Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sony Ericsson cell phone

I just bought a new Sony Ericsson cell phone and my first impression is that the usability leaves a lot to be desired. And that's saying a lot considering my previous phone was 4 years old.

The problems are not learnability - everything is learnable. It just takes more steps to do everything. Accessing menus takes 1 or 2 more steps than the same things on my old Motorola. And getting out of a menu requires steps too. On my old phone, closing it did this automatically. And hanging up also requires a keypress when its on non-auto mode.

What a pain.


And there's more. There is no way to quickly put the phone on vibrate. You have to go four steps deep into the menu. Even putting it on silent requires opening the flip. This is often done under time pressure (one person's phone rings in the middle of a meeting and everyone else realizes they forgot). A basic tenet of HF is to create simple shortcuts for anything done under time pressure. Hello Sony? Anyone there?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Human Factors of Bernie Madoff

The Bernie Madoff scandal presents a very interesting illustration of confirmation bias (for his early investors as well as for him). I am assuming some of what went through his mind to make the point. And some is based on rumors that spread around Wall St in the 1990s about him.

In the beginning, Madoff engaged in a perfectly legal (although ethically questionable) practice of front running trades. When any large investor makes a big trade, they force up the price of what they are buying because they are sucking up the available shares. Its simple supply and demand. If they are selling, the same thing happens to force down the price. Madoff basically paid floor traders to buy shares for him ahead of large purchases or after large sales. He made a few extra points on each trade. This way, he was able to make profits that were a few points above the market. This was legal throughout the 70s and 80s. His customers got used to the great returns and were rewarded for sticking with him.

But eventually, Arthur Levitt, chairman of the SEC, was able to get this practice severely limited (although there are still loopholes from what I understand). Madoff could no longer make the gains he used to. Imagine you go from making 12% a year to only 8%. This doesn’t happen in a straight line; some months he probably made 12% (annualized) and others 5% (annualized). But each month that he made 12% his confirmation bias could convince him that he was “back on track” and that the 5% months were exceptions. But rather than disappoint his investors, he fudged a little bit what he reported to them on their statements on the assumption that he would make it up later. As long as they didn’t all try to withdraw money at the same time, this would work (if he actually got back to 12%, which he was sure he could do). Each time he had a 12% month, he was sure he was “back” and convinced him to continue the “little bit of fudging” on the statements. Since he also owned the trading operations and had an accounting firm with only one employee dedicated to him, he probably was able to convince these few people too.

For his customers, there were two types. The na├»ve investors didn’t really know about the frontrunning or what the probability of a consistent 12% return really was. All they knew was that he delivered. Each month, their statement showed a 12% return. There was the evidence. Maybe they heard rumors that he was doing in unethically, but it was legal so why complain. And when frontrunning became illegal, they may never have realized anything had changed. As long as their statements had a 12% (annualized) increase each month, there was no reason to question anything.

For his professional customers, they knew how he was doing it, and were happy to get the returns. And when frontrunning was limited, they figured he was exploiting the loopholes or he had found another way to game the system. After all, their statements had 12% returns. Why question it? If he was willing to be unethical in the 1970s and 1980s, of course he would do the same in the 1990s and 2000s.

Some interesting evidence for this is based on the amount of money people are claiming to have lost with him. If you give me $1 and I promise to magically turn it into $5, but instead I put it in my pocket and run away, how much did I steal from you? If you say $5, congratulations, you are a Madoff customer. Their last statement had $5 on it, so they assume that’s how much they lost. But in fact, the $5 never existed. All he really stole from them was their original $1 investment, which he never really turned into anything. I saw a couple on TV last night who had been a Madoff investor for decades. If you add up their original investment and subtract what they have withdrawn over the decades, they actually withdrew more than they invested. But their last statement said $1.65 million. So they accused Madoff of stealing the $1.65 million.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The value of a new innovation

Amar Bhide asks in his new book (excerpt) how we estimate the value of new innovations. he describes a study that asked participants how much would they would pay to kiss the famous person (movie star, musician, athlete) of their choice? Try this for yourself. If is really hard to put a value on things that we have never done.

Part of this problem is directly related to Human Factors. What is the true need that the innovation is addressing? What is the (behavioral) cost of the current method(s) used to accomplish the goal. How much better is the innovation at doing it? How hard will it be to learn? How hard will it be to use? What side effects/interactions will there be?

There are some famous quotes that under- or over-estimate the value of new innovations. "Who would want a computer in their house?" "Subprime mortgages will allow millions of additional people to own homes." (at least until they are foreclosed on :-(.

