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.