections. But we often don't account for them in design, either of products that people use when they are sleepy or work systems where employees may be sleepy.

• Stay awake longer than 18 consecutive hours and your reaction speed, memory, attention-span and decision-making all start to suffer.
• Five or six hours of sleep a night for several days in a row has a cumulative effect that magnifies these negatives.
• Throughout the waking day, humans build up a stronger and stronger drive for sleep.
• Most people can't get to sleep without some wind-down time, even if they are very tired.
• There is a transitional phase between when you wake up and the time your brain becomes fully functioning. This is why making key decisions at the crack of dawn is never a good idea.
• A person who is sleep deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she actually is.

Source: "Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer," Harvard Business Review, October, 2006, Vol. 84, No. 10. Pages 53-59.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

netflix movie recommendations

Netflix is offerring $1 million to anyone who can improve their system for making recommendations by 10% or more. Why is this human factors? Because Netflix's business model is based on getting people to rent many movies. If the customer already knows what movies they want, this is easy. But what happens when he/she runs out of ideas? If they stop renting, Netflix loses. So they need a way to get people to rent movies they didn't know about. Random recommendations would never work, so they need some way to predict their customers' schemas for "good movie." But everyone has a different set of attributes for this. So they need to be able to model their customers' individual schemas of "good movie" based on the limited information they collect about each one, which includes:
1. some basic demographics they collect during registration
2. a list of the movies they have renting so far and when (more recent is more relevant)
3. a list of movies they have browsed but not rented
4. lists of favorite movies or wish lists
5. ratings of movies they have seen in the past

Then they develop algorithms that can include:

1. Movies that people who liked the same movies also liked
2. Movies that people with similar demographics also liked
3. Movies that share attributes with movies that this customer liked.

If you are interested in trying to win the $1 million, let me know. I would be happy to share with you the research I have done in this area.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

information architecture in the real world

Neiman Marcus just created a new boutique style store (not a web site - a real store) that is organized differently from its traditional department stores (and different from the usual model). The main difference is the information (or in this case content) organization.

Usually, department stores are organized by product. Shirts are in one place, pants in another, jewelry in another, etc. But in this new store, called CUSP, it is organized by user profile. So for the 20-something trendster, there will be all of the products that this person may want to buy: shirts, pants, suits, accessories, etc. So to check out multiple items, the person stays in the same place. This makes it easier to create matching outfits, try on items from multiple product categories etc.

Is this a great idea or what !! It shows simple attention to human factors. It significantly reduces navigation (which I would claim is even more important in a bricks and mortar store because real travel is required). And it increases the chance of impulse purchases because everything is in view, including that cute purse that would go great with the new pant suit.

But what I would really like to know is what took them so long??? Department stores have been around for decades!!!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

HF of trans fat

Human factors can have a huge impact on the design of systems. Take for example how we choose the food to eat. Two years ago, no one had heard of trans fat. We happily ate oreo cookies and other baked goods oblivious to the damage we were doing to our health.

Then we learned how bad it was for us. But still, it didn't affect our eating because we didn't realize how much of it was in certain foods. So only after the nutrition labels were changed to include trans fat did behavior change. Adding it to the label made the amounts VISIBLE to the user. As soon as it did, there were huge effects. All of a sudden, companies starting making their products with no (or less) trans fat so that people would buy them. We now have trans fat free cookies, cakes, etc.

But we still get lots of trans fat in our foods - because restaurants don't have to have labels, so they can put as much in as they want. And they do. So Americans, Europeans, and most other people continue to get obese in record numbers. If we want to solve the problem, we don't need government to ban trans fat. We value our freedom of choice (trans fat isn't addictive like smoking where we have to be protected). What we need is simply good human factors design. We need the content of the foods we eat to be VISIBLE and then we can make intelligent choices all on our own.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Muslim head scarfs

This is an interesting topic for human factors. I am addressing this more as a cognitive analysis rather than a usability issue. There was an interview on NPR this morning with two teenagers who wear headscarves. They constantly were asked if wearing these scarves made them feel less free. But they replied that because it is their choice to wear the scarf, they feel more freedom. They can either wear them or not, but non-muslims only have the option not to wear them. Interesting point of view.

The reason I think this is a good human factors issue is because of the development of the schema in the girls' feelings about the scarf. I guess you can associate just about any attributes you want to an object if you have the right attitude. That shows you why optimists live longer than pessimists and satisficers live longer than maximizers.

Monday, September 04, 2006

fortune cookies

Many people are familiar with the story that buildings put mirrors in front of elevators as a way to keep people busy while waiting for the elevator to arrive. It is cheaper to do this than to speed up the elevator.