This is one of the great challenges of HF. First, we need to understand the real needs that users have. Then we need to understand our designs and how they will be used in the real world. Unfortunately, this is so much tougher than it seems.

Friday, October 24, 2008

peer influence and safety behavior

I just read a study that found a strong mediating influence of co-worker voice on the relationship between organizational support for safety and the likelihood a worker will speak out about safety.

Basically, they found that even when a company visibly supports safety, workers only speak out when they see a hazard if their coworkers also support safety.

The implication is that all of the efforts companies make to support safety are minimized if some jerk in the workplace makes fun of you for trying to be safe. Although the study couldn't look at every variable, I bet that this effect is subtle. If a worker is unsure how his/her coworkers feel, he/she still will hesitate before speaking out. Only when the company visibly supports safety and the coworkers buy in to it will you get people speaking out when they see a hazard. This is sad, and reminds me of recess in junior high. But its the way our world works I guess.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Erasing memories

Scientists at the Medical College of Georgia just found a protein that can help erase selected memories in mice. After the protein is injected in the mouse, they have the mouse recall the memory, and then after a consolidation period the memory is gone. Related memories don't seem to be affected, so they conclude that only the targeted memory is erased.

In the cognitive model that I use, this can be explained by postulating that the connections composing the target memory schema's composite cell assembly connections are weakened enough so that they don't reach threshold during normal activity. But the related memories are intact because those connections have a different combination of cell assemblies. So while some are weakened, there is enough strength left that the total schema can still reach threshold during normal activity.

But here is the key question. What long term effects would there be during normal and extreme situations for humans? Weakening of the target memory connections, even if they don't erase related memories, would weaken them. This would make them less likely to activate during periods of divided attention and would slow down the activation even during focused attention.

Also, the erased memories would be easy to recreate with a reminder. Erasing a traumatic memory (the hoped for long term goal of this research team) would be possible, but perhaps would only be temporary.

A full extinction of the memory would only be possible if related memories were also erased or significantly weakened or skewed. And even unrelated memories could be affected if they happen to share some connections with the target memory. This was not tested (and would be really hard to test) in the mice used in this study.

Of course, the point of research is not to solve the problem conclusively but to get us one step closer. More research on this protein and others will help us better understand memory and maybe lead one day to practical interventions and therapies. But if the model I use is correct (or close to it), this path will be a lot harder than the Georgia researchers are hoping for.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Human Factors in the public eye???

Greg Mankiw, an economics professor at Harvard, thanked Lehman, Merrill, AIG, etc. for increasing interest in his economics class. For anyone who doesn't read the news, Lehman declared bankruptcy, Merrill is selling out to BoA, and AIG is exploring their "options". This is the biggest banking shakeup since the great depression. The silver lining is that lots of Harvard students are signing up for Professor Mankiw's class.

So, are there any items in the news that have done this for human factors? The Palm Beach Ballot in 2000 did this to some extent. The Mars Explorer crashing into Mars was a small example. Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


The latest issue of the Tufts University alumni magazine has a letter from the editor about how great magazines are. He lists the benefits of hard copy magazines:

  • easy to flip through
  • higher resolution than displays
  • faster page download (once the magazine has arrived of course)
  • good visibility of how much content there is total
  • great magazine smell
All of these will be exceeded by computers pretty soon (except maybe the smell). And computer-based magazines also allow you to link to archived articles, extra content, video, email the authors, author's blogs, readers comments, and many other extras. So in fact, the computer magazine is really much better.

But I still love my paper magazines. I can walk down the sidewalk or sit by the pool with it. I can curl up on the couch with it. Maybe we will get flexible displays that can handle these features too, but I think we have a few years to wait. Until then, I am keeping my subscriptions.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Usability is now the law !!

Well, its not the law yet, but the House of Representatives passed the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2008. Now we just need the Senate at GW to join up.

The basic idea is that all government documents will now include "language that the intended audience can readily understand and use because it is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices of plain language writing". Sounds like usability to me (and to Caroline Jarrett at Usability News - thanks for the pointer).

This is only half the battle too. Its one thing for the government to promise to make its documents user friendly. The next step is to require other people to make their contracts easy to understand and use (see my book chapter on how to do this). The lack of readable contracts is part of what got us into the credit card mess, subprime mortgage mess, health care insurance mess, and many others. We wouldn't need half as many lawyers if contracts were understandable. But of course, lawyers write the contracts, so . . . .

