Human Machine Interaction and Usability

This is the second post in a series of posts recapping the courses in my UX Design graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Date: October 25th — December 3rd

Books: An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering by Christopher D. Wickens, Sallie E. Goodwin, and Yili Liu and Usability Engineering: Process, Products, and Examples by Laura Leventhal and Julie Barnes

Human Machine Interaction and Usability was a much more technical course than my first introductory class. We focused on very specific concepts like human factors, designing for accessibility, and usability models.

Along with the more in-depth subject matter, the class was structured differently as well. Our professor included discussion posts and quizzes in addition to the reading, homework, and group project. More work meant we used Canvas more, our course’s online learning platform — which had problems of it’s own. Grading was completed through canvas so for some reason we needed to mark reading assignments as ‘done’ and communicate through Canvas’ own email messaging system. Every professor is different and this course took a little bit of time to get used to, but I remembered that this isn’t unique to online education.

More Technical Difficulties

When you’re learning online, you need to have a good internet connection. Hotels and coffee shops are not ideal. Even a solid connection isn’t all you need because bandwidth can only support so much. Uploading videos, performing intensive functions within Adobe Connect such as swapping presenting modes can make class lag.

Your class will vary but be prepared for technical difficulties to slow down class at least to some extent. Hopefully class is ‘prepared’ because communication and organization is key.

The Slack group I created for our cohort came in handy in filling in these communication gaps curing class. Another student I messaged notified the professor when my mic was acting up, and we made discussed group specific projects in channels and group messages. Slack is how we primarily communicate and it is a crucial communication tool in and out of class.

The project

The project was to analyze a design based on its adherence to human factors principles. Essentially, find something that violated those principles, redesign it, and propose a way to evaluate the effectiveness of the design.

Our team bounced a lot ideas around. One idea that didn’t make the cut was automated voice calls, like calling into Comcast and having to answer questions and go through a menu system. Having only audio doesn’t provide any visual echoes. Transcribed text on screen would help confirm the audio you’re hearing by using two senses to perceive the same information. Also, numbers like phone numbers, account numbers, or credit card numbers can be ‘chunked’ to improve memorability. The phone system can repeat back your number in sections, “123 (pause) 456 (pause) 7890” instead of each number directly one after each other. By grouping sets of information together, we can hold these numbers in our working memory much easier.

Instead of automated phone systems, we decided to go with the emergency warning notification system in automobiles. With the rise and adoption of automatic control in emergency situations, our goal was to provide more cues to transfer the knowledge in the word into knowledge into the head.

One of our proposals was to adjust the warning alarm for collision mitigation systems, specifically the 2015 Honda Civic. In the Civic, a repetitive beep would notify when you were coming into contact with an obstacle. The problem is the alarm is the same for 50 ft out as it is for 10 ft out. It’s pitch and volume do nothing to illustrate the seriousness of the situation.

“The increase then decrease in intensity gives the perception of an approaching and receding sound, which creates a psychological sense of urgency.” (p. 123, Wickens)

We proposed that the alarm increases in volume based on the distance from the object. The alarm’s volume decreases when the brake pressure is applied and when the distance between the car and the obstacle increases (the obstacle drives away).

Another proposal was to change the visual notification into something that is more impactful. We adjusts the shape of the icon to be more recognizable. Instead of just the word “brake” in a tight rounded rectangle, enlarging the shape adds another layer to the icon. Making it more than just the word “brake”, it’s the word and the shape. We also designed the icon to be more contextual. We added stages to the icon where the color and the brightness of external displays would fluctuate based on the severity of the situation. We then placed this notification in a location in the driver’s line of sight, instead of the right-hand display meant for secondary information.

(Left): replaces the mpg and fuel displays, may be repetitive and distracting. (Middle): replaces the speedometer which might have important information in a collision avoidance situation. (Right): uses a new portion of the display which was empty before, most ideal.

This class was extremely successful. I realized that humans interact with machines and computers in many other ways than through apps on their phones. Everything that is used by a human needs to be considerate of their needs. The difference between a product that works and a product that works well is usability.

But I do ask myself how much I learned from the class? The reading had all of the information, even discussion posts were taken from the book. And if you’re able to use those resources on your own then that’s great. But it’s always good to re-iterate the information, and going over the dense material in class was helpful to solidify those concepts. Luckily our instructor was extremely reachable and available, and was an important resource to have. The textbook is dense, hearing another human talk about it made it much more clearer.

Here is a list of my classes. I’ll be covering each class in an article much like this before the class is wrapping up. “Technology Intensive” starts in early January.