Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A new tool for dealing with being sick

This new web site has an interesting value proposition. The idea is to encourage everyone to upload when they are sick. It would provide two values to users:

1. You could search to see which of your friends are sick, so you would know who to avoid, send cards to, make soup for, or whatever your preferred response is.

2. You could view maps that cluster the illness so you know where to avoid going to places like the mall where you are likely to catch the illness from strangers.

And for public health professionals, it would be a good monitoring and research tool. They could identify outbreaks quickly and for those types of outbreaks where existing data is pretty weak because many people don't go the doctor (e.g. the flu) they would get a new tool for tracking outbreaks more comprehensively (assuming enough people use the site).

I think the assumption is that when you are not feeling well, you are probably skipping a lot of your normal activities, but going online is one we still do. So while we are on Facebook, we can just click over to Sickweather and report in. Perhaps we would be encouraged because of the increase in get well cards and soup we would receive.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Optimism Bias. From cognition research to practical wisdom

This article in Time doesn't say anything that research hasn't known about for years, but it does it in a very accessible way. So I recommend to anyone that it is a good, short, skimmable, read.

The purpose of the article is to explain why we tend to have an optimism bias, from an evolutionary perspective and neurophysiologically. Then it discusses the effects of this bias on typical lifestyle choices, which is why I am recommending it.

The attached article on 20 ways to be more happy is a good addition. It has some practical steps (some easier than others) on how to evoke the optimism bias and get a little happier. Some of them are short term, but have really solid research behind them.

For example the finding that smiling and laughing are bi-directional has some strong research in support. Not only do we smile and laugh when we are happy, but even a forced smile or laugh can actually make you happier. Maybe not by orders of magnitude, but over time it can have an effect like mindfullness where the extra happiness because ingrained.

Some of them are harder. For example "Marry Happy." Everyone goes in thinking they are happy, but the stats show that unexpected things get in the way. Often disagreements on spending habits and saving habits, which never even came up beforehand.

But if you combine them, so think happy, smile a lot, be optimistic, and marry someone that makes you happy, they all support each other in one huge virtual cycle that will make you happy as heck and the rest of us jealous.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Simple usability and process errors are less excusable

I was at the local Shaw’s grocery store yesterday and I noticed a few design problems with the register that seemed quite foolish (easy and cheap to fix). The first was that when the cashier scanned in my green cabbage, the price per pound was wrong. It was correct on the shelf, so there is no excuse not to update the price database. One of their competitors has a policy that if it scans wrong, it’s free. Too bad I wasn’t there.

The second problem showed up when she had to take off the cabbage from the order. She couldn’t just hit a key (backspace, delete, cancel, whatever). She had to put it back on the scale and subtract it while weighing it again. I wound up getting an extra penny off because it weighed 3.32 pounds going in and 3.33 pounds coming out.

They were also out of a product that was on sale. This is a common inventory problem at low margin companies like grocery stores. But this was a house brand that was on sale for a whole month and only through coupons mailed to loyalty card holders. It seems that they should not have run out for all of those reasons. House brands are easy to order and have higher margins. The sale still had three more weeks to go, so it’s not like it was last minute. Loyalty card holders are the best customers so you really don’t want to dissatisfy them. And it was only a tube of ground beef – not exactly a rare type of product. This is Boston’s high end grocery store too!

And yet . . .

Friday, May 27, 2011

Philosophically I am a libertarian (small l), with government regulations needed to create a fair and transparent playing field. Why is this relevant to an HF blog? I suspect that the “fair” part comes from being an IE and the “transparent” part comes from being a specialist in usability.

But my decades of experience with what Dan Ariely brilliantly calls Predictably Irrational and conceptually (although not normatively) explainable human behavior, I can see places where the performance environment makes “fair and transparent” insufficient. In these cases, although the libertarian in me cringes, the government needs to regulate further. This especially happens when there are negative externalities, leading to a “tragedy of the commons” effect. In these cases, Pigouvian taxation can create a nice balance between freedom and liberty AND an efficient business environment. There are also cases where people behave exactly the opposite of what we are trying to achieve because of effects such as vicarious goal fulfillment. In these cases, we need smart defaults.

