Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hands free Texting while driving

I can't tell you how many times I have gotten into this discussion/debate/argument with people.  I think many people have finally come to the realization that talking while driving is just as bad with a hands-free device because it is the mental distraction of the social interaction that causes most of the problem.  But they don't see it with texting because you don't have that social link.  With no social and no hands, it can't be as distracting can it?  Yes, actually, it can.

To HF practitioners, it is a no-brainer.  But it is so counter-intuitive to the typical driver that they refuse to believe it.  Great example of motivated reasoning (finding reasons to believe what makes your life easier) and commitment bias (finding reasons to justify what you have done in the past). 

People out there.  Texting while driving doubles your reaction time to important things like a car cutting you off on the highway or a small child running into the road to get her ball. Hands-free and hands-on are both double.  No difference.  If you hands free text while driving you are going to kill someone someday.  Perhaps yourself.  Please stop.

Luckily, David Pogue has finally been convinced.  He has some clout because he has been the tech writer for the New York Times for 14 years and was a denier for most of them.  (real time update - he just quit the NYT today and moved to Yahoo.  But he switched sides on the handsfree texting first).

Monday, October 21, 2013

The need to belong

Everyone who is either a teacher, a parent, a caring sibling, a mentor, a friend, a boss, a coworker, or . . . .I think I have everyone covered here somewhere - needs to read this.  I have blogged about this effect before, but this article is a great summary.  It captures a visceral and resonating story that happens to be true and almost tragic. 

We all have a strong need to belong to a group.  Of course this is adaptive - being part of a tribe added a lot to survivability compared to living alone.  But the nuances of this need can teach us a lot.

First, we can think about people who are part of a racial, ethnic, or religious minority.  It is harder to feel a sense of belonging simply because there are fewer people in whom to find a social group that you like.   There are no guarantees that you are going to have things in common with the other members who are nearby.  The digital world helps, but you can't meet all your friends on Facebook. 

Second, we can think about people who choose to join a rare group based on the career, hobby, or other interests.  Kids who like science are often made fun of because they are less common than the kids who like recess.  And what if you happen not to like the other five kids in the science club? 

It is even worse if you have both.  If you are an ethnic minority who pursues a rare career (like the woman in the article), it is really hard to find a strong cohort of friends.

Now we have to add on the psychological piece.  The feelings of stereotype threat and belonging uncertainty make it harder.  And since these are unconscious processes, you don't even realize when they lead you to give up your real passion and pursue something more "normal" for the larger group you fit in to. 

So why did I start off by asking teachers and parents to read this instead of inspiring the Hispanic, visually impaired, Muslim girl to pursue her love for quantum physics?  Because these things are really hard to recognize in yourself.  Instead (or rather in addition), it would be great if teachers could pay attention for students with counter-stereotype interests and help them along.  Bosses could do the same for their employees who have good job skills but seem to be spending lunch alone.  Friends. siblings, and co-workers might not have the position of power, but they have perhaps more social influence. 

Form follows feeling

New rule for design: form follows feeling.

As these articles (here and here) from Medium about Starbucks'  architectural design illustrate,
emotional design seems to be trumping functional design.  Is this an advance?

I have a few feelings about this as a trend.  The original focus of the science behind human factors has been functionality, usability, ease of learning, and much more "objectively measurable" performance indicators.  But the field (since Norman's Emotional Design) and my own practice has since evolved to understand that emotion and function are not dual systems but are tightly integrated.  This is a fundamental part of the brain's wiring, so we have no choice but to take it this way.  I find it more interesting too, as my previous blog posts have shown (recently for example here and here).

And reading the articles about Starbucks (and having been one of those "flying solo"), I can appreciate that this is just as important as an ergonomically effective chair and a table that can fit my laptop and notes.

But I don't think it is one or the other.  I think that the challenge going forward will be to create designs that support the functionality that users need, the performance levels that they need, and the emotional needs for that context.

The hardest part of this challenge will be prioritizing each context for how much of each a given design context requires.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The blindness of power

This paper explains a lot of bosses I have had.  It is a study of the phenomenon of self-anchoring and how it increases for people in positions of power. It makes them blind to the thoughts and feelings of those around them.

Self-anchoring is something you have probably experienced personally, both in yourself and in others around you.  None of us can truly know what is going on in someone else’s head, so we have to make the best guess that we can.  And since the person we know the best is our self, our estimate of what the other person is thinking is based largely on our prediction of what we would be thinking if we were in their shoes.  This makes some sense logically, especially if the other person is similar to us – perhaps in our family or a co-worker or a friend.  I have blogged about this before as it relates to our mirror neurons.

