Saturday, December 29, 2007

consumer decision making

I was just reading an article on the Journal of Consumer Affairs about consumer decision making in a very emotionally charged, confusing, and time pressured context (funeral services). This is a tough combination of a challenging environment, novice decision makers, and aggressive sales practices.

Not a situation I would wish on anyone, but a great scenario for research because it is an serious edge case - bringing out the extremes of the human decision making process. The researchers found that consumers of these services generally used many of the cognitive load-reducing decision heuristics that have been called biases specifically because of these results. I don't blame any consumer facing the death of a loved one for trying to reduce the attention dedicated to picking a coffin, plot, embalming services et&c. But the problem is that they

1. evaluated very few alternatives
2. trusted the reliability of the information they were given (by salespeople)
3. did not search for additional information

The authors suggest government regulation. My default opinion about regulation is that we should give consumers all the information they need, but not to constrain their choice. But in this case, perhaps stronger regulation is needed because it is hard to require consumers in this context to be responsible information acquirers and processors.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

chicken sexing

OK, this is my favorite example of fractionation. Thanks to Jared Spool who talks about it in his webcast The Dawning of the Age of Experience. Basically, chicken farms profit by identifying the gender of their baby chicks as early as possible. Unfortunately, there are no physical differences between the male and female babies for several months. With no expertise, that gives them a 50/50 chance of guessing correctly. There are experts who can get up to 80/20, but they can't articulate how they know. They have fractionated their male/female schema so that they can recognize the differences, but there are no connections to any labels. They "just know."

So the training process simply repeats the learning process. A new hire categorizes the baby chicks by gender (at an accuracy of just 50/50 because they don't have any clue), and the expert hits them on the shoulder when they are wrong (feedback). After a few weeks (and hundreds of chicks), the new hires can get up to 70/30 accuracy rates, even though they also can't say quite how they know.

It is a great example of how much cognition goes on in areas of the brain that are simply not accessible to conscious examination.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

decision heuristics and power of the media

I heard a great comment on NPR this morning by host Scott Simon. He was discussing former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who has many good and bad events in his history. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his suspension of the death penalty in his state because of uncertainties and unfairness in how it was applied. He also was the manager of a corrupt government that accepted bribes, one of which led to a horrible accident where several children were killed.

What makes this story relevant to human factors is that Scott Simon remarked that if you tell the story beginning from the traffic accident, Ryan comes across as a terrible person. Listeners may cynically discount the death penalty suspension as an attempt by Ryan to make friends in the prison system, knowing that he may end up there soon. On the other hand, if you tell the story beginning from the Nobel Prize nomination, listeners may sadly wonder how a principled man could be tempted by the power and influence of politics.

It is amazing how much power the media has in the way it presents stories. A little bit of knowledge about anchoring bias, confirmation bias, representativeness bias, and others can make a newspaper or TV news editor incredibly influential. You could craft a series of stories, without doing anything deceptive, unethical, or improper, that significantly skew public opinion one way or the other.

And it can be done so subtly that no one would really know the difference. It would not be like Chavez, Putin or Musharraf intimidating the opposition media.

Friday, November 09, 2007

direct to consumer ads for medicine

There was a paper in this year's Human Factors Conference that got me thinking. The results of the research described are not new, but they cited some past work that always gets me so frustrated by regulatory cluelessness. DTC ads for prescription drugs are required to include both the benefits and the risks. But the regs don't show any knowledge of HF by the regulators. We all have seen or heard the ads where the benefits are promoted in 90% of the ad with smiling faces, well designed graphics, etc. And then the risks are in small print on the bottom or in 1 second of babbling audio. What a waste of an important regulation.

In order to make good health care decisions - and reduce the tremendous cost of health care, we need to be able to make intelligent decisions about our care. Or at the very least, please don't make it worse by encouraging patients to march into their doctors offices demanding the latest name brand drug that is 100 times the cost of the generic but only 1% more effective (or not even that).

This study found that only 5% of people reported that their doctors turned down the request. Doctors would rather give the patient what he/she wants, avoid the conflict, and make the drug rep happy (after getting some sweet perks).

And who cares - its the insurance company that pays the tab. Except that when our policy premiums go up at double the rate of inflation, we wonder why. Duh !!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Anchored to aging

We all know that we will inevitably get old (assuming nothing even worse happens first). Getting old leads to reduced physical and mental abilities, and is generally perceived as a negative. But because our society has accepted it as inevitable, we become acculturated to accepting it. To deal with it even better, we develop excuses for why it is a good thing. It prevents overpopulation. It makes room for young people with new ideas. Life would get boring after a hundred years. Etc.

So whey Aubrey de Grey says that he is developing medical/genetic methods to prevent aging and allow us to live to be at least a hundred and stay healthy and strong, he gets the weirdest response. People call him evil and crazy, not because he thinks he can do it, but because he wants to.

This is one of the most extreme cases of anchoring. Because we have already developed our schema of aging, and connected it to “good” or at least “a necessary part of life,” we can’t accept the alternative.

What does this say about us?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Creativity and Jeff Stamp

If anyone has a chance to see Jeff Stamp, the director of the entrepreneurship program at the University of N Dakota's business school, I strongly recommend it. His specialty is generating creativity and focusing it on entrepreneurship. And his workshops are great for business leaders trying to find ways to build creative capability in their organization or professors who want to help their students do the same. For me, I enjoyed taking everything he said and modeling it with the schema model I use in human factors. It all fits, which is good evidence that his advice is effective.

Also, he has some great stories. For anyone who hasn't heard of Jeff, he was Director of New Product Development at Frito Lay and Pepsico, and is responsible for the invention of Baked Lays, Pepsi Max, the current formulation of Betty Crocker cake frosting, and others. I plan to borrow many of them to use as great examples of user requirement analysis.

Finally, he shared that he intentionally gives his students vague assignments because that is the way the real world typically works. My students often complain that my assignments are too vague, and now I have some support that it is a good thing, not a bad thing, for their education.

Monday, October 08, 2007

User requirements

I am constantly faced with situations where a product is missing some little tweak that would have made it much better for the particular context I am in. It usually is something that would have a very low cost in development and in added interface complexity. I wonder why the company didn't see the need. Is it the method they use to identify needs? Are they not looking at a broad set of contexts?

For example, almost everyone has a cell phone now. Cell phones have easy to use clocks. Since we are carrying cell phones everywhere we go, we don't need watches anymore. I don't know how many people have given up watches (especially since they are also a fashion statement), but I imagine there are at least tens of thousands. I am one of them.

So when I travel by plane, and the announcement comes on that I have to turn off my electronic devices, I suddenly am without a clock. Sometimes, I just want to know the time because I am impatient. But last week, I needed to take some medication at a particular time. Wouldn't it be pretty easy to design the phone with an "airplane mode" in which the communication parts are turned off, but you can still access the rest (clock, alarm, games, etc). I bet there are lots of features people would like to use in the plane. Is this enough to get people to choose one phone over another? Or at least to be more satisfied with their current phone and less likely to jump?

