Mental Model Traps

Mental Model Traps result from an erroneous representation of how something works.

Community of Practice and Knowledge Propagation Circle

This summer my family and I travelled to Rome. While the temperatures didn’t reach the usual astronomic heights, it was rather warm. But we, and other visitors, didn’t have to worry about thirst. Rome has the best network of public drinking fountains that I have ever seen. Every few blocks, there’s a beautifully-designed basin with a spigot of continuously running water (I know, being from California, the never-ending stream made us very uncomfortable, too). There are two bits of information that have to be passed on to the first-time visitors of Rome: the water is potable—safe to drink, and how to use the fountain—there’s a bit of a trick to them. Above is my son demonstrating a little secret interaction. There’s a small hole on the top of the pipe that can serve as drinking fountain if the main hole at the end is plugged up (with a finger). While we learned about the great drinking water in Rome from many traveling guides (books, online sites, etc.), we obviously didn’t know about the trick until we watched a pro do it. Knowledge Propagation Circle Information propagates through communities. When we first encounter a novel bit of data, it tends to…

p-Prims about Memory

Memory can be tricky—somethings seem to come to mind without bidding, while others are stubbornly evading our efforts at recalling them. We have many explanations for how and why somethings are easy to remember and others take so much effort; or why some people are very good at mnemonic feats and others not so much. Many of these mental models of how memory works are faulty (or simply not true) and are based on folksy wisdom passed from one generation to the next. Some of these wisdoms involve tricks for remembering things. For example, my Russian grandmother suggested tying corners of handkerchief to aide memory—if you notice a knot on the corner, you know that there’s something you supposed to remember. Since I don’t carry a handkerchief, I use my rings for the same effect—move a ring from finger to another (where it typically doesn’t belong) and then at least I know that should be keeping something in mind. Of course this strategy does nothing to help you remember what it is you are supposed to remember, but that’s another problem. So I thought to put together a little list of memory-related p-prims—a set of beliefs—that are common in our culture. Below,…

p-prims can be dangerous

Some p-prims are harmless, but some can lead to serious bodily harm. The image above shows villages in Indonesia lying on an electrified railway track. Why? They believe this will improve their health. Their p-prim has to do with medicine: “electricity can cure some diseases.” This is not totally untrue, as is the case with all p-prims. Ultrasound therapy helps heal certain muscle strains, and the ultrasound machine runs on electricity. Heat lamps are also commonly used therapeutically. And they too require electricity. There are many, many other examples. It’s easy to explain how such folksy wisdom gets passed around the community. The problem with this particular p-prim is the resulting decisions that people make based on their beliefs in the curative power of electricity. How would a poor farmer in Rawa Buaya, outside Jakarta, get electricity? The most accessible source is this railway track. A tragedy is only a train away…

Knowledge, Context, & Expectation

These are three necessary components of any product design: Knowledge: the background information that forms the foundation of product design Context: the ecosystem in which the product will be used Expectation: the alignment of goals between product creators and the users for which it was designed A failure to fully understand any of the above variables results in errors that propagate throughout the product system. But what if the product is disaster preparedness? Consider the design of an evacuation plan ahead of a disaster. You would need to understand the what kinds of damage the disaster is capable of wrecking; the probabilities for each outcome; the people and the ecosystem in which the disaster will occur; and expectations of all the participants in the evacuation plans. Tsunami and The Zoo A few years ago, I was teaching a fifth grade science class where we were discussing the possible damage from a tsunami in San Francisco (we just visited the Bay Model). The problem I posed to the students was to design a reasonable evacuation plan for The San Francisco Zoo animals. The Zoo lies on the tsunami flood plane, and as far as we knew there was no plan for…

Information Awareness & Failure Analysis

Given the current state of affairs in Japan’s nuclear facilities, I thought it would be good to do a quick analysis of what’s going wrong and why the officials on the ground act as they do (based on very limited information that’s trickling in via the news sources). As of today (morning of March 14th), we have two reactors that have experienced explosions, partial core meltdowns, and multiple other failures. I’ve put together data from the news with failure analysis for an alternative view of the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan. Like many aspects of usability, FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) was the first to develop practical understanding of Information Awareness and Failure Analysis—pilots and airplane designers what to minimize errors in flight and understand failure when it happens. Like the rest of the world, I’m extremely grateful for their insight into these two aspects of systems design and usability. Below is a quick introduction to the basics. Information Awareness Information Awareness is a wonderful term that describes the state of user’s knowledge of the problem at any particular time. This means that Information Awareness changes in time and from person to person. For designers of a complex system that aims…

The Value of Trust in Search

There was an interesting article published on the New York Times the other day: “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search.” The article documented the use of Black Hat SEO strategies on behalf of J. C. Penny, leading J. C. Penny to be at the top of multiple Google search results for months. While J. C. Penny didn’t disclose the boost in revenues that the number one placement on Google search produced during the 2010 Christmas shopping season, we can assume it was substantial. The article raises several alarms: How prevalent is the use of “Black Hat” CEO techniques among large commercial companies selling their services online? Since J. C. Penny is a customer worth several million of ad dollars to Google, did Google (for a time) look the other way? [30-11-2010, BBC News: “EU launches antitrust probe into alleged Google abuses,” last visited on 02-14-2011.] Google administers “Google Hell” punishment to the companies that use “Black Hat” strategies to beat its search ranking algorithms. There’s no court, no arbitration, no negotiation. The company simply vanishes from Google search results. These are all about trust. We—the average online citizens—rely on search results for so many needs now. We research our medical…

Thinking About Value

Which car do you find more pleasing? Which car would evoke a feeling of envy? Would you shake your head or starting thinking of how you can improve on the looks of your car? Which car’s origin would you place in the South Asia? Which in South America? Which owner cares about the aerodynamic qualities of the vehicle? Regardless of your personal feelings, the owners of these automobiles have clearly invested a tremendous amount of energy and effort into making them look like this and are very proud of the results! Telling a Story Each of the vehicles above tells a story about its owner and about its culture. The story conveys information: the owner’s goals for the car: utility or status symbol or both cultural value of design cultural symbols owner’s attitude towards possessions (e.g.: How long is the car expected to stay with one owner?) owner’s place in the social hierarchy owner’s unique identity owner’s investment into the vehicle (e.g.: time, money, skill, etc.) the perceived value of the vehicle to its owner These stories of cars and their owners change from culture to culture, from place to place, and of course in time. What we consider beautiful…