Well, I just learned that the fortune cookie was invented by a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles to accomplish the same thing. They were served at the beginning of the meal to keep diners busy while they were waiting for their food to arrive.

It is amazing what user requirements can be accomplished through innovative design, rather than solving the most obvious problem. We can design web pages with lots of high resolution graphics as long as we force something that will keep users busy to download first and fast.

In the interest of adding our gender topic to this post, I wonder how much of this is gender-based. I have always heard that men are more impatient than women. It could also be cultural, with Americans being more impatient than Asians.

Friday, September 01, 2006

think big at business week

I love it when major business pubs have articles on human factors. Business Week is the latest (article here). The best thing is that it is short and to the point (i.e. the article is usable itself :-D).

This particular article is about Enterprise Usability (although that is my term, so they don't use it). The idea is that the whole business has to provide a good user experience, from brand image to customer service, with the actual product only being one part.

Go BWeek!!!

gaming table from Phillips

Here is a good example of a product that is predicted to attract more males than females. It is a gaming table from Philips (brief article and photos). But since I am not a gamer, I thought I should ask. Are the women out there interested in taking their board games electronic?

How is this better than the regular cardboard game? You still need to game pieces, so you have to store some physical objects. Does it add convenience? Or is it just the cool factor?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

welcome HF class

Today is the first day of my undergraduate human factors course at FIU. Since I will tell them about the blog, I expect a few of them to visit between now and winter break. Please comment anytime you like (and get bonus class participation points!).

Also, I joined a research project that wants to know what people think about gender issues - specifically masculinity. I don't know much about it yet, but if anyone sees any important gender issues in the subjects I cover in the blog, feel free to comment on them.

Monday, August 21, 2006

calming fear

There was a study a saw abstracted that suggests that cartoons are better than mothers at calming childrens' fears. I thought about it for a few minutes, and it made perfect sense:

Cartoons distract the child from the fear. Basically, it activates a completely different area of the brain. If the cartoon is salient enough, it can attract all of the child's attentive capacity, thus reducing the fear to zero.

Mothers soothe the child. They assure them that the fear is not real and that they are OK. Essentially, they are inhibiting the fear and associating the current state with the "things are OK" schema. This may solve the problem, but does not eliminate the fear activation completely.

So a good cartoon will always be better than a good mother for this kind of need. As long as the fear is not based on some real-world situation that must be addressed by the child, ignorance is bliss.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

expert v novice

In-N-Out Burger has a great approach to supporting expert and novices and they do it in a way that creates community as well. They have a very short/simple menu that is perfect for novices. But for experts that want something different, they have an unlisted expert menu. This also supports maximizers because they can have the exact combination they want.

What makes the community - the hidden menu has its own language. People who want to feel 'cool' can use the language so that other customers realize they are an expert customer.

From a pure human factors point of view, the hidden language has great visibility and mapping. For the basic criteria, which compose most of the customization customers will want (my prediction based on no data :-D), the customer simply provides two numbers in the format x by y. X refers to the number of burgers and y to the number of cheese slices. So you can get 5 patties and 3 slices of cheese by saying "5 by 3" Very intuitive, easy to recall, short - all the good usability principles.

But the key question is - "how does one convert from a novice to an expert. If you have friends, that would work. Or is you happen on it on Wikipedia. But in general, there is a whole bunch of service functionality that is invisible.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

retrospective protocols

I just experienced a great example of why retrospective protocols are fraught with error. I was walking down the hall and asked a colleague how he was doing. I thought he said "hot" but I wasn't sure. I asked him what he said. He had no idea. He guessed that he said "I'm fine thank you." Clearly, this could not have been it - it sounds nothing like "hot."

What he did, according to retrospective protocol studies, is search his schema for a logical or typical way to answer the question, rather than his memory of what he really said. This happens a lot in retrospective protocols. Instead of reported what they were thinking at the time, users develop rational explanations that often do not correspond with reality. Often, what they were really thinking is not logical or easy to articulate. And also hard to remember, even soon after.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Wow, two in one day. Are you guys lucky!!!

I just read about a Federal Court decision that ruled against Cleanflicks et al. They are no longer allowed to edit DVDs of movies to remove the sex and violence. One of the key issues was whether the modified movies were transformative (added in value) or derivative (just different). The court found that removing content can not add value.

From a Human Factors point of view, I find these totally against everything I know. How many web sites have you improved by removing clutter, outdated content, superfluous animation or graphics, etc? The judges need a good HF course!!!!