One I am less sure about is to have the clock on your computer persistent even when Powerpoint is on slideshow mode. It would be helpful if you could see the clock on the screen when giving a presentation so you don't have to look at your watch (or phone) to see how much time you have left. Its not very big, so I suspect it wouldn't change the slide appearance much. Maybe it could be something you could add to the Slide Master.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

loss aversion

There has been a lot of talk about loss aversion lately in many different places. The housing market is a great example, with homeowners who need to sell their houses refusing to take less than their original purchase price, even though that "sunk cost" is totally irrelevant in today's market. Stock market investors have been doing it for decades, refusing to sell a stock for less than they paid. This is part of the basis for the entire field of technical analysis. These investors can predict huge volumes of buying and selling when a particular investment reaches a level where many people bought in.

Greg Mankiw today has a great example. Even a great financial economist, who can see himself falling victim to this bias, can't use a brilliant investing strategy that he himself invented because of the fear of a regretful situation (the basis for loss aversion).

And one of my favorite weekly comics has a great example from politics. (warning, if you click here after Oct 5, you will need to manually find the Sept 30 edition).

Monday, September 24, 2007

page load times

Since UIE has decided to bring this topic up again, I figure I may as well. Users constantly complain about "slow" websites (or applications, or elevators for that matter). But what does "slow" really mean? The elevator example is the key to understanding. When elevator designers received these complaints, they looked into making elevators faster, but it was too costly. It turns out, putting mirrors near the door gives people something to do while they wait. That reduced the perceived wait and reduced the complaints.

The same thing works with web sites (etc). Instead of worrying about making the whole page load quickly, give users something to do while they wait. I read the Boston Globe sports section every day. Each article is supplemented with a video related to the article. Those pages have the text load first, allowing me to read the article, and then if I want to watch the video it will have loaded by the time I finish the article. Even if the article was my goal, I would have something to do (read the article) while I waited.

The same thing can work with ads. Many sites load the ads first because they are afraid the ad will not be seen if it loads second. But with most connections, the ad will load before the user is done reading the article, so the ad view will still get recorded. But more importantly, the user can proceed with his/her task without waiting. The important part of the download time is fast.

Another part of "perceived" delay is how long the user expects the site to load. If the site is heavy (graphics etc) and the heavy items are part of what the user is there for (as opposed to ads), then the perception is much lower. So heavy pages can take longer to load with no usability penalty if the heavy content is relevant.

A third factor (and the subject of the UIE study) is how much fun the page is. When we are enjoying ourselves (or being very successful in a task), the perceived time is again lower. In this study, users actually thought the page loaded faster when they were successful in a task then when they were not, even though this has NO correlation with the actual time. Users reported that a 8-second page was slower than a 30-second page.

These results show why it is important to know your metric. The important metrics may be "perceived" download time or task success, but it is not the actual time the page takes to download.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Forecasting the Future

There is a piece on's blog today on forecasting the future and why it is so hard. Interestingly, the one current forecast that the blogger finds promising is that nanorobotics will allow us to think faster and directly connect to wireless networks. I think the problem is not our lack of processing speed. Searching for information is already fast enough. The problem we have is evaluating this information. We can already get a million hits on every Google search.

What we need are better filters and evaluators. That will take something totally different. We need wisdom engines to go along with our search engines. We need a way to get people to stop using our information processing capabilities (natural and electronic) to look for holes in positions we don't like (and not in the ones we do like) and to stop using them to find personal rationalizations to discount good arguments.

Unfortunately, I don't see that in our future.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

really understanding your users

There was a great story in BusinessWeek last week that really highlights what it means to understand your user. Bicycle use has been trending down significantly over the past few years and the major bicycle manufacturers (Trek, Giant, Shimano etc) were getting concerned. Gut instinct might blame it on obesity and baby boomers getting older and becoming less interested in cycling. But it turns out, that was not the case. The problem was poor human factors. While avid cyclists loved the new bicycles that were coming out, with high tech components, 30 gears, etc. It turns out, there were millions of people out there who would have loved to get a bicycle but they were intimidated by the prospect of going into a bicycle store and dealing with the cycling experts who worked there, choosing among the complex components (handlebars, seats, brakes, tires), and so on.

So the solution was to apply human factors. Shimano was the leader, but they got Trek and other brands on board. What they did was:

1. Create simple bikes. “Coasters” have comfortable seats, automatic gear shifting (a small computer that is powered by pedaling so it doesn’t need a battery), puncture resistant tires so that novices don’t have to change tires during a ride, chain guards to keep the grease off of pants.

2. They also made changes to the purchasing process. They added staff at bike stores that have expertise in dealing with people rather than experts in cycling. They changed the web site designs to make it easy for novices to find a bicycle that was appropriate for what they wanted.

3. They also advocated in local governments to make bike paths wider and safer.

There are higher profit margins in selling to hard core bikers. But because there are so many potential casual bikers out there, the impact could be greater with the new strategy.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Liberals v conservatives and open minds

There has been a good deal of debate over the recent study which found that people with a liberal political position give greater consideration to new data when processing information than conservatives, who tend to be more fixed. Critics contend that the study has no insight on which side is more likely to be correct. Basically, the argument comes down to schema reverberation.

When any kind of schema, whether it is an idea you believe to be true or a recognition that a black cube in front of you is your cell phone, becomes active in your mind, the schema reverberates. This prevents (inhibits) competing schema from also becoming active (if the cube is your cell phone, it can't also be your wallet; if I believe 2+2=4, I can't also believe 2+2=5). If I know the cube is my wallet, it makes less sense to search for more evidence than to engage in other thoughts. It is simply a function of opportunity costs v benefits.

We can interpret the study (if the data is valid) to mean that conservatives have stronger schema reverberation and more effectively inhibit the activation of competing schema. Once they become sure of an idea, they judge the value of spending their cognitive resources on other things to be greater.

So rather than liberals being more "open-minded" than conservatives, we can look at it as more of a difference in the allocation of resources. Liberals are more willing to reconsider their active schema whereas conservatives would rather use their cognitive resources elsewhere. Both situations have advantages and disadvantages.

What is interesting is how the difference maps to the conservative/liberal dimension. I could only conjecture, but it seems similar to the Myers/Briggs dimension of judging/perceiving. Judgers prefer to make a decision and stick to it (like conservatives) and Perceivers prefer to keep their options open (like liberals).

High Velocity Human Factors

I was personally introduced to the concept of High Velocity Human Factors on Wednesday by the designer who I believe coined the phrase - Moin Rahman of Motorola. It is a great concept and a rich area for human factors design.

Basically, the idea is that there are contexts/environments that operate at very high speeds. Police, military, firefighting, etc. In these situations, the way people sense, perceive, assess, and react may be fundamentally different. But no one has really delved into how. It is likely that emotional contributions to information processing increases. But again, we don't know quite how.
There is evidence that emotion and time pressure both narrow the scope of attention. Emotion may also affect color perception. Emotion could also cause priming of particular response schema.

