Saturday, December 29, 2012

The low-tech smart home

We can always count on my buddy Piers Fawkes at to draw out some great ideas.  He blogged about some LifeEdited design ideas that got me thinking. These ideas are not from his blog, but are based on what zipped through my mind as I was reading it. 

The main point of the blog is that many of us are living in smaller spaces, so leveraging that space is really important.  Many people these days automatically gravitate towards technology solutions, but LifeEdited is looking at modularizing the space using the standard hardware – walls, furniture, appliances – but in creative ways. 

Let’s start with the walls.  The example from LifeEdited is to have a sliding wall separating the living room/den and the guest bedroom.  So when you all go to sleep, you can slide the wall and make more bed/less den space.  If the bed is integrated into the sliding wall Murphy Bed style, you can really take this to extremes.  If you have some wardrobe/cabinet space also integrated into the sliding wall, you can slide the wall almost to the end when the room is not in use.  Huge difference in living space during the 350 days a year and 16 hours a day you don’t need it.

Let’s think even more broadly.  What if you could move the walls that separate apartments?  The logistical challenges of negotiating this might be too much in general, but for those new buildings that cities are envisioning that are only 300-600 square feet, this could be useful.  When I want to entertain, I can slide the wall over and take up half of my next door neighbor’s space and vice versa.  After all, I don’t really use that much of my den space on most days.  I am either at work, out, chlling on the couch watching TV, or something else that could easily use a smaller size than even a normally small den.  You could prevent fights by having an on-line negotiation agent system (lots of other blogs on this so I will leave it out – but think of a reservation system with an auction facility for popular days and if ever both people insist on their space, you just leave the wall in the normal position). 

OK, now let’s move on to furniture.  I mentioned already the idea of folding furniture down from the walls Murphy Bed style.  What else can we do in this regard?  You could easily fold down a table desk, even in your bedroom.  Drawers can be hinged so they are accessible in folded up and folded down modes.   The kitchen table is another no-brainer for this one. 

Then there is the slide in drawer model.  You could slide a table top out of the wall or other infrastructure instead of folding it up.  This could give you modular counter space, extra table leaves, or desktop space.  You could also move the “stuff” that most apartments keep outside into a pull-out system that you only pull out when you want to display it or access it.  You could integrate a spice rack into a cabinet and slide it out when you are cooking.  You could integrate a desktop office supply dispenser and slide it out when you are working. 

What about a stackability model?  You could use stackable chairs to save a lot of space normally wasted around a dining room table or even living room.  You would need to create nicer designs than current stackables that are kind of cheesy-looking, but the engineering part is not too complicated.

Finally, let’s move on to appliances.  Admittedly, using some of these ideas might reduce the quality of the cooking capabilities, but they are at least places to start.  The blog post suggests using portable burners instead of a stove.  You pull out the burners when you need to cook and put them in the closet to get more counter or table space.  How about a long, thin fridge that can be integrated into a wall when not in use? 

One other topic that Piers relates is a public/private idea.  You could use this to share space with your neighbors or if you host AirBnB/Couchsurfing kinds of activities.  Within your guest room, you could have a combination of locked and open closets/drawers/cabinets that allows you to give some guests access and others not.  In a shared hallway you could have cabinets and storage spaces that you trade off with your neighbors as needed by trading a key or using a web-based password entry with the same reservation system I mentioned above.  Lots of possible ideas here.

So what do you think?  Are you ready to go live in a 200 square foot studio in downtown Manhattan to save some serious money (rent or mortgage)?  If it is designed effectively, I think it would work.  But in this case, effectively is not about the engineering, but in understanding the wide variety of user scenarios and cases that would HAVE to be supported.  As soon as an important social, business, or personal event delivers a disappointing experience you lose.  

But on the positive side, these ideas reduce the required space, energy, materials, and more that you need to live in any living space but most importantly for cities where real estate is expensive. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012


There was a great interview of Nassim Taleb on the BBC Daily Business broadcast that very succinctly summarizes his concept of anti-fragility.  As an industrial engineer, I have always promoted system robustness so seeing a fundamental flaw in it is a great piece of learning.  I find this rewarding for two reasons.  Most importantly, I am a better engineer and consultant as a result.  But also, experts have a notoriously hard time giving up ideas that have been a core part of their world-view so it is great to know I can. 

So what is anti-fragility?  Contrasting it with robustness is the best way to explain.  Systems are made up of many components.  Fragile systems are those where the failure of one of these components causes a failure of the whole system.  So robustness is an approach where you try to make each component resistant to failure.  If you prevent these small failures, you don't get the system-wide failure.  But this is where you get Taleb's Black Swan.  When you get a problem big enough to fail one of your robust components, the whole system fails so completely that it becomes a disaster.  The 2007 banking crisis is the example that made Taleb famous.  We also see it in modern forest fire prevention.  The more we prevent small fires from breaking out, the more disastrous the eventual state-wide wildfires we get.

So anti-fragility takes the opposite approach.  Let's design the system components so that they fail easily, but so that the system as a whole gets better as a result.  Small and frequent forest fires made the whole forest safer.  The more companies that go bankrupt in a country, the less risk there is that the whole economy will crash. 