And for anyone who thinks that regulating contract language is anti-free market, think again. This is a strong libertarian idea. If companies had to make their contracts understandable to their intended customers, those customers could be freed to sign up for any kind of contract they want (except for the universal taboos like slavery etc). They would know what they are getting themselves into and be "allowed" to make that choice.

The reason we need regulation that actually limits behavior is because customers don't/can't understand the fine print. So we have to prevent companies from putting nasty stuff in that fine print. But if the customer understands all of the details and still wants to enter into the agreement, why not let them? This only works when we have understandability.

This new Act is a good first step. Go Congress Go !!!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Looking, but not seeing

A recent study looked at the effects of familiarity on drivers noticing important changes in road signage. As you might expect, when drivers get familiar with a road, they look less and less at the signs because they have committed them to memory. This is basic expert behavior and is generally a good thing.

You might also expect that when the signs are changed, the familiar driver is less likely to notice the change. In this case, they changed a right of way to a yield (making it very important for the driver to slow down/stop because cars coming across the intersection will not be stopping). You might expect that familiar drivers remember the right of way sign so they don't bother looking, and therefore don't notice that it was changed to a yield.

But what this study found is that the drivers do look at the new sign. But they still don't notice the change. My suspicion is that there is so much top-down processing that they still "see" the right of way, even though it now says "yield".

There are several important consequences of this. For one, it means that when you change a design, it is important to take steps to saliently inform users of the change. Kind of like when IVR phone systems have a message that says something like "please listen carefully because the options have changed."

It also makes it important to get your design right the first time. Many web businesses are launching early betas and using the "new" design strategy to launch half-done businesses to get first mover advantage and let customer comments drive future design. I applaud the focus on users, but this study shows that there are consequences of doing this if you let users get too familiar with the early stuff. You may get stuck with some bad features.

Third, it impacts the forensic work that many of my colleagues and I do. When we explain to a jury why a driver blew right through a stop sign that is obvious from the photo of the scene, it is not because the driver was inattentive and irresponsible. It is because he/she was an expert.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Loss Aversion and the expensive placebo

One of the cognitive underpinnings of maximizing (see previous post) is "loss aversion." Basically, it means that we maximizers get buyers remorse, always wondering about the "one that got away." We don't necessarily search for the best answer because we enjoy the process or because we really need the best option. The whole definition of satisficing is that the selected option is good enough. But we experience significant negative affect if we later see a better option out there, or even suspect that there is one.

Which is why I am not at all surprised by the recent study that found that expensive placebos work better than cheap ones. Basically, when participants were told that a placebo pretending to be a pain killer cost $2.50, it worked better than one that they were told cost 10 cents. Of course, both were identical sugar pills. How is this related, you may ask? Well, it is the loss aversion experienced by us maximizers (this is my interpretation, not the study authors). If you spend $2.50 on the pill, it better work. The negative affect that we feel for having made a $2.50 mistake is much bigger than what we feel from a 10 cent mistake. So the top down processes that make placebos work in general are stronger for the expensive placebo because of the greater fear of having made a mistake.

Which also explains Eliot Spitzer's call girl scandal. When I first heard that the escorts cost up to $5500 per HOUR, I could not imagine how they could be worth this much (not that I have much experience with call girls of course). But I bet it is the same as the expensive placebo. When you spend that much, the loss aversion kicks in and your brain makes sure that you enjoy the experience five times more than that $1100 per hour girl.

This also explains my fondness for self-deception. Life is great when you go around taking placebos all the time and feel great 24/7. And if you can further convince yourself that the 10 cent pill is the expensive version, then it is even better.

Mazimizers and satisficers

I topic I have long been very interested in, perhaps because of my own decision making struggles, is the satisficer/maximizer continuum that is so well described in Barry Schwartz book the Paradox of Choice. The basic concept is that there are two 'personalities' (my word, not his) for making choice decisions. In the satisficing strategy you choose an option that is good enough to satisfy your needs, and don't worry about whether there is another option out there that might be even better. The maximizer is willing to put in the extra effort to find the best option, even after a satisfactory option is found.

Part of this of course hinges on the availability of information. If you are buying a breakfast cereal, you can easily get the price, look at the nutrition label to get the grams of fat, protein, and fiber, the levels of each vitamin, and you probably have a sense of the taste from experience or advertising. So it is easy to compare 100 different options and pick the best one if you are willing to spend the time.