I am really looking forward to getting involved in this research domain and finding out. If interested, let me know. We are always looking for more collaborators.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Human Factors as the source of innovation

Because of my job as Director of FIU's Institute for Technology Innovation, I interact with a lot of garage innovators - people who have an idea for a new product that they know will be successful on the market. They just need some help getting it there.

Many of them really do. Some of them are fooling themselves, or just don't understand simple things like distribution and manufacturing constraints. But it is invigorating just listening to them and even more so when I can help.

But an underlying dimension to all of their success is the human factor. Whether they know it or now, the success of their product hinges on good human factors. If they have truly understood the user requirements, task flow, and contextual use cases, the chance of their success grows exponentially. Or, they can engage ITI in a project to look into these issues and help guide the development of their idea.

It makes me very satisfied to have gone into this field (2o years ago for anyone who is counting).

Sunday, August 26, 2007

naming and versioning

Also in Cooper's book (see last post), is a discussion of some significant improvements that can be made in the way the operating system handles file names and versions. While he has some interesting ideas, I prefer to use the idea of tagging that has become so popular with Flickr, Digg, etc. Instead of storing files in a folder hierarchy, why not have a save dialog the allows users to include tags that could be used for future retrieval? It could also store some faceted attributes such as data created, date last edited, size, etc. Then, when the user wants to open the file it becomes really easy and fast to find. A search interface could allow the user to type in a few tags and the file would be recovered. The user would not have to remember where it is in any hierarchy. A browsing interface would also allow a file to be in many places at once - corresponding to all of the tags and faceted attributes.

Another improvement would be to allow renaming in a simple fashion. Now, the user needs to close the file, go to explorer, change the name, and then reopen it. Why not allow renaming in the same way Excel allows sheets within a file to be named - a simple select and type.

And the operating system could also save previous versions so that if the user wants to go find an old version, it would easy to do. Now, the user needs to recognize the need in advance and save them along the way. But given the huge storage available, the system could store versions according to the date they were made and have several available. If the user wants to revert to an old version, it could be easy to find. If the user modifies an older version, it could either be renamed to establish a new stack of versions, or a tree could be created.

Rich annotations could be used to assist users in finding older versions. Rather than just a number (filename.txt v1), it could be tagged with date (filename.txt 08/22/07) or even more richly (filename.txt 08/22/07 5 pages with three embedded pictures) or something like that.

The book brings up lots of limitations of standard productivity software and operating systems. I am not sure they present the best solutions, but they bring up lots of ideas. It gets the juices flowing.

Better design of undo

I was reading the latest edition of Alan Cooper's book on Interaction Design. While I tend to disagree with many of the solutions proposed in the book, he and his coauthors do a fantastic job of highlighting some of the major limitations of current interaction design in operating systems, software apps, and web sites.

My thoughts today are his ideas on the limitations of undo. How many times has the undo function failed to do what you wanted it to do? One of the problems is the LIFO and stack design. In order to undo a past action, you have to undo everything that happened since. And if you do, you can't redo them if you make any changes. What if the system stored the past actions in an independent list that could be independently applied? Perhaps it maintained a clipboard-like buffer where the user could see text (in the case of Word) that had previously been deleted and access it however he/she wants?

Or perhaps the user actions can be stored along with the file. So when you save or close a file, they are not lost. The user could reopen the file and still undo. As Cooper wisely notes - the extra storage required to do this would not be a significant constraint given the large hard drives we all have now.

Another idea they propose is to have different categories of undo. Currently, one can undo text edits, but not document formats. Why not have separate lists so that users can choose to undo recent text changes, formatting changes, or other types of user actions?

I recommend the book. Just this chapter alone highlights many ideas for improving the design of common office productivity suites. I hope the folks at Microsoft read it too.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Banner blindness

The latest Alertbox is on banner blindness (with a cool heatmap still and video). But the point that I want to blog about is his point on making ads look like content to unethically get clicks.

He says that these ads "work" because users look at them as if they are content and click on them because they resemble content. But how is he defining "work"? If the user realizes it is a fake and closes the window as it is loading (or just after), then the ad did not "work." The user probably didn't even see what was in the window. And if she did, she probably has a lower opinion of the company and its products. I hardly think of that as "working."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Web 2.0 Collaborative Knowledge Building

There are many ways to collaborate in building up a body of knowledge. In the Web 2.0 world, one of the popular methods is the wiki. For the uninitiated, a wiki is an on-line collaborative tool where anyone with access can add, edit, or delete content. In theory, over time the content improves because knowledge is added by each person who participates. And the group can self-manage so that inaccurate information is deleted by the majority. There are some management challenges, such as how to represent competing or multiple perspectives and how to ensure that false information is not perpetuated. But in the right contexts, wikis can be very valuable as long as their limitations are recognized.

But because of these limitations, there are contexts that perhaps should not consider wikis. There are high schools that prohibit students from using wikipedia as a source because the content is not reliable. On the other hand, there are high schools that encourage students to use wikipedia because the content is not reliable - and it is a critical aspect of information literacy to learn not to believe everything you read. Instead of protecting students from unreliable information, we need to teach them how to deal with it. In the real world, all information comes to us at varying levels of reliability and credibility.

If you think this is new, think again. Anyone who has had the pleasure of studying the Talmud has been doing this in a fantastically pre-web way. But rather than allowing participants to edit the content, each person gets to annotate it. This site has a great explanation of the method. What I like about this is that:

1. It adds reputation management. You can see what the most respected scholar said to make sure that you are getting the "best" information.

2. It does not delete the minority opinions. Instead of getting a single, aggregated page, you get to read what each person thought about it. If you are interested in absorbing the variety, you can do so.

The advantages of this over the typical wiki style are substantial. What amazes me is that we don't have wikis that use the Talmudic format. Maybe they exist and I just haven't seen them. But it would be so easy to create a meta-moderation system for a wiki that allows users to see what five star participants wrote - including minority five star opinions. And if interested, the user could check out some one- through four- star opinions. Maybe these are new participants and maybe they are participants who have been tagged as unreliable. But there are times when accessing these contributions can be useful. And high school students who don't feel comfortable making their own decisions can stick to the five-star content.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

ergonomics entrepreneurship

I just found out that a potential customer of the FIU Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center (where I run the Tech Institute) found us through Google and as part of his due diligence skimmed this blog. Isn't the Internet great for fortuitous discovery?!?!

This entrepreneur may be our third product testing client that wants to test a product that provides ergonomic/biomechanic advantages. If any of my students are reading this, let me know if you are interested in a project for Fall (for credit or a stipend). I love seeing people with no ergonomics background realizing that having ergonomics credibility can be a competitive advantage (in seeking investment as well as impressing customers).

productive friction

One of my favorite gurus (I recommend reading everything he writes) is John Hagel. One concept he has promoted is the idea of "productive friction." When everyone agrees, nothing gets learned - its just a love fest. When people can't communicate because they speak very different languages (marketing v engineering) or because they vehemently disagree (pro-life/pro-choice), nothing gets learned - the sides just throw sound bites at each other. But the middle ground is where innovation happens. You want enough friction to get everyone's juices flowing but no so much that that they drown in these juices (terrible metaphor I know).

