All posts by Sri

Usability – A Psychologist’s View

User Experience, more easily called UX, is in vogue these days and appropriately so given that complex products with new technologies are finding their way into user hands. So, UX needs to be good (compelling, as some might want to call) with these products.

No matter how hard we generalize an experience to be great for the user base, it comes down to individual differences that need to be factored in to determine what that experience is to a user. Of course, UX is never intended to be 100% compelling – ideally it can serve a bell shaped user base and claim success.

Before we go into these generalities, we need to understand what UX is. And then see how we can enable the products we design and build to provide a good experience to the user.

UX is not just relative to a product’s use but to all phases of its lifecycle (product lifecycle) such as awareness, acquisition, setup, learning, use and end of use/upgrade. However, when we evaluate UX, we generally look at the product use and determine what it was like and come to conclusions. The conclusions are more like usability conclusions rather than UX conclusions because the evaluation is isolated to product use.

Given that the use part of the product life-cycle is the most important from an experience perspective (because one has to live with a product for “some” time), it is not a bad thing to focus on usability. After all, not every part of the product lifecycle need be experienced by the same user. For example, I may be presented with a toy that was ready-to-use-set-up for me that I start to use right away. In this scenario, I have no context of the experiences relating to awareness, acquisition or setup. Someone else may have experienced those phases of the toy’s life-cycle.

Now to the product use experience, which we may call usability, kind of makes or breaks the usage. If I am frustrated using the toy it’s because I can’t revolve it, even though its core function is exactly that. Technically it’s capable of revolving but I just can’t make it do that for a myriad of reasons – it slips from my delicate hands, its knob too hard to push or simply I had no idea how to operate because there is no clue how it can be done in spite of my vigorous exploration.

So how to get this toy to rate high on usability? We can certainly tinker it to work the way we want but that can be dear. As designers and developers, we need to include usability as a core function in the design/development life-cycle of the product. This is different from the product life cycle I mentioned earlier. One is pre-product and the other is post-product.

The key to incorporating usability in the product design/development is to involve “users” early and iteratively test until you achieve a desired level of usability.

Advanced Recycling and Reuse in India When Growing Up but Now ……

I will let the picture speak for itself relative to the last part of the title. For the rest of the positive part of the title, the following should suffice which is extracted from a book I wrote:

Alex: We are in a world of recycling, reuse. We want to minimize the impact on the environment given our modern day consumptions and uses. You say when you were growing up, India was pretty advanced in this area?

Sri: Absolutely! The paper guy would come home to pick up all our old newspaper and pay us by weight for it. The bottles guy would pick up all our glass bottles and pay us. The street vendors would serve food in almond leaves and our spoons would be flat wood sticks. In wedding lunches or dinners, all food is served on banana or straw knitted almond leaves. Finally, in train stations tea used to be served in earthen cups. I will let folks listening conclude how these are environmentally helpful!

Alex: Very well said. Pick up the signaling button and make your next selection – you are in command of the board.

Time for Traffic Sense – Resist the Rouge Drivers Out There

It is often said, the driver license is a privilege and not a right. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, it is often a misused privilege given the number of traffic violations that occur on America’s roads. I generally feel happy when I find that a cop had stopped a car on the highway and possibly was issuing a ticket to the driver for some traffic infraction. But do all traffic violations deserve a ticket? There may be any number of arguments that side with the violating driver: too many traffic laws that are hard to remember; some trivial or obscure laws that really do not serve any practical purpose other than raking money from the imposed tickets; some human errors that just cannot be avoided given the conditions and the person who is driving; etc. While I wanted to highlight this aspect, my intent is not to categorically defend the violating driver. I wanted to throw a different light related to traffic laws, some of them, that somehow discourage the conscientious driver from being the due diligent traffic rules follower. That’s a shame and you might see why.

When I look at the traffic laws, they are generally very clear in their intent and the displays and other communications that convey them often come to be standardized. A 55 sign board means that from the point of that board the speed limit is 55 miles per hour. And pretty much all 55 sign boards across America are the same in their look and feel. Although, often I find that they are taken lightly as when drivers tend to go at least 5 miles faster than the posted speed limit and that the cops look askance at such an infraction. So why not make a 55 speed limit 60, one might argue but another might argue then the norm (of how the drivers would adapt to the 5 miles-over concept) would become 65. Then the one who argued for 60 would argue that the limit be now 50 so that the norm would, although adjust to 55, would still nicely fit with the original 55. While such an idea generally serves the purpose of keeping the traffic flowing at 55 because a majority of drivers are violating the law and going 5 miles over, it beats the purpose of a law. It also “punishes” those drivers, like me, who strictly want to follow the law. How?