RFID for bartenders

Sorry I have been away for so long, but I was waiting for something good to discuss. Boy did I find it.

There is a new RFID device that attaches to liquor bottles. By measuring the angle and duration of each pour, it measures how much was added to a drink. It is connected to the cash register, so it actually knows which drinks are being poured too. It can determine if bartenders are under or over pouring and it even has a warning message for consistent errors. The warning is just a beep, so they need to work on the human factors of this. But talk about instant feedback!!!!

There is some good math behind the device for those of you in doubt. It knows what the shape and size of the bottle is, so it can change its predictions based on how much has been poured from the bottle so far. And when the bottle is empty, it can recalibrate its estimates to increase accuracy even more - although this info can only be used for long term modeling of bartenders, not the immediate feedback (unless the whole bottle is poured at once).

From a HF point of view, this is cool in terms of instant feedback. To learn, telling bartender once a month that he/she overpours doesn't help. But telling him/her that he just overpoured the Creme de Menthe bottle is much more useful, because he/she can adjust the way he/she pours that particular bottle shape.
From an IE point of view, this is cool in terms of real time performance measurement and feedback - with the goal of improvement. It also adds some security because the bartender can't pour free drinks for friends (unless there is a button for that on the cash register).

I would have never thought of this one - what will they come up with next!!!

Friday, June 16, 2006

net neutrality

This topic is not centered on Human Factors, but it is something that is critically important to the development of Internet innovation so it will affect most of us in many ways.

For those of you not familiar with the basic premise, here are the two sides:

Telecoms: The fairest and most efficient way to fund the development of bandwidth is for companies that use more bandwidth to pay more for that use. So if your site has high-res graphics, video, audio, or simply lots of visitors, you will pay more for their access. A text only site with three visitors will pay the minimum. This is the basis of the free market system. And anyway, they own the bandwidth, so even if you think this is a bad idea, it is their private property on which to make such mistakes.

Internet companies: The greatest innovations of the Internet age have come about because there are minimal start-up costs to create the next greatest thing. I you think of the Web 2.0 services and other new companies (MySpace, YouTube, Skype, even Google), they were created by college students in their dorm rooms. If they had to pay for every bit, they could not have afforded to get started. And even established companies would be hesitant to create new services (think online banking) if the bandwidth used would not be covered by the extra revenue. If they charge for the new services, no one will try them out and great services will be killed at the outset.

Social organizations: It is very rare for and the Christian Coalition to agree on anything, but here is one. If they (and other non-profits) had to pay for every visitor who clicks on their sites, it would kill the circulation of their ideas. Independent bloggers (especially Vloggers) would disappear. Local governments would not be able to afford to support their services. Charities would lose their online fundraising capabilities. So we need net neutrality.

And most people realize that government often screws up regulation of technology. They move too slowly to regulate something that moves so fast. Even if the regulation was good to start, technology would change and it would take 10 years for the government to update the regulation. And the regulations they do enact are generally flawed because of the influence of lobbyists, special interests, and a general ignorance of technology by the average politician.

So you are probably asking whether I am in favor of government regulation of net neutrality. To be honest, I am torn. I wish there was a free market solution. It is possible that competition in the telecom industry would create net neutrality because anyone who tried to charge more would lose business. But I don't think that there is enough competition at present to do this. So some government regulation is necessary. But how to do it, I don't know.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

how much does Human Factors contribute

I was watching an interview of Alvin Toffler (the author of Revolutionary Wealth) and he said something that really struck me. His example of the problem with measuring national GDP was that when Microsoft spends millions creating a new version of Windows that is only marginally better than the old one, the measure of GDP goes up based on the money spent on it. But when thousands of programmers contribute to the development of Linux for free and thousands of companies download and use the software, again for free, there is no recognized effect on GDP.

I wondered about Human Factors in this same way. For the past few years we have been struggling to make the business case for Human Factors by proving that it increases sales, etc. But are there other effects that we are missing? I think that a usable product, even if it doesn't make me more productive at work, still makes me happier, and maybe more productive overall because of my mood. Or maybe just the happiness should be measured.

Overconfident experts

There has been a lot of writings lately about how experts are not nearly as expert as they think (Arnold Kling, James Surowiecki). The Arnold Kling article specifically discusses economists and how this overconfidence can harm public policy when governments rely on their recommendations. This is a considerable problem.