Here is an example I have been considering in my personal life.  Many new parents are trying to prevent their infants from getting sick in any way.  Don't let them anywhere near a peanut, piece of dirt, germ . . .   But what seems to be happening is that the kids grow up to be more fragile rather than less.  They are more likely to have allergies, asthma, and other immune-system related diseases.  I like the old way better.  Let our kids grow up playing in mud, eating dirt and 15-second rule Cheerios.  I read somewhere that the Chinese have such a low incidence of peanut allergies because their kids start eating boiled peanuts at such a young age they haven't had a chance to develop an allergy yet. Plus, this seems like a less stressful way to live. 

Where else should we anti-fragile rather than robust?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The solution to climate change - rapid evolution

If a species becomes threatened with extinction due to rapid changes in its ecosystem, is it possible for evolution (natural selection) to speed up?  In the past, researchers have used microbes and yeasts because they can test many generations in a small period of time.  They hoped to apply what they learned to things like islands after tsunamis, forests after fires, the earth after the meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs, and that kind of thing. 

It is now getting personal because of the impending climate change.  Will humanity be able to evolve through the changes that are looking more and more inevitable?  A special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society summarized the findings on what researchers have termed “rapid evolution” (RE).  This is not my area of expertise, but I think I can adequately summarize the basics. 

Here are the factors the help a species evolve rapidly:

·         Starting with a large population.  I think seven billion is pretty large!!
·         Genetic diversity.  I think we have that too,  There are some real bizaros out there.
·         Rapid intrinsic mutation rate. Thanks to all the crap we now put into our bodies, I think we got that too.
·         Strong natural fitness.  Definitely not all of us, but there are some incredible specimens out there.
·         Space in the ecosystem.  Since we are killing off the other species in advance, I think we have done this for ourselves.
·         Some luck.

Hmmm.  Maybe there is hope for us.  Well, some evolved version of us.  I wonder what that humanity would look like . . . .

Friday, December 07, 2012

Cognitive Resonance in a funny comic strip

I have blogged before about the phenomenon of cognitive resonance.  This is when we explain something we have done so that it makes rational sense, even when the real reason might not have been all that rational.  This is not a conscious thing (well, at least it doesn’t have to be).  It is just a natural way our brain works.

This makes sense from a long term adaptability perspective because we often make decisions or behave in ways that are based on emotion, instant gratification, and other suboptimal reasons but it is better not to think of ourselves as irrational.  For our brains to naturally do this and not even let our ego know about it works pretty well.

The most famous (at least among us behavioral science geeks) example is a study where people were asked to do a really boring task, either for free or for $20.  Then they asked them about the experience.  Which ones do you think thought it was most boring?  Their hypothesis was that the $20 people would because of the reward.  But the opposite happened.  The $20 people knew that they did it just for the money so it was OK for it to be boring.  But the people who got nothing had no justification. So their unconscious cognitive resonance retroactively convinced them that the task was not so boring, allowing them to feel better about having done it.

As a behavioral engineer, my job is to figure out how to use research results like this to design better systems, jobs, consumer products, or whatever.  And as usual, a comic strip says it better than I ever could.

Usability of post office delivery cards.

Usability of post office delivery cards.

I received a package through the US Postal Service that was sent Certified Mail.  It was delivered while I was at work (as I imagine happens a lot), so when I got home there was a postcard in my mailbox with an “Attempted Delivery” notice.  It seemed clear enough.  It gave me a few options:
  • They would redeliver it, again requiring me to be home (for security).
  • They would redeliver it without requiring me to be home (more convenience, less security)
  • I could pick up the package at the Post Office (the most security but the least convenience).

So why am I writing about this on a Human Factors blog? Simple, I signed the card, left it in my mailbox, and . . . .  nothing.  What day are they supposed to deliver it? 

I could imagine that it would take a day or two because the Post Office doesn’t know what my choice would be ahead of time.  They could have kept the package at the PO in case I came to pick it up, but then not been prepared for options 1 or 2.  But then they can’t deliver it.  Alternatively, they could have sent it with the carrier to cover either options 1 or 2 and not been prepared for option 3. 

Better service would have allowed me to log onto the USPS web site in the evening, input the package tracking number, and let them know in advance what to do with it.  Then I would have it just one day later.  But they don’t have that.

So it should have come the next day, right?  But for some reason, it did not.  Did they return it to sender?  That would be crazy to do so quickly, but you never know (it has happened to me in the past).  Is it being held at the Post Office despite the fact that I signed the card?  That would suck because I returned the card and so I have no tracking number.  Can I pick it up at the PO just with my ID?  No way to know. 

And on the original postcard it didn’t even say who the package was from, so I couldn’t call them to see if they could help.  Did they have a tracking number as part of their receipt?  Probably.  But who was it?  And since I returned the card, I may not have been able to check that for the sender contact info anyway. 

This is not a hard UX problem.  The card could have more information.  They process could be simpler.  There could be a web solution for everything.  UPS and Fedex seem to have these problems solved.  I hate to say it, but no wonder the USPS is going out of business.  They wouldn’t be losing such market share if they could just get the basics down.

Guest blogging on EID

I was asked to guest blog for the Ergonomics in Design journal, which is a publication of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.  These should show up about once a month and will be a little more specifically focused on human factors issues.  My first one is here.  I know I range a little wider on this blog.

I am looking forward to getting some new readership and I will cross link those posts here to get some good discussion going.  Don't worry, you won't miss anything by following me here :-).