What makes this paper interesting is that they focused on people in positions of power.  Not even very much power - they just interviewed college students about their relationships with their peers and categorized them as high or low peer-influence based on their answers.  Then they had them go through various activities that required the students to judge the thoughts, opinions, and emotions of other people.  The study found that students who generally exert more influence over their peers are worse at estimating what other people are thinking.  These students have much more self-anchoring - basing their judgment of others on what they themselves would think in that situation.  They unconsciously assume that everyone else thinks the same way that they do. 

The study used several variations and found the same result pretty consistently.  In the first study, the powerful people were asked to assess the personality traits of other people.  Their answers showed that they classified these other people using descriptions of their own traits.  Students who were in the low-influence category didn't.  In the second study, the powerful people estimated the consensus of a group, and assumed the group agreed with them much more than they really did.  Again, low-influence students did not.  In the third study, the powerful people were asked to assess the emotions of people in photos who had vague facial expressions. The emotions they guessed were largely based on the emotion that the powerful person was feeling at the time. Their bias was much greater than that exhibited by the low-influence students doing the same thing.

So does this remind you of powerful people you know?  A domineering boss.  I parent who "wears the pants" in the family?  An older sibling?  A friend that likes to make decisions for the group?  It is often not that they are trying to force their opinions on you.  In part it is just blindness - they really think you agree with them.  You really want to see "that" movie, have "that" for dinner.  You really have bought into the new company policy. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

User Experience hinges on the little things.

One of the challenges of designing effective user experiences is that we can get so many things right but one small oversight can result in an annoyed, frustrated, or confused user.   It might be one confusing label among many well designed labels, but one that everyone has to get through during the initial use of the system (e.g. hard to find button on a shopping site, or a hard to figure out text box on a registration form).  Just one confusing widget in the midst of hundreds of well-designed widgets and the drop-out rate skyrockets. 

So here is my example for today.  My university just invested in the next generation of enterprise-scale telephony.  It probably doesn’t compare to the high end phone systems that some cutting edge tech companies have, but for a university it is quite an advance.  I can make video calls, conference calls, forward calls, and there are a few features I haven’t explored yet.  Good UI so far.

But the plastic handset feels cheap and doesn’t fit snug to my ear.  The weight is unbalanced and the earpiece is too small.  I am pretty sure that Cisco spent a lot more time on the technology UI and didn’t give the handset much thought.  After all, with all of these cool features, who cares about some plastic?  But the UX is ruined.  I cringe at the thought of a long phone call because I will have to hold that “thing” against my ear for an extended time. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sports fans and loss aversion

Population survey studies have found that 80% of respondents (I think done in the US) have a tendency to cheer for the underdog.  This actually went beyond sports, it included pulling for a small business against a big one, a new artist against a famous one, and other underdog/favorite preferences. 

One hypothesis for how this could have adaptively evolved is one of my favorite topics – loss aversion.  From a purely probabilistic point of view, the brain is wired to only notice rare events.  When things happen just as expected, there is nothing worth learning so we have evolved to pay very little attention or emotion to these common/expected events.  So when the favorite wins, even if we were cheering for the underdog, we don’t experience much of an emotional loss.  It is what was expected to happen.  On the other hand if the underdog wins, your brain registers a rare/unexpected event and your brain takes notice.  You get a big positive rush of dopamine. 

The reverse happens if you cheer for the favorite.  If the favorite wins you feel good, but it is dampened by the fact that is was expected.  But if your team loses it is a rare unexpected (hence learning) event and evokes a large negative emotional reaction. 

So what about the 20% who have a dispositional tendency to cheer for the favorite?  There is no clear evidence but I like Steven Levitt’s (of Freakonomics fame) hypothesis.  He is one of these 20%.  He grew up in a small town and was one of the few people expected to succeed in the modern dog-eat-dog world.  So he grew up with a personal investment in the feeling that the favorite should succeed.  The whole idea that chance can flip this on its head is a risk to his status in life.  So he has a visceral instinct that fairness requires that the favorite should get exactly what he/she deserves.  The underdog winning might be a learning experience, but it is definitely not a positive or happy one.

So think about your dispositional tendency.  Throw out the teams you cheer for because they are your college team or hometown team.  Imagine a mythical Team A v Team B where everyone expects Team A to win.  What does your gut prefer, Team A or Team B.  If it is Team B, you are one of the 80% who is protecting your emotional health by minimizing total future sadness.  But if your gut prefers Team A, you probably have been the favorite at important points of your life and have a personal stake in the favorite winning.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The original multi-tasking - shifting among subtasks in a compound activity

The August issue of Human Factors has a paper on multi-tasking that I think merits a detailed look. At first, I thought it was another one of those “distracted by technology” studies.  When someone does a better study than Clifford Nass at Stanford (quick PBS interview here or his lab’s page here) I am ready to read it.