But for something like health care, it is impossible to know which doctor is better or even what they will charge when you go for a visit. I switched to a high deductible health plan with a health savings account (the new "free market solution" to the health care crisis) so I have tried to do this for the past two years. I go online to find a doctor, and I find no way to compare them. I call doctors' offices ahead of time and ask what the charge will be, but they can't tell me because it depends on the diagnosis and treatment, which they don't know until I get there (and have already committed to paying). So I am forced to satisfice, even though it drives me crazy (this is why I call it a decision making 'personality'). And I no longer believe this is the free market solution we were looking for.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Usability wins again!!!

Many years ago, there was a battle between Sony Betamax and VHS for the video tape standard. Beta was technologically superior, but it lost. Why - because of usability. The tapes were not long enough to hold a full length movie. Had Sony done a good job of understanding user requirements, they would have realized that interrupting a movie midstream to change a tape is a dealbreaker.

Well, Sony seems to have learned its lesson. In the Blueray HD-DVD war, Sony has won. Toshiba announced today that it will stop making HD-DVD players. Even though HD-DVD is technologically superior (by most accounts), Sony signed up more studios for Blueray. Variety is also a user requirement. In the Era of the Long Tail, users want access to as many movies as possible.

Yeah for usability!!!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Social Networking

This is a good post to follow the previous one. About 3 years ago, I switched my focus from Web 1.0 to Web 2.o and 3.0 research. Of course, the words don't matter - the hype around using version numbers is kind of silly. But the basic idea (at least as I define it) is that in Web 2.0, things are more interactive (using Ajax etc.) and allow users to contribute (upload content, tag content, respond to content, etc). Web 3.0 takes it up a level, with semantic analysis that helps to organize all the masses of content out there. Web 2.0 + Semantic Web = Web 3.0.

Right now, most social networking is Web 2.0. Anyone can add content (with some filters and restrictions), but finding what you want relies on older search tools (no offense Google). I suspect it will only be a few years until we have real Web 3.0 social networks to use.

So it was interesting to see Google announce its sort-of rival to Wikipedia. Knol (I am not sure who drummed up that name) is also an on-line encyclopedia-type resource, but instead of a wiki, users upload their articles as units, each one associated with the bio of the author. They are not editable by others. So readers get a sense of how much they can trust the content based on the credentials of the author. Readers can also rank each article and higher ranked articles will bubble to the top. Google added reputation management but removed the "wisdom of crowds."

It will take a while for Knol to catch up to Wikipedia in the amount of content. Until then, it is impossible to compare the approaches. But when (if) it does, it will be interesting to see the difference. I am sure there will advantages and disadvantages of each one.

Usability and marketing

As anyone familiar with my Web 1.0 research would know, I am very interested in the relationship between usability and marketing. If marketers really understand their users/customers from a deep usability (my research domain) perspective, then the line between the two fields really blurs.

For example, if I know that a customer is price sensitive when it comes to desserts (a marketing insight) and time sensitive when it comes to shopping (a usability insight), then presenting an ad for my low-price cookies in a way that is easy/fast to redeem and during the dessert-shopping activity, satisfies both goals. The customer doesn't see it as intrusive and frustrating (like the general population is starting to do with many ads these days) because it is a direct match to the current task and is customized to her personal preferences. Its not perceived as advertising but as assistance.

This comes to mind as I read an announcement in MIT Technology Review describing Microsoft's new business designing software for screens on shopping carts. Basically, the software would know who you are if you swipe your loyalty card and where you are in the store based on RFID tags. If you pause in front of the cookie shelf, it can present the ad I describe above. Of course, this only works if they effectively mine their loyalty card database well. If they present an ad for the expensive cookies to the price-sensitive shopper, it will be perceived as an annoyance. But I wish them well. When marketing becomes truly integrated with usability, we won't see another "ad" ever again.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A recent paper by Jonathan Lazar and others has a very insightful conclusion about blind computer users that contradicts a common stereotype. I am glad that it did.

Part of this is my interpretation of the results, but I don't think I am making any big leaps. Basically, they found that blind users are more likely to look for workarounds when faced with limitations of an interface and are more likely to blame the interface than themselves - compared to seeing users.

My interpretation is that blind people face challenges more often than seeing users. Rather than developing a sense of learned helplessness and dependency - which is the stereotype I referred to - they develop a talent for workarounds. They don't blame their disability, they recognize that it is unimpaired designers who did not do their homework about blind users when designing their systems, who are at fault for the challenges they face.

Not only is this a very healthy, productive response, but it is one that we all can learn from.