Since Human Factors has so much to say on naturalistic decision making (of which economics is a prime example), such as the fantastic research on recognition primed decision making, I think it behooves us to think about applying some our work to the public policy domain. Yes we are helping the military, law enforcement, etc., but why not macroeconomic and industrial policy at the federal level. Not only can we have a huge effect on our nation(s), but we would also increase the visibility of our field.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Japanero Room

Another example from my stay at the conference. I had a Board meeting in the Japanero room. The hotel meeting rooms were arranged alphabetically, so the Japanero room was easy to find, right between the room beginning with 'I' and the one beginning with 'K'. A colleague asked where we were meeting. I said "the 'J' room". He had no clue what I was talking about.

This illustrates a pretty good example of how an incorrect user model can lead to a poor design. I made an incorrect assumption of his domain knowledge. Because he was a Board member, I assumed he got the same tour I did, which explained the alphabetical design (or he would have figured it out on his own by then). I also made an incorrect assumption about the quality of my message. I also assumed that saying "the 'J' room" would be enough of a semantic link to the organization of the rooms that he would understand my meaning. Because the alphabetical organization was a salient part of my schema, the statement was enough to activate it. But that is no guarantee for other users.

salient design

As I checked into my hotel to attend the IIE conference last week, I was struck by their use of Human Factors in selecting a white bedspread. I am sure that most of you have heard the nightmare stories of how disgusting hotel bedspreads are and the variety of bodily fluids that they find in stains.

So how does a white bedspread help, and why do I consider it a Human Factors application?

1. If the bedspread is white, it provides a visibly salient cue that the bedspread is clean, unlike those stories.

2. They assume that this is important to people, which implies a domain knowledge that includes those stories.

3. There is a semantic link between a clean bedspread and a holistic impression that the hotel cares about cleanliness in general, and therefore even other linens, carpets, etc may be assumed to be clean as well.

Thus, the money spent on cleaning the bedspreads, rather than hiding the stains in colorful patterns, may be worth the investment, but only if it is made clear to the user - which can be done elegantly with a white bedspread. Much better than a sign above the bed declaring that they are clean, which would just call out attention to the kinds of stains that could be present elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

customer made

I have been reading the trendwatching newsletter for just a few months, but it has become a monthly religious experience for me. It takes maybe 10 minutes to read, but I find myself clicking on lots of the links to check them out first hand, so it is more like 15-20 minutes. Not bad for such a great tool. Basically, the site identifies an emerging trend and discusses it, citing many examples. It is hard to describe briefly, so go to the site and read one or two of them for yourself. You will see what I mean.

This month's trend is "Customer-Made", discussing all of the companies that have created some way for customers to participate intimately in the design process. The companies range from high tech to simple retail and all over the world. I plan to use this as a motivator to the students in my Human Factors class to pick their own design projects in the Fall, instead of giving them one myself. It is not a trend I didn't already know about, but reading all of the ways it is being implemented was very informative and really amazed me both at how innovative the participating customers are as well as how great this is for the companies that do it.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Inspiration v perspiration

Sometimes it amazes me how places to apply HF are conceived. I generally promote the scientific method. Wade out into the tides of the user population, observing and collecting ethnographic, naturalistic data that illustrates their true needs. Then quantify and prioritize the needs through surveys, stratification, and statistical analysis.

But the inspiration method works pretty well too. I was reading an article in Industrial Safety and Hygiene News and I had a great brainstorm (helped along by the author's idea). If workers with different skill sets have different color uniforms or at least parts of the uniform, it could be very helpful in situations were faces are not recognizable. This could be in smoky facilities, over far distances, when workers wear goggles or face masks, etc. The uniforms (or patches) could signify many things that would be useful. In an emergency, it would be fast and easy to recognize who has partcicular skills like hazmat or medical. People who are from other departments could be recognized, either for security or safety reasons. An application of HF that I had never thought of before materialized right before my eyes.

Of course I would verify the need and marketability of the idea before investing my life savings in a start-up venture. My quantitative bones couldn't handle the uncertainty otherwise.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Defaults as expert opinion

There was an article in psychological science this month investigating the reasons that when public and organizational policies have a default (such as organ donation defaulting to opt-out), people generally stick to the default. The research concluded that people assume that the default is a recommendation from the policy makers of the best course of action.

I wonder if there is a correlate in usability. Does the typical user, who notoriously leaves settings such as virus protection, operating system defaults, etc. at the default, also have this unconscious assumption that the software maker recommends the defaults? That would be a much different conclusion than it is simply laziness.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Successors in politics or business.

Listening to a story about the King of Nepal gave me a thought. When a new leader, either in politics (President or King) or business (CEO or even plant manager) follows a particularly loved or hated predecessor, there are a few things that seem to come up.