Another source is that diversity creates innovation. He defines diversity broadly (not just ethnicity/religion/gender).

So from a human factors point of view - we can imagine the team process of collaborative activity that causes productive friction. If the team members schema overlap completely, all collaboration does is reinforce existing schema component connections. When the schema
have no overlap, collaboration doesn't work because there are no common connections from which to share new ones. You may have had to take my course or be familiar with connectionist models to get my point fully, but basically I am trying to say that its easier to teach Spanish to someone who speaks Italian because there are so many words and grammar in common. But to teach him Chinese is much harder.

And we are not even getting into the decision making bias effects. If the person doesn't want to believe what you are selling, that adds exponential difficulty.

Web 3.0

I have been looking for interest in Web 3.0 for some time now and just praying that it hits the streets before I am too old to use it. The basic idea (copied from sramana mitra) is that Web 3.0 is a combination of content, context, commerce, community, personalization, and vertical search. Her example is perfect:


-I am a petite woman, dark skinned, dark haired, brown eyed. I have a distinct personal style, and only certain designers resonate with it (Context).

-I want my personal SAKS Fifth Avenue which carries clothes by those designers, in my size (Commerce).

-I want my personal Vogue, which covers articles about that Style, those Designers, and other emerging ones like them (Content).

-I want to exchange notes with others of my size-shape-style-psychographic and discover what else looks good. I also want the recommendation system tell me what they're buying (Community).

-There's also some basic principles of what looks good based on skin tone, body shape, hair color, eye color … I want the search engine to be able to filter and match based on an algorithm that builds in this knowledge base (Personalization, Vertical Search).

Now, imagine the same for a short, fat man, who doesn't really have a sense of what to wear. And he doesn’t have a wife or a girl-friend. Before Web 3.0, he could go to the personal shopper at Nordstrom.

I have two reasons to want this. From a human factors point of view - it is the gold standard. It considers just what the user wants and gives it to him/her with no unwanted stuff (the target content, the whole target content, and nothing but the target content).

But also, I have found that my own personal tastes are somewhat unique - so no systems that use generic collaborative filtering or community seem to give me what I am looking for. So for my own personal use, I need some serious web 3.0 action.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Apple's iPhone

I was interviewed by the Arizona Republic newspaper yesterday about the Apple iPhone. The hype is getting ridiculous. 30 minutes of every hour-long news show is about the iPhone. What ever happened to the important things going on in the world that some of us would like to hear about?

But to the point, the phone is probably going to be a success, given Apple's history in consumer electronics and the fact that they are getting all this free publicity. But what kind of annoys me is that everyone focuses on the wrong things. The journalist who interviewed me only wanted to talk about the cool technology and the touch screen. That is not what will make the iPhone successful or not. It will come down to whether it is a better combination of phone, music player, and web browser than other portable devices, and at a price customers can afford. Cool can make it successful in year one, but not after that!! After that it comes down to functionality and usability.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Knowledge v Intelligence in management

Great post in the Becker-Posner blog this week!!! They discuss why brilliant individuals often fail when put in leadership positions. The core issue they discuss is that the brilliant person is often a lateral transfer. In other words, he/she may have general brilliance (information processing and analysis skills), but no knowledge in the particular field. Take someone who has made a career in politics who is made Secretary of Defense. If he/she has no knowledge of the nuances of the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, etc. can he/she understand the detailed information coming from the career civil servants in the department and make policy decisions? It is the civil servants who have the extensive situation schema of the issues that arise.

From a HF point of view, perhaps not. It depends on whether the person also has the ability to how to get that information from the civil servants in a way that can be integrated into the policy schema that must be used to make the ultimate decisions. This takes a different kind of skill than intellectual brilliance. A good focus group facilitator may be more effective in this position. Or maybe they just need a facilitator to run the meeting. The leader must be able to defer to the more knowledgeable civil servants in terms of the basic information and analysis. Many brilliant people have difficulty with this.

Then the President has an even tougher challenge. He/she has to take the information provided by the cabinet ministers, which has already been through one level of "brilliance" filtering and do his/her own filtering to make the ultimate policy decision. If the cabinet minister has lost important details, then the President can't make good decisions. Its like the game telephone, except with lives at stake.

I guess that why government seems so dysfunctional all the time. It is set up to fail.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

set points or variable talent

Arnold Kling's recent post on Econlog got me thinking. He wonders what attributes are limited and which ones can be improved with practice. Clearly, we can exercise our muscles and get physically stronger. Can we do the same with things like altruism, self-control, self-regard, dogmatism, etc.?
For example, if we only have a limited amount of self-control, and we are forced to use it in one area (i.e. to watch our weight), then we have less self-control in other areas (to stop smoking). But if we practice self-control a lot, then maybe we can gain the ability to do more of it.

From a cognitive science point of view, we should be able to practice. If we can strengthen the schema associated with the attribute (self-control), then we can connect it to more responses (smoking). But no one has really looked at what cognitive neurophysiological structures give us things like self-control. I am not sure if it works.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

delayance v deterrence

I was reading a PhD dissertation on military strategy (don't ask!), and the theory that the author was presenting was called delayance. The idea is that what many people consider a kind of deterrence (which is officially defined as when a country (or guerrilla group) doesn't attack because the cost of achieving the victory is greater than the value of the victory) is really delayance (which is when the risk of losing is too high right now, so the country waits/prepares until the risk goes down to an acceptable level.

The difference is subtle but important. In deterrence, you think you will win, but the cost is too high. So you don't try. In theory, unless something changes, you never try. In delayance, you can't win yet, but hopefully you will be able to win later. So you wait, expecting the change to happen.

The same thing can be said of using a system that is too complicated. The equivalent of deterrence is when I think I can figure out how to use a particular function, but the time it would take is too high so I give up. And I don't expect to try again later. This may cause my satisfaction to go down because I have recognized defeat. In delayance, I think maybe I will try later, perhaps when I have more time to read the manual. This optimism may keep my satisfaction from going down, even though most people never get around to trying again. Every time they see the function, they again think - maybe next time.

I suspect that the deterrence/delayance difference is related to locus of control. For users with an internal locus of control (who feel that they are in control of their lives), they probably feel delayance. For users with external locus of control (who blame the world for their failures and credit the world for their successes), they probably feel deterrence.

This is why it pays to keep up on other fields of study. You never know when something will light up an idea in your own work.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Sometimes I am joking when I say this, but usually it is true - Human Factors is the solution to many of the world's biggest challenges. Here are two examples I thought about on my way to work this morning, primed by NPR stories on the radio:

1. The sub-prime mortgage crisis

As usual, the proposals coming out of Congress are way off the mark. Either they will underregulate and not solve anything, or they will overregulate and keep people with mixed credit histories from getting mortgages. What they need to do is apply human factors. The regulation should not say what mortgages are allowed or not allowed (but keeping the basic framework defining what borrowers can afford). It should require lenders to inform applicants exactly what the terms and risks of the loan are and then let them choose. This requires human factors because the current financial and legal gobbledygook is incomprehensible to the average borrower. A good human factors analysis could identify some structure that would solve the problem.

