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).