On a single lane highway, I am driving at the posted speed, let’s say 55. Would I be comfortable driving that way? Not at all, not because I didn’t have the will to keep sticking to 55 but because other drivers behind me tailgate to an extent where it becomes dangerous. One is pushed; one succumbs to the push and increases the speed in the hope that one can avoid being tailgated further. But does it work? Not really! One will only be forced to speed up further if there is a crazy driver behind. So the call here for all the conscientious drivers is to resist. I set my speed at exactly the speed limit with my cruise control and avoid altogether the pressure to succumb from the rouge driver behind me. Of course, cruise control may not be conducive for all speeds and without considerable experience using it, must not be used in certain conditions. There are other ways the good driver who is being pushed can resist: temporarily turn the rear view mirror or when possible, give a nasty stare in that mirror; but more importantly, just don’t give a damn to the driver behind who is pushing. The good driver is not breaking the law; the driver behind is! When I last knew, tailgating is a law breakage.

Let me now turn a bit on some traffic laws that openly encourage drivers to violate other traffic laws. These laws while are mutually exclusive seem like they are conditional to each other’s working. Here is a scenario: I am driving on a mountainous, winding one lane 55-speed highway. I am alone so far in my direction. I see a traffic law board explaining that one needs to take a turnout to allow other vehicles to pass if the number of vehicles behind gets to be around 10. After a while vehicles start to accumulate behind me pretty quickly because I am maintaining the speed limit even as I am at the max speed of 55 and the other vehicles obviously are in a haste. There are now about 10 vehicles behind me – don’t ask me how I counted. A little later I notice a turnout. Being the traffic law abider I am, I take the turnout and let all those fast vehicles pass and then I merge back on to the highway. If I continue to drive within the speed limit, I would cause a repeat of the scenario I just described. If I chase the vehicles I let pass, I could potentially get a ticket from a lurking cop but unlikely I would pass the first vehicle when a new turnout appears. Because the speeding first vehicle would not take the turnout, perhaps would not even notice one; the speeding vehicle driver would outrun all the vehicles so that he or she is alone and can conveniently avoid the turnout. From this example, you can clearly see that there is benefit to the driver who is violating the speed limit. And that is a shame!

On interstates and other freeways, the left-most lane is often considered the fast lane. How fast is the question! Independent of how one labels a lane, one can only go as fast as the posted speed limit to conform to the law. So in the so called fast lane one may not go beyond the speed limit and if one is touching the speed limit one is going the fastest lawfully permissible. Very good! Now, if I happened to be the driver who is driving at and sticking to the max of the speed limit, why should someone, in the name of using the fast lane expect me to move over to let them pass – emergency and other authorized vehicles are excepted, of course? That’s the norm, ain’t it? But I am sorry; I would refuse to give way. And you should too! Often times I notice that drivers, in order to please those who are pushing them, like a battered spouse syndrome, want to move over to the right lane to let the “pusher” pass. But what they don’t realize is that they get too close in front of another vehicle that is in the lane they merged into and cause a potential hazard.

I would like to suggest a few innovative ideas I wanted to implement for my vehicles. I never did implement them for reasons that I had no expertise myself and never sought help from others either. One is to have an additional horn that when used is directed at a vehicle behind mine. This would be useful to ward off the rouge drivers who almost want to kiss my bumpers (rear mud guards). The other is to have a marquee that is clearly visible to the rouge driver behind my vehicle on which I can “text message” as desired, hopefully by dictation. For example, I can message “YOU ARE TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT”. I could get nastier without being uncivilized. You probably are realizing that I am on a mission to resist traffic violators, working within the traffic system and without violating any traffic laws myself. I consider these actions kind of analogous to Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience to resist the British rule in India.

I can rant about a whole lot of other traffic related violations that really annoy and distract me. As a driver there is not much I can do except for using a honk here and giving a nasty stare there. I frequently see drivers throwing their cigarette butts on to the road as they are driving. My response, if I can positively identify the car from where the butt was thrown, is to give a directed honk. I also pretty regularly find myself glared at by high beam lights from the vehicles behind. What I do in this case is indicate to the driver behind me by adjusting my rear view mirror several times when possible. If this doesn’t help, dim the rear view mirror – I don’t have the auto dimming feature – and turn my side view mirror if I am getting the glare from it too. And sometimes I gently tap the break several times in rapid succession to somehow convey that the lights from the car behind me that are reflecting from my mirrors are too bright for my eyes. (I am told such behavior is actually aggressive but I don’t think so if I am doing it in a scenario I described above.) If I had my rear marquee perhaps I can communicate more effectively.