"The payment will start out as $1000 per month. It will stay at this level for 2 years. After that, it can go up by as much as $250 per month every year. So in 6 years, the worst case is that you will be paying $2000 per month. Given the low level of current interest rates, this is likely. If you are unable to pay, it may be possible to renegotiate, but more likely is that the bank will foreclose on your house and you will lose it."

2. The multiple challenges of prescription drugs (costs v benefits, risk communication). Again, the government is going to regulate by determining what can be sold, where, why and for how much. Instead, they should use a market-based solution, but requiring enough information for consumers to make informed decisions.

"Nine out of 10 people who take this drug for heart disease will not die from it for at least ten years. But one person will. One out of ten people will get pancreatic cancer. Three out of ten will have trouble sleeping. If you are willing to take these risks, go ahead."

And then when approving drugs, we can do a cost/benefit analysis to estimate if the aggregate effect on health care will be positive. Then leave the individual decisions up to the people.

Econlog had a post a while ago (sorry - I couldn't find the link) suggesting special (i.e. well marked) stores that sell unapproved drugs. As long as the information is good, people should be allowed to take the risks - knowing that if something goes wrong they can't sue or use public money to pay for the consequences. Not all unapproved drugs would be there, but the ones that are either promising and just not fully tested yet, or the ones that have significant benefits, but also high risks or side effects. For example, if I have cancer and 5 years to live, I should be able to buy a drug that will extend my life by 6 months, even if it increases my risk of developing some other disease ten years down the road. Or maybe I am willing to take a 20% risk of incontinence to eliminate my allergies. It should be my choice.

Any other examples???

Sunday, June 10, 2007

customized for the customer

I have always been a strong supported in getting a good understanding of the customer as the basis for product and service design. There are so many great examples of this, that it should be a no brainer. But then there are so many examples where companies develop a new technology that they force on customers assuming they will love it, that apparently it is not a no brainer after all.

This week's issue of Business Week (June 11, 2007). provide great examples of both.

1. Jamba Juice wants to go beyond just a smoothie company. So they are trying to find some new products that will expand their product line. They conducted real user testing and focus groups to find ways to convert the juice smoothie into a light meal. And when at first they failed, they put the idea on hold - they didn't sell it anyway and hope for the best. Next month, they are rolling out a series of new products that succeeded in their recent testing. Good for them!!

2. DeBiotech discovered that one of the problems with current insulin pumps for diabetics is that they have to replace the whole unit - which is very expensive - or use self-injections, which is inconvenient. So they developed a pump with a replaceable reservoir. Simple mechanically, but it shows that they thought about the details from the patient's perspective.

3. Marriott and Nickelodeon are partnering on some new hotels that immerse the kids in the Nickelodeon experience. They did some real user research and found a balance that makes kids and parents happy. They also found a way to integrate business services so that all kinds of family trips can be supported. This is the kind of new product that has a huge capital investment up front, so it is great that they did some serious testing before throwing these sums of money at the idea.

4. Disney has a big and growing market in Russia. But rather than increase the supply of American movies they ship over, they decided to make some local movies using Russian actors, speaking Russian, using old Russian fairy tales for plots. This is even though the new Pirates movie hit a record for foreign film box office.

5. Sotheby's discovered that their clients fear risk. So they innovated their business model to alleviate the client's risk. They guarantee minimum prices for some art auctions in return for a cut of any price above the minimum (in addition to their normal commission). This takes on some risk for themselves, but not as much because they have more expertise at predicting the final price, and if they do enough of them, they can balance their risk by winning some and losing some.

6. Several consumer electronics companies are coming up with 'tweeners, products that are between a laptop and a smartphone. Sometimes you need more than a smartphone (in function), but less than a laptop (in size and weight). So for these times, you need a 'tweener. But who can afford a third device (selling at $1000-2000)? Only business travelers. So I am less sure that they have found a market, or if they are forcing the market.

7. Joost is a service that provides full length TV shows via the Internet. Instead of going the YouTube route, they are providing only official content and protecting the copyright. To get the content, they have to sign agreements with the content providers (the channels). Jumping ahead a few years to when they will have the needed bandwidth, HDTV is every household, and all of the channels signed up, is this a service people want? Is it any different than on-demand services we already have? They claim that because they will have lots of information about each user, they can replace five untargeted ads (for products the viewer has no interest in) with a single targeted one (a product they are likely to be interested in). So users will be willing to watch the ad because there is only one. Hmmmm. Not sure about this one either.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

When irrationality is rational

Bryan Caplan, one of the bloggers on one of my regular blog reads, has a great insight. When an irrational view has no personal consequences but feels good to have, such as when we argue about how great our favorite sports team is (when it really isn't all that), there is actually a net benefit of having the irrational view. We can happily let ourselves succumb to biases such as the confirmation bias to strengthen the view still further. We see the teams latest win as evidence of how great they are, but ignore their last seven losses as a streak of bad luck.

The problem arises when these all add up. There are many political views that we have very little impact on as individuals, but may feel good. For example various forms of protectionism. Even if the economics shows that free trade, open immigration, etc are good in the long run for the economy, it may feel good to blame your work-related stress on an anonymous worker or company in a foreign country. The more foreign, the better.

But what if thousands of people walk around feeling good about blaming these anonymous foreigners. Pretty soon, the politicians who really do have an effect on economic policies start listening. In order to get re-elected, they have to enact policies that are wrong. All of a sudden, these safe irrationalities have real consequences. A characteristic of our cognition that may have been evolutionarily adaptive now because damaging at the society-level.

What can we do about this? We can force everyone who wants to air their political views to get some policy education and really think about their views first. But of course, this is not realistic. I don't have a solution to this, but I am willing to hear proposals.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

niche products for niche customers

We often talk about making sure that our systems match the needs of expected users. That is the basis of Human Factors. But you can also go in the opposite direction - find some very unique users and customize an existing system that they currently don't use. This is the basis for some very interesting business models. This month's Trendwatching (one of my favorite sources of unique business ideas and innovations), has a good strategy for this. There are many people who want to purchase products or services made locally. This can be for environmental reasons (less gas wasted on transportation), supporting the local economy, or just because some people like to support their neighbors. Many are even willing to spend extra money for the same product if it is local. So the trick to this strategy is to create the marketing around your product promoting its local story.

And there there are the VERY unique niches. How about this one at Omlet. They have a product that enables urbanites to raise their own egg-laying chickens. People who live in city apartments can raise 2 egg-laying chickens in a nice compact "Eglu" and have fresh eggs every morning. I can't speak for the usability of the Eglu design, but if they have identified enough of a customer base to make the business profitable, all I can say is "wow."

Monday, May 28, 2007

moral decisions

I have blogged on this before, but I just read an article in the Washington Post that made me want to revisit the issue. As with emotional decisions, moral decisions seem to draw on different parts of the brain than intellectual decisions. So rather than integrating moral and intellectual attributes into an overall cost-benefit kind of decision, two different responses get activated (if the moral and intellectual answers diverge) and we are forced to decide which one to accept.