1. They often stake out policies that are more extreme than they would based just on their original position, in part to make it clear that they are "their own man" (or woman).

2. They also sometimes are less willing to respond to criticism or failure.

The first one makes sense from a Human Factors point of view. In order to differentiate yourself from your predecessor (and have any hope at being remembered in history), you have to make the distinction clear, or stakeholders' schema will lump you together with the predecessor. If he/she was loved, this lumping will make you more likely to be loved, but less likely to get any credit or for people to follow you as the new leader. So staking out a new direction makes sense. If he/she was hated, then the distinction is even more important.

But what about this second one? I have a theory. It is possible that the policies of the predecessor are strongly connected to "policies of other" because a) they are not your policies and b) you are trying to differentiate yourself from them anyway. Policies of critics are strongly connected to "policies of other" because a) they are not your policies and b) criticisms always get connected to negative affect. So it makes sense that the same response will occur.

Failures could work the same way. It makes sense to try to disassociate yourself from your failures by blaming them on external factors. This is a common decision making bias in HF research. So they get connected to "others" as well, even if they are your own fault.

So this could explain the King of Nepal's (and president Bush) intransigence in the face of failure.

What do you think?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Safer cell phone use while driving??

This article presents an interesting concept, but I am not so sure it would be as effective as they think. The basic idea is that your cell phone will chirp (the same sound as the pedestrian crosswalk warning) when you get within 100 meters of a traffic light.

The idea is that many drivers who are talking on their cell phones don't notice it turn red and hit pedestrians or stopped cars. It is based on GPS, so you don't need any fancy technology, just a GPS enabled phone. It is connected to a database of traffic light locations.

But this means it will chirp even for green lights. So my questions are:
1. Will drivers habituate to the sound and start ignoring it? This could happen either for drivers who pass traffic lights a lot - habituation based on frequency of red and green lights - or when drivers start to ignore chirps because they often warn about green lights - habituation based on proportion of false alarms. The Human Factors research on trust in automation could probably predict what will happen, but focused research is probably needed.

2. Will drivers get annoyed by the chirp and either turn it off or just ignore it for aesthetic reasons? After all, it would have to be salient enough to draw attention away from the conversation for it to work. So the annoyance is virtually guaranteed for a large proportion of the user group.

What do you think?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Long term and short term behavior

I read an interesting article today (to show you how widely my interests vary!!) on how watching violent media (TV, movies, comic books, video games, music) affects aggressive behaviors. The relevance to Human Factors is interesting.

What they found is that adults are affected more in the short term, presumably because they already have schemas on how to respond to aggressive feelings, which become activated through the media exposure. But kids have long term effects, presumably because the exposure causes the development of new schemas.

Just some speculation, but I wonder how this would work with training or exposure to a new work system or technology interface? It could have some implications for new v refresher training sessions and how to design and deliver them.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Description error strikes again. In my constant effort at metacognition, I noticed another good one this morning on my way to work.

I left a water bottle on the kitchen counter to remind myself to grab my lunch on the way to work. As I passed the kitchen on my way out, I saw the water bottle and remembered about the lunch. So I walked into the kitchen and noticed my multi-vitamin bottle. I had forgotten to take my vitamin that morning, so I grabbed one and swallowed it. As I walked out the door, I realized that I had forgotten my lunch again. This is a description error because the vision of my vitamin bottle caused my activation to go there and it dropped below threshold for my working memory of grabbing my lunch.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Amazing !!! The author of this article ( is shocked that some web sites that focus on clean design over cool aesthetics are preferred by users. Duh !!!! I hate to be critical, but I think it is pretty well accepted that usability is often more important than cool looks, except in artsy, trendy kinds of sites. I am not making the reverse mistake by thinking that aethetics are not important, but you need to have usability first. Just look at Google. Their interface is basically spartan, but it is the biggest, most used site around. I don't think it is the cool logo.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Human Factors and political partisanship.

The NYT has a great article today ( that tells us something about confirmation bias. When people listened to political speech that they disagreed with, they rejected it. But this rejection was not based on logic, it came from the emotional center of their brain and excited their pleasure area. In other words, when we hear something that we disagree with, we don't even give it a chance. We just reject it outright. And even worse, we get pleasure out of rejecting it, so we are more likely to reject similar situations in the future.

This explains a lot to me about the popularity of reality TV, talk radio, and lots of other media that I always find ridiculously asinine. Even people who hate it, watch it so that they can reject it. So the ratings are high and it stays on.