But this paper by Brent Morgan at the University of Memphis and his colleagues at Notre Dame were looking at compound tasks– that require the user to do multiple tasks simultaneously.   They used a cockpit simulator but you can imagine different examples in health care and many others.  The basic result of their study is that at lower (easier) levels of multi-tasking, having a good working memory capacity is all you need to multi-task (assuming you have the necessary task-specific skills to do the individual components effectively).  But as the difficulty increases and you get to the maximum of your working memory, having really good task skills becomes more important.  It is these skills that help you effectively shift among sub-tasks in the optimal way as their importance and urgency shifts.  To be frank, this isn’t really that earth shattering, but it is an important study because it puts some certainty behind what many designers might expect and adds some details and refinement.

But what I found most interesting is their speculations at the end.  They suggested a few different multi-tasking “profiles” that I found really intriguing.  First, individuals might have dispositional strategies for multitasking. 

There are some people who are “consistent” multi-taskers.  As difficulty increases, they try to keep up with all of the sub-tasks.  Some are good at it and some are poor at it, but they are consistent across the task list.

There are some people who are “attackers.”  As difficulty increases, they focus more on the hardest tasks and less on the easier ones.

There are some people who are “avoiders.”  As difficulty increases, they focus more on the easier ones and less on the harder ones.  You can get more things checked off your list, but perhaps not the most important ones.

Then we can look at it by context.  Are there some contexts that motivate users across the board to focus on the harder or easier tasks or to be consistent across the board?  Perhaps through incentives?  Or perhaps by good transparency in designing importance and urgency indicators in the UI?

We can also look at the importance of this concept for team building.  If you are putting together a team, is it important to match people who will agree on what needs to be done (all avoiders or all attackers) or is it better to have a diverse group who will naturally gravitate towards different sub-tasks and hopefully all of them will get done?  I don’t know the answer to this one, but I find it really intriguing and important to find out.  Hopefully, a future issue of Human Factors will reveal the answer!!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Do not use unstructured interviews !!!

Warning to anyone who uses unstructured interviews!!!!

I just read a paper with a strong warning against using unstructured interviews.  They tested the method as a screening tool rather than as a formative testing tool, but I think the conclusions and insights apply across the board. 

The paper is by Jason Dana at Yale and Robyn Dawes (recently deceased) and Nathaniel Peterson at Carnegie Mellon and is published in the most recent issue of Judgment and Decision Making.  They reviewed the use of unstructured interviews in domains like job hiring, clinical diagnosis (doctor interviewing patients), and university admissions.  Their data collection looked at students making predictions of other students’ future GPA based on just biographical information or with biographical information plus an interview. 

In each of these situations, the authors report that the interviews degraded predictive performance.  Doctors were less able to diagnose a patient when they combined an interview of the patient with the medical record compared to the medical record alone.  Job hiring and college admissions were more predictive of future success based just on the application/resume than when an interview was added.

The reasons they found are actually not surprising. One real problem with unstructured interviews is that we ask different questions of each candidate/patient/applicant.  This means we are comparing apples to oranges when putting two candidates against each other.  A second major problem is confirmation bias.  For candidates where we have an initial positive impression, we ask questions where we know the answer will be positive or avoid questions that could have a negative answer.  For those where our initial impression is negative we do the reverse.  A third problem is that we think the answers to our questions are more predictive of future success than they really are.  We ask about things that really don’t matter and give points to the preferred candidate and deduct them from the others.

What is troubling about these results is that we have a false sense of confidence.  Even though unstructured interviews are completely unpredictive and even degrade prediction in most cases, we think they are helpful so we put real value in them.  We feel more confident in our selections. 

The most concerning condition, although one that probably shouldn’t surprise us, is one where they explicitly told participants that the interviewee was just repeating random answers that they were instructed to give.  The participant knew in advance that the interview was garbage.  And yet still they used the results of the interview to make their decision, had greater confidence in that decision, and even reported that the interview was helpful. 

How could the interview be helpful if the candidate was spouting pre-arranged answers?  Motivated reasoning rearing its ugly head.  As we have seen before, sports fans are more likely to bet on their favorite team, even after being told that the odds-maker significantly biased the betting line against their team.  When told that debaters were assigned to present the case opposite to what they really believe, observers still report that they think the debater believes what he is saying – in direct contradiction to what they were just told.  Our brains don’t seem to have an “ignore and forget” function.  Even when we know information is false, we can’t prevent ourselves from using it when making subsequent decisions. 

Do you find this as scary as I do?