This is one of the consequences of the way our brains evolved. Since only one response is possible, it would be nice if we could integrate the two sets of criteria and come up with one overall best response. And we try to do this in reality (I have a whole course dedicated to doing it for public policy analysis). But it is so hard because of this brain structure.

System designers have to be careful when their designs have a moral or emotional component. If users will have moral or emotional responses, the decision they make when using our systems may not be what we expect. It is important for more of us to learn what we can about emotion and moral cognition.

Friday, May 18, 2007

innovation and usability

I met with two budding entrepreneurs this morning. I won't steal the thunder of their launch by telling you what their business is about, but it is a good niche application of social networking. As any regular reader of this blog knows, social networking is a passion of mine. I honestly believe that social networks and professional communities of practice will be the true future of the web. My paper at last year's Human Factors Conference presents my views in more detail (email me for a copy if interested).

This morning, we focused on the two main things that a web-based business (and really any business) need to provide to be successful. They have to:

1) provide some useful function that users are willing to come to your site for, preferably over and over again.

2) do this in a way that is easy to figure out and simple to use. Otherwise, they will give up pretty quickly and try somewhere else to satisfy this need.

For social networks, this means providing information, links, communication, and other services in a way that protects users' privacy, is easy to filter, bubbles the good stuff quickly and reliably to the top, and provides a strong sense of that community. This can be accomplished in many ways, for example through reputation management, meta moderation, social and semantic filtering, and other algorithmic techniques. Add good information architecture and support discovery. Of course, this is easier said than done, but Peter Morville's work (Information Architecture, Ambient Findability) are both good places to start (or you can take my course at Florida International University).
A recurring challenge to human decision making is that when an alternative is inconvenient or undesirable, we are very good at convincing ourselves that it won't happen. For example, when the dog is barking late at night, we could worry that there is a burglar, but instead, we assume it is a bird or raccoon and yell at the dog to shut up. Hopefully, it really is a bird, or at least the burglar won't steal much.

Unfortunately, this challenge manifests in proportion to the importance of the decision. For really really really important situations, the inconvenience is likely to be huge (war for example). One that we are seeing more now is global warming. This recent article in Fortune explains it well. The conclusion: "To the extent that dealing with global warming is a) expensive and b) inconvenient, it isn't going to happen any time soon."

The reality is that we have to make small changes now or big changes later. The big changes later will be much more inconvenient. But because we are avoiding the small inconvenience now, we are forcing our kids to deal with the big ones later.

Friday, April 13, 2007

unintended consequences

Here is a good one about unintended consequences and multi-functional devices. The obvious benefit of multi-functional devices is that you only have to carry around one device instead of several. So in theory, you are more likely to use a function because you are more likely to have it with you when you feel like using it.

But companies have discovered there is leverage involved in this relationship. Sometimes, people use the device just because they have it, even if they don't really have a specific desire for the function. The cliche is that when you are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Another product use insight is the risk curve. People are comfortable with a certain level of risk. So if you reduce the risk associated with a product, it does not make users safer. Instead, they use the product more aggressively or more often so that the experienced risk stays the same. This was seen in tests of non-lethal weapons given to soldiers and police. Because the person being shot was not killed, users lowered their threshold for use. In other words, they didn't need to be quite as sure an adversary deserved to be shot in order to use the weapon because they didn't have to worry that an innocent person would die. They would just be hurt/inconvenienced. This occurred with weapons such as stun guns, laser guns (that shoot bursts of intense heat that don't actually burn the skin), etc.

So here is a new proposal that I think would do wonders for public civility. A company proposed combining a taser with a cell phone. Imagine if everyone not only had a taser with them, but it was often right in their hand. Want to shut up that annoying person on the subway? Taser them. Your friend giving you a hard time across the table at the restaurant? Taser them under the table. How long would it take for us to start being really nice to each other????

Thursday, April 05, 2007

fictional schema

One of the challenges that we face when working in the real world is that people have all kinds of experiences in a variety of contexts. Because schema develop unconsciously in a non-differentiated way, except when there is a specific reason to differentiate them. So if we think of a reason to differentiate after the fact, it is too late, even when the aggregation directly violates a task objective.

That is a complicated way to describe the following example. When people watch Law and Order, the develop an opinion of Fred Thompson's character. On the show, he is strong, tough on crime, and several other good qualities. But of course, these are written by the scriptwriters and director, not Fred himself. But since viewers only know him as the character, they have no reason to have two schemas of him, one of the character's attributes and one of his real attributes.

But now that he is running for president (his real person), it is too late for people to associate the older episodic memories with "fictional" and the new ones with "presidential candidates." They can when they concentrate on it, but most people generate gut instincts without this kind of concentration. In fact, that's what makes it a gut instinct.

In studies of this kind of situation, people will attribute the fake qualities to the real person when asked to describe the real person. When pushed to report how they know, they will try hard to think of real events, and failing this, stretch the truth until something matches. This is not an intentional deception, but a natural, unconscious, brain function.

So in effect, people will be evaluating his qualifications for president based on his Law and Order characteristics.

I even find myself doing that. I like the show and I like his character on it. On the other hand, I don't like his real politics (he actually was a Senator from Tennessee for 8 years). But when I see him, I can't help but like him because of his character. Even though I know the difference.

I guess it doesn't really matter though. People get elected for a lot worse reasons than that.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Easy and simple

There have been a ton of articles lately in all of the business magazines, newspapers etc that discuss how products that have tons of features and are complicated to use are losing out to simpler products with fewer features but that do a few things well.

There are examples in video games (the Wii), cell phones, portable word processors (the Neo), and many others. I love reading stories like these because it shows that usability beats sexy technology every time (at least as soon as customers figure out which models are the usable ones).
The research studies that look in more detail into this phenomenon find that new customers make their first purchase based on the number of features because they don't know what is usable and what isn't. This is especially true for "early adopters" who care more about bragging rights than use anyway. But the bulk of the customer base cares more about usability because they need to use the core functions on a regular basis. If they were unlucky and purchased an unusable model, they switch on their next purchase. So new customers get suckered, which explains the popularity of the sexy models at first, but the usable ones win out in the end.

Go Team!!!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Bad bets in health care

I hope this link stays active long enough for anyone interested to read it. It makes an interesting point about public policies that are "bad bets" that have a strong human factors component.

Consider this example: There are two people who are very sick and require medical care that costs $25,000 to treat. Person A has a 50% chance of getting better with treatment. Person B has a 5% chance of getting better with treatment. You can either:
1) give Person B the treatment
2) give Person A the treatment
3) split the money and half treat them both, which reduces their chance of improving by 90% (so it would be 5% and 0.5% respectively.

Most people would select option 2. It gives the best bang for the buck. But what if there is no Person A. We can either:
1) treat person B and have a 5% chance of having an effect
2) distribute the $25,000 in medical care to other people in general, who have an average chance of improving of 50%.
3) distribute the $25,000 to the entire population to spend however they want.

