Lollies or Poison

October 16, 2012

Human factors covers many facets of human behaviour and interaction with the natural and constructed environment.  The issue of how to ensure that these environments remain safe for the younger and older members of our society is a case in point.Post image for Product Confusability: Tide Pods

Recently, a dishwashing detergent was packaged so that even adults could easily mistake them for food.  Young children have ingested these dangerous chemicals as the packaging is very colourful and resemble candy or lollies.  The harm done to these children and the increasing toll on the health system would surely outweigh the financial benefit to the manufacturer of this product, who obviously either didn’t think or was blissfully unaware of the consequences.  Perhaps the unwanted publicity of the dangers of this product, especially if there is an impact on their bottom line, may encourage them to design their products with more care in future.

All too often, human behaviour is not taken into account in the design of products.  No amount of urging customers to “be careful” will eliminate the danger posed by badly designed or labelled goods.  It is better business to design them properly in the first place.

When I was involved in training service and police dogs, there were five principles which used to guide us.  Firstly, Knowledge was required – if you didn’t know what you were doing, it made it difficult for the canine to know what was required.  Secondly, Repetition showed the required behaviour.  Thirdly, Patience in attaining the goal was essential.  Praise and Correction were the final principles, the former being more desirable and effective.  It seems that in the case of the design of the products described above, the first fundamental principle was lacking, as is commonly the case in many other applications where the knowledge and expertise of the human scientist is not sought or ignored.

This translates to the whole range of human applications.  Human scientists can provide critical knowledge but this fact is not often understood and can have great impact, both in terms of time and budget when ill informed decisions are made, and especially when the younger and older members of society are involved.

As has been previously posted, the initial BMW iDrive was a product which was installed in vehicles that the older demographic was more likely to acquire, which compounded the problems of poor initial design.  The older drivers did not have the digital savvy or knowledge that their offspring or grandchildren had and therefore the whole concept was flawed from the outset as it did not take into account the basic metrics of the human operator.  Of the five principles that I listed above, Patience is in short supply when you are battling traffic!

Which leads to the point made by the authors of the pieces – consideration of the special needs of the younger and older demographic is central to good design and outcomes going forward.


Are Security Questions a Joke? Or is the way the Systems are Designed the Real Joke?

August 9, 2012
Security questions

Security questions (Photo credit: janetmck)

I read a great article the other day on the threat posed by the use of password security questions as a Computer security issue.

I too have been quite amused by the poorly designed questions which purport to help you if you forget your login information for a site.  Frank Voisin suggests a few ideas to make them more applicable.

However, the second item jarred with me – Applicable: the question should be possible to answer for as large a portion of users as possible (ideally, universal).


I would have thought that the primary (and only) function was to have something which was individual to the person involved.

Now I’m only a human factors scientist, but my training suggests that we ask the individual to design their own questions.  Sure, give them some advice and make the process as intuitive as possible, but give them the ability to make it as individual as they like – surely that‘s the whole point!  After all, this information is only kept in a secure database to be accessed as needs permit.

Is it more that the systems designer was trying to make his or her job easier?  Sort of fitting the human to the system rather than designing it to the individual’s explicit needs?  Did this save them a few lines of code?

Obviously some human science input into this area is sorely needed.  This raises the question of whether someone who is a computer scientist first and has cross-trained into the human interface is the best person for this role, or someone with a psychology or social science background.
My suggestion is that in this case, you really need some cross disciplinary interaction to arrive at an optimal solution.