If these are concepts that are unfamiliar to you, or that you have never thought of as HF issues, you have just figured out why I am posting this. They are important in politics and in business. And we have a particular expertise in figuring out what the balance should be to optimize system performance. Given the sorry state of areas like health care (politically, financially, and in the field), the environment, and education, my conclusion is that the world needs human factors professionals to be more involved in these Grand Challenges.

I hope to post more about specifics going forward. I would love to start up some deep discussion, even heated sometimes to get that productive friction going.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend and I will see you on here again soon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Marketing vs Usability

This article is a great example of companies find out there is something consumers care about, and the create a cheap/fake way of making us think they are giving it to us, but are really not.

Some people would say government regulations, but I would rather see a good reputation management system integrated into the shopping process. Admittedly, this is easier to do with online shopping, but with mobile apps gaining popularity we will be shopping in the store with our phones pretty soon.

The rep mgmt system would work pretty simply. You would find someone (nutrition expert or friend willing to do it) whose nutrition recommendations you want to follow. Then when you scan the item with your phone on the shelf, you would get the rating/review from that expert. It could be very simple. Instead of having to read an entire article like the one I linked to, each of those products could be rated and you would just have to trust the person you are following.

whole grain wheat 5 stars
white whole wheat 4 stars
whole grain white 3 stars
regular white 2 stars

And then you can pick which one you want based on the stars, the taste, and what you are in the mood for.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Smart Defaults and Healthy Snacking

Another great paper on using behavioral science to create smart defaults (it's gated so I can't link to it. Contact me if you want the citation). This study was on healthy snack choices (apples v cookies). They did three studies.

The first one looked at human-human interaction. They had a person walking around an office offering snacks. He either offered both snacks equally or offered the apple and allowed them to opt in for the cookie instead. They picked their snack for that day (immediate gratification) and for the next day (more likely to think logically). As expected, people were more likely to want the cookie right now and the apple tomorrow then vice versa (although lots of people requested the same snack for both days). The interesting finding is that laziness bias arose even when asking for the cookie was very easy. Just being offered the apple first made a difference. They suspected that it was the added social pressure to select the healthy choice when it was the default.

So they ran two more studies, one with a robot and one with a web site interface for picking the snacks. There wouldn’t be any social pressure, instead the default was just convenience. When the robot offered apples and cookies together, more people selected the cookies then when the cookies were on a lower shelf. Even just that much effort elicited the laziness bias.

With the web site, the apples and cookies were either both on the first page, or the apples were on the first page and they had to click to get to the cookies. Again, even just one extra click elicited the laziness bias (although they speculate that maybe some people didn’t notice the button).

Another interesting finding is that the effect was greater for people with less healthy eating habits (they had a snacking profile questionnaire after the snack choice).

A third interesting finding is that when they listed the number of calories, healthier snackers were more likely to pick the cookies. This is either an example of the vicarious goal fulfillment I have blogged about in the past or the healthier snackers discovered that the cookies weren’t as bad as they thought.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Blackberries on Vacation?

I was interviewed by National Geographic earlier this year (yeah, I thought that was funny too). They were interested in a productivity topic. The question was whether executives should leave their Blackberries at home when they go on vacation.

As usual, my response was a little nuanced. But the basic message was that the productivity gains over the next year from a REAL vacation (i.e. leaving the Blackberry at home) easily outweighs the amount of work you get done while on vacation.

But that depends on a few factors. One, you have to trust someone back at the office to take care of things in your absence. If you spend the whole vacation worrying, you don’t get that refreshing boost that vacations are supposed to give you. But when you are planning your vacation, it’s too late to start thinking about this. If you are doing regular succession planning, you should already have your replacement identified and trained. This person should be able to cover your vacations quite well.