Now which one should we do? Option 2) in the second situation is identical to option 2) in the first example in its effect. So if you preferred option 2) in the first example, you can't choose option 1) in the second. But the problem faced in our health care system is that when we are faced with a real Person B on one hand and a vague, unseen population on the other, we find it very hard not to treat person B and hope for the best. And the when we have a lucky 5%-er, it makes the news and makes it even harder to choose option 2) the next time.

This is why our health care system is so wasteful. We keep funding the bad bets because we can't look at a sick person and say no.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

after a big error

When is the best time to be a patient? Ironically, it is immediately after your doctor makes a salient error. The reason is simple - that is when he/she is going to be paying the closest attention and double checking everything. If the error was a slip (insufficient attention) then the doctor will be paying extra attention. If the error was a mistake (incorrect situation schema) then the doctor will be double checking and studying the situation. If the doctor doesn't know why the error was made, he/she will probably be doing both.

Ironically, the way most organizations deal with big errors is to suspend the person from doing the activity. Quarterbacks are taken out of the game, employees are suspended, children are grounded, etc.

The better thing to do is to send them right back out with maximum repetitions so that the extra carefulness gets cemented into their normal routine. At the same time, the system needs to be evaluated to identify the root cause of the error. Are employees not sufficiently trained to recognize situation schema? Are there distractions that hide important information? Is the information not readily available?

Of course, this is when it was an error. If the person intentionally violated a rule, then the correct response is punishment. But people violate rules for many reasons. It may be that the rule was not presented with sufficient importance and consequence. Or the person was trying to satisfy one requirement by violating another. Even intention does not 100% indicate that the root cause is the violator him/herself.

This is a subject for a different post. Or you can take my upcoming summer course at FIU on performance management. It is available by Internet if you don't live in Miami.

Monday, March 19, 2007

speech fire alarms

I heard today about a new product that claims to be a more effective smoke/fire alarm. Instead of a siren, the alarm is a recorded voice. The idea is that when little kids wake up to an alarm, they are disoriented and confused. To hear specific instructions coming from their mom's voice is supposed to be helpful. The recording can be more than just "wake up." It can have detailed instructions like "There is a fire!! Get up and go out the back door right away!!!"

But I am conflicted on whether this is really better. I think that from a pure sensory salience perspective, there is not way that a voice is as loud or alarming as a siren. Also, the mom's voice is a common thing, so they won't instinctively associate it with an emergency. If they are sleeping, they may not hear enough of the voice to know it is the fire alarm. Also, as early as 10 years old, I am sure kids are trained to ignore their mom's voice waking them up: "Mom, I don't want to go to school today."

So the tradeoff is that a siren is better to wake them up and the voice is better to remind them of where to go. So which is more likely, that they fail to wake up or that they panic and forget where to go? I don't know this answer, but I suspect that the designers did not do the study to find out either. They guessed that this would be better and the lives of thousands of children will depend on them being correct. I hope they are.

airline pilot pay

The salaries of airline pilots is a great example of a way to structure pay that is misaligned with performance. The hardest part of flying is takeoff and landing. So if salaries is based on the task difficulty, then short haul pilots would get paid more. But in fact it is the opposite.

I suspect that these salaries are based on the size of the plane. Long haul flights generally have bigger planes. This could make a little sense if it is based on responsibility - more people in the plane = more people relying on the pilot's skills. But if takeoff and landing are really the hard parts, then many smaller flights still has more responsibility.

Or, they are influenced by seniority. Since longer flights are easier (the plane mostly flies itself), more senior pilots get them. Basing pay on seniority is somewhat controversial. It is common in unionized organizations. It makes sense to reward employees for staying at the company, especially in industries where there is tacit knowledge that makes the employee better at his/her job. But I personally think it is better to link the salary to this tacit knowledge directly - not the predictor of job tenure.

But this is a good example of the complexity of the real world. If pay were structured based on what really motivates performance (long term and short term), seniority would have some impact, but not nearly as much as it does. Politics and other non-engineering factors still play a large role.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Business Week on Usability

Another plug for Business Week. In their brief "Up Front" section last week they had an item saying that technology companies should stop adding features to their gadgets as a competitive advantage, and instead focus on the "wow factor." But then they described what they meant by the "wow factor" and it turns out to be simple usability. It is pretty sad that something so obvious, well-established among design professionals, and universally beneficial is so rare that is elicits a "wow" reaction among users.

But thanks to Business Week for pointing that out - although they didn't mention how sad it is.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Business Week on Work Design

Last week's Business Week had a great article on Danaher Corp. Much of the article promotes the business side, discussing the great way that Danaher has built a conglomerate of industrial companies that has outperformed GE, Berkshire Hathaway, and 3M. But they also have a pretty strong argument that the reason for this outperformance is the Danaher Business System, which is modeling on the Toyota Production System. According to the article, Danaher was among the first companies to promote lean process design. Key points include: "every employee, from the janitor to the president, to find ways every day to improve the way work gets done" and "a Danaher manager clutching a clipboard, a tape measure, and a stopwatch, in search of wasted motion, to tick off how many steps a data analyst has to take to get to the copier." They even use 5S: "floors are covered with strips of tape indicating where everything should be" . . . "managers determine the most efficient place for everything so a worker won't have to walk a few extra yards to pick up a tool."

But why haven't we heard of Danaher before? Because they "worried others would notice their results and copy the strategy" and "they didn't want to be raided for talent."

But that's Ok - because we are creating the talent and promoting the strategy in the Florida International University Industrial and Systems Engineering Department. For those readers in my class, prepare to read this article next week :-D.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

New technologies always take a while to catch on

Thanks to Businessweek's Nussbaum on Design blog for this YouTube link. It is 2.5 minutes long, but had me laughing for hours (I still am).

The scary thing is that it is so true!!!

Monday, January 15, 2007

user requirements magnified

I was reading The Economist (recommended for anyone interested in how the world works) and I came across an insight that I hadn't really thought about before. From an economics perspective, the younger you are, the more benefit you get from discovering something new that you like and therefore the more willing you should be to try something new. This would be true of a new technology, new food, or really whatever.

So what does this have to do with human factors? Think about who you are designing a system for. If it includes a large population of young people, you can sell the fact that if they like it, they will gain many years of enjoyment. If you have many older people, you want to sell the conservative aspect of the design - it takes little learning so they can start enjoying it right away, or something like that. So when you are collecting user requirements in general, you want to think about your population age and customize the requirements specification along these lines. When you design the system, make sure it is either easy to learn for old people or adding new functionality for young people.

Of course some young people are conservative and some old people are willing to experiment, but in general this wisdom should hold up. The example in this post was a coffee frothing wand. Ironically, it is what I got my dad for Father's Day last year, only I spent a whole lot more than $1.99. Where was IKEA when I needed it ;-D.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Consider the user supply chain too

I am doing some research for an entrepreneur in Salt Lake City for which I need to purchase three back belts. Because of the purchasing system at the university (a design challenge for another time), I would like to order the belts online or by phone, but pick them up in the store (to eliminate the delay and cost of shipping).

Home Depot does not support this. Lowe's does. And so even because Lowe's is 20% more expensive, they got my business. They understand my supply chain process and support it. Even though Home Depot has a reputation for having a very efficient supply chain of their own, they apparently have not considered their users'. Their loss!!

which requirements are worth supporting??