Finally, I will leave with another of my resistance tactics. I am being tail gated on a 35-mile road. At some point on the road I need to take a right turn into a narrow lane. I would considerably slow down and turn leisurely. You could do the same in one of two ways and frustrate the tailgater. You could look in the mirror as you turn – a silent taunting, if you will or you could altogether ignore the fact that there is a car behind you. The latter would make your turn more natural but would still frustrate your tailgater. And when you finally park your car, wherever, you can look into your rear view mirror and enjoy your own broad smile.

As a final note, it is best to do the defensive driving thingy to be safe but if you are following the rules and others are not, there is no reason to be too defensive – as long as safety is maintained. Feel free to comment on your experiences when you were following the rules of the road and others were not.

“Leechy” Financial Institutions That Received Bailouts

Big financial institutions which were pretty much melting away during the Bush administration (the one under whose administration 9/11 happened) had to be bailed out because they were considered too big to fail. How pathetic! These institutions that were bailed out were cowardly, and leechy on middle class customers.

Those that ardently support and embrace capitalism must show a sense of fair and balance. Some of these capitalistic zealots don’t have a problem supporting the leechy financial institutions in terms of bailouts but invoke capitalistic competition when it comes to financially poor people who might demand a living wage for the hard work they do. If you have this kind of a twisted position, how do you sleep at night?

How Not to Do it

The following is a reference to workplace related design but you can see how it has implications to any design effort, particularly when we want to enable a good user experience.

In a classic narrative Mark S Sanders and late Ernest J McCormick, Human Factors Psychologist and Industrial Psychologist respectively, recall one of their conversations with a few engineers regarding nuclear power plant displays’ console design. One of the authors, as a consultant, met with two engineers to discuss the console. Additional background to the following conversation was that there was a scale drawing of a preliminary design with no mock-up (and no intent to create one either). “The consultant asked the engineers to ‘walk him through’ the console so he could become familiar.”

Here is the verbatim of the conversation Sanders and McCormick (1993) wrote in their book:

Engineers: These are the six XYZ concentrate indicators.

Consultant: What is the operator’s task here? Does the operator have to read a specific value, compare values between indicators, or use these indicators while manipulating controls?

Engineers: We really don’t know – that is Operations’ responsibility. We will see that someone from Operations come in later to answer your questions.

[The Operations office was 25 miles from the office where the preliminary design was developed. And I believe there was no Internet, leave alone the Lync, at that time.]

Engineers: Let’s continue. This is a digital readout that directs the operator’s sequence of actions.

Consultant: How does the operator use that? What displays and controls are referred to by the readout? How much time does the operator have to respond to the display?

Engineers: We really don’t know – that is Operations’ responsibility.

Consultant (now becoming a little irritated): Exactly what did the two of you have to do with this console anyway?

Engineers: We designed it! Each of us started at a different end, and we laid out the displays going across. We then compared the layouts and selected the parts from each we liked the best.

Consultant: I think this would be a good time for a coffee break.


Sanders, M.S., & McCormick E J (1993). Human Factors in Engineering and Design (7th ed.). McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Let Former Felons Vote – We Are a Democracy, Aren’t We?

In recent news heard of restoration of voting rights to former felons in Virginia. The state’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, was instrumental in doing this. This is indeed laudable. When a convicted felon has served the society through incarceration or whatever penalties imposed on them and completed the punishment, it is time to let them be able to vote. Otherwise, democracy has no meaning.

I heard of some folks opposed to the governor, referred the action to taking political advantage for potentially helping Hillary Clinton (the democratic presidential candidate – still campaigning in the primary at the time of this opinion). This is absurd! After all, the former felons could be of any political leaning, democratic or republican or for that matter, independent. Just because their voting rights are restored doesn’t mean they would vote for a candidate that the governor supports. It is a stupid argument, to say the least, to think otherwise.

I did a little review of the state of the different states’ position on this issue. A lot of gaps to fill. I hope the other states will follow suit and adopt governor McAuliffe’s position.