The second factor is what you are doing on vacation. If you are missing a gorgeous sunrise eating breakfast on the balcony with your family because you are inside checking email, then you are wasting a great opportunity for an emotionally refreshing boost. But if you are going to be sitting in a cruise ship cabin bored because you hate sitting by the pool, there may be some things you can get done to pass the time. It may even improve the vacation.

Of course, when the article came out, there were maybe two or three sentences that actually made it in. Typical for magazine interviews. But I thought the rest would interest you. Any other thoughts? Disagreements? Other conditions that I missed?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Transparency in Design

Last night, I was walking home from work wearing my new raincoat. This thing is incredible. It's a Gortex shell that is very waterproof. So much so that I didn't even realize it when it started raining. You'd think that's a good thing, right? But my briefcase, which was slung over my shoulder, got soaked! I had an umbrella, but not realizing that it was raining I never opened it up.

This isn't just a story on my foolishness. There are many examples of fantastic design that insulate the user from what is going on outside and cause him/her to lose important situation awareness. I read once of a plane incident where the autopilot adjusted so seamlessly to a lost engine that the pilot didn't know that it was lost. When he took over the controls to land the plane, it veered sharply to the left (2 engines on one side, only 1 engine on the other side). Without some quick thinking, he might have crashed. I am sure he had some nauseated and frightened passengers.

So what is the lesson of the story? There is a user requirement that we often forget about: transparency in automation. When designing automation, make sure that it isn't so good that the user loses important features of situation awareness. I have heard of workers who monitor an automated production process and after a few years of Six Sigma performance they completely forget how to run it manually. If/when the automation does fail - the line is shut down.

Don't let this happen to you!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I was listening to an interview show on NPR last night (2nd hour of On Point) where the topic was Asian American culture and their performance in the American workforce. The focus was on 1st and 2nd generation and made lots of generalizations (which the main interviewee, who was the author of a New York Magazine article on this subject, freely admitted, in part because it was a magazine article not an academic research paper). One stat that he cited was that Asian Americans are overrepresented among law school students and junior associates (thanks to the culture’s focus on professional careers), but underrepresented among law firm partners. Same thing with MBA students and CEOs.

It was also a call in show, so there were lots of opinions and passionate speeches on the reason for the disparity (the “Bamboo Ceiling”). Hypotheses ranged from discrimination by the existing partners/directors (old boy network), the reluctance of Asian Americans to play the political games that it takes to get ahead at law firms and corporations, and something about the culture that makes them less capable at lawyering (such as an inability to connect personally with juries, less flamboyance as litigators, etc) or senior management. The Tiger Mom book came up a lot. There was also some discussion of whether this was an Asian American thing or typical of any 1st and 2nd generation immigrant community. Nobody had any definitive answers, but the conversation was interesting (except for some of the extreme call-ins).

What do you think? Is it one of the three reasons I listed, all of the above, or something totally different?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

General or Specific skills?

Which is more important, general competence or specific expertise? On the Michael Smerconish show he was talking about hiring a producer for his show. He interviewed a lot of candidates. When faced with the final decision, he chose to hire the person who had general competence (dedication, communication skills, personality) but no experience instead of the person with specific expertise (knowing how to produce a radio show) but less of the general qualities. The station almost didn’t go along with his choice because his choice had no experience being a radio show producer. But he never regretted it. He had faith she would learn what she needed to know when she needed to know it. And she did.

You also hear this a lot in pro sports. There are the players who have tons of skills but are bad teammates/clubhouse personas (like Randy Moss, Many Ramirez) or players with maybe less skill but are great in the clubhouse (Trot Nixon comes to mind). I’m not talking about off the field shenanigans (Michael Vick), but sports related general competence or specific skills. I prefer cheering for teams with lots of good clubhouse guys, but who is better for the team’s winning percentage?

Of course it depends on the requirements of the job, but for those jobs in the middle where both are important, which would you choose if you had to choose?