There are many features that would be nice to have. For example, how many people press the wrong button in elevators once in a while, and then have to wait while the elevator stops at the wrong floor? It would be nice if there were some kind of undo function. Maybe you could press the wrong button a second time to turn it off.

But here is the question. How important is this to the user experience? And are there consequences to adding it that could take away from its value? For example, would it add to the cost of the design? Would there be a learning curve during which other errors would occur (hitting the button twice on purpose to "make sure" we pressed it). Would there be other permanent errors that could be introduced (someone intentionally turning off other passengers' floors because they are in a rush).

It is this set of tradeoffs that are necessary to decide when a design feature really makes the system more effective.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Interesting design challenge

When experts smoke ribs, one of the ways they know (and educated customers know) that it was smoked properly is that the meat gets a pink color. But pink is also the color associated with meat that is undercooked. So uneducated customers often think that it is not well cooked, even though it is perfect. This is a function visibility and population stereotype error. Most people associate pink meat with undercooked. But smoked ribs is a special case that violates the general rule.

I saw an interview with the owner of a high quality restaurant that specialized in smoked ribs. He was joking that the most common complaint he gets from customers is that their meat is undercooked and they ask for a new piece. He has to tell them that the meat is supposed to look that way. Sometimes, they aren't convinced that he is being honest, and may leave dissatisfied with the service. How can a company overcome this problem?

In this case, they put a label on the menu next to the smoked ribs warning customers that it will be pink, even when properly cooked.

great design idea to help customers be faster and better

I ate at a Thai restaurant last week and the credit card receipt was annotated with some hints for what to use for a tip. The numbers were automatically calculated, so that it was customized for the amount of the bill. Just below where the customer writes the tip, it had:

15%=$5.00 18%=$6.00 20%=$6.67

This is great because most people probably give between 15 and 20% but can't calculate it quickly in their head. So with this receipt, the customer saves time, effort, and is more likely to put down the correct amount for the tip. Great idea, yet so simple.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

user requirements

What would you say about a company that left a key piece of information on its web site in the wrong language? It is clearly a user requirements mistake - how can spanish speakers benefit from the information if they can't understand it? This seems like a silly argument (but see below), but in fact many companies do this with technical terminology and company jargon. In both cases, the customer can't use the information.

But in this case, it was likely an intentional effort to confuse users. The company sells generic versions of pharmaceuticals and was forced by a lawsuit to put a disclosure on its web site that its product was not the same as the brand name and in fact had never been tested for effectiveness. They didn't want potential customers to know this, so they used the wrong language. Unfortunately, we can use Human Factors for evil purposes as well.

Friday, January 05, 2007

irrational optimism or statistical ambiguity???

I recent survey from Greenberg, Quinian, and Rosner found that 80% of Americans believe they will be in top half of the population in income in the next 5 years. Of course, it is impossible for 80% of the people to be in the top half, right? Is this an optimism bias where people foolishly think their prospects are better than they really are?

Maybe not. If we look at the income distribution, it is severely skewed, but still has a big mass near the mode. So if we take the mode as what the average American sees as the average, and use a +/- 20% as the precision that most people attribute to their perceptions of other peoples' income, the belief may not be incorrect. Think of the simple example where:

10% of Americans make less than $10k/year
10% make between $10k and $20k
60% make between $20k and $50k
10% make between $50k and $100k
10% make over $100k

If the typical person does not have the precision to discriminate within the $20-50 group, then anyone making more that $20k is already in the top "half." So 80% (10+10+60) are in the top half. I just made up these numbers, but you can see that any distribution with a big center would have this same effect. So maybe the average American is not as irrationally optimistic as we think (not that optimism is bad thing, of course).

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

customer experience v total process time

If you had a choice between faster service and a good customer experience which would you choose? Of course, it depends on how much time and how much better the experience could be. This is important because the discipline of work design looks at how to reduce total process time through lean process design, time study, and other largely quantitative techniques. The discipline of cognitive engineering looks at making activities easy and enjoyable. Companies really need to consider them both, either finding solutions that achieve both or making the compromises that best meet customer desires.

So here is my example. I was in a pharmacy, where I went to buy a gallon of milk. It had just opened, so there were very few customers in the store. I picked out the milk and looked over at the cash register and didn't see anyone. So I went to the jewelry area where there is also a register and there was a cashier. Another customer asked her if the bands on the watches were interchangeable. I was standing right behind him, clearly waiting to check out. She told him yes and then left me standing there to go into the camera developing area for a reason I do not know. If it was more time critical to do that task than spend 1-minute with me, then I accept her action. But she could have at least said something to me, instead of ignoring me completely. The amount she gained in total process time (if any) was doubtfully worth more than my decrease in customer experience.

With her gone, I looked back over at the regular cash register. I realized that there was a cashier there, but she was bending down to stock the cigarette shelf, which was behind the counter. So I walked over there to pay for my milk. I said "good morning" in a very friendly voice to attract her attention. She looked up at me with a very annoyed look on her face (as if stocking the cigarettes is so much more important to the cashier's job than checking out a customer) and slooooowly got up. Then she checked me out with such lightning speed I was truly impressed. Her hands hit the cash register buttons faster than anyone I had ever seen and the milk was double bagged before I even saw her touch it. Wow!!! But then she shoved it towards me in a way that tangled up the plastic handles so it took me 5 seconds to pick it up. By that time, another customer was waiting behind me in line and had to wait those 5 seconds. So her checking out speed was wasted by actions and attitude. It also again decreased my customer experience.

In this case, both time and experience were hurt by poor employee attitudes. And in theory, this job could have easily been designed to achieve both, by having her smile a little. But I can envision many similar examples where it would have to be one or the other.

So two lessons here. In the actual situation, I think the pharmacy should train/motivate its employees a little more on customer experience even at the expense of a little speed on cash register and bagging skills. Its not too hard. I cover this in the last month of my work design course.

In the case where experience and speed conflict, I think the pharmacy could have easily determined that in an empty store, a smile adds much more to experience - and therefore to customer loyalty and eventual profit than 5 seconds at the register (they didn't have THAT many cigarettes that she needed to use all of her slack time stocking them). I cover this in the first month of my human factors engineering course.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

convince yourself you are a leader

There is research showing that people of lower status or authority speak up less during discussion and have less credibility. So these people have little influence on group decisions. They internalize this too. They belief less in their own ideas and are more likely to let themselves be convinced by weak evidence.

So you need to do two things to be successful. You need to convince yourself that you are a leader. This will allow you to be more confident, speak up more, and be more willing to stick to your convictions.

Then you need to convince others you are a leader. This will cause them to listen more to you, and be more convinced by what you say. This research also shows that they will like and respect you more.

And none of this depends on the quality of your opinions or evidence. All it takes is a little confidence, both internally and externally.

Why is this fodder for a blog on Human Factors? Think about it and let me know what you come up with. Hint - there are some pretty common decision making biases that are based on confidence and perceived confidence.