Working Memory Limitations vs. the Size of Problem

Three BLind Men and an Elephant Proverb

The illustration above comes from Wikipedia, which has a complete entry on the Asian proverb about blind monks who examine an elephant and generate multiple hypotheses of what it could be. In product design speak, these monks are doing collaborative problem solving with a shared goal of identifying a mysterious object—the elephant. The monks, the story goes, all come from different backgrounds: an old tailor touching an elephant’s ear describes it as cloth; an aging gardner hugging the leg imagines a tree trunk; an elephant’s tusk is envisioned as a weapon by an arms master. Each monk brings his own life’s worth of experience to bear on the problem, but each has very limited access to the whole. It’s easy to see how this story can be used to explain the pains of collaborative and cooperative group projects in which individuals focus on product design. Each person brings their own expertise to the table, hopefully contributing positively to the whole process. But this story is also a good metaphor for understanding problem solving in context of our very limited working memory capacity. Unlike elementary school math problems that we all calculated, real world problems are messy and don’t come with…

Cognitive Blindness: Super-recognizers

Health Check, the BBC World Service’s weekly round up of global health stories, did an audio broadcast on super-recognizers—people with extraordinary abilities to recognize faces. You can listen to the entire story by Claudia Hammond at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8665805.stm This story deals with differences in ability to recognize faces. There are people who are so bad at it that it is a pathology—when a mother can’t recognize her child among the pupils in the day care center, it’s more than inconvenient. Then there are all those embarrassing moments when you meet someone at a party for what you think is the first time only to have that person insist that you’ve met before. And the far end of the continuum, there are the super-recognizers—individuals that never forget a face even after a very brief interaction. We only now recognize the fact of super-recognizer, because most of us are not too bad and not too good at facial recognition—we are mostly average. And our average ability to recognize faces limits our ability to spot people who could do better. We were experiencing cognitive blindness—inability to perceive cognitive differences in abilities of others. And super-recognizers, similarly, didn’t know that they were somehow different from…

Error Opportunity Space

Confronted with one “True or False” question, an individual has a very small error opportunity space: three. There are three possible responses: true, false, or no answer. “No answer” will always be wrong, a betting man should choose one of the possible answers. But unfortunately situations where the error opportunity space is so narrow are rare. And in the real world, dealing with real problems, these spaces tend to be very large. Note that the size of the error opportunity space, EOS, makes no representations about the consequences of getting the problem right or wrong (or partially right or wrong). When the stock market tanked on May 7th, people involved in that process had a very large EOS. A week out, experts and participants are trying to figure out what went wrong and how to limit similar incidents in the future—they are trying, in effect, to drastically reduce the error opportunity space. This is a job of product designers. By analyzing the goals of the users and the system’s constraining variables, we can come up with conceptual design, interaction design, and interface design that would address the problems that were exposed on May 7th. Coming up with a solution is…

The Anatomy of Failure

On May 7th 2010, at around 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time, the stock market went on a wild ride, dropping over 900 points in matter of just minutes. What happened? There’s lot’s of speculation, and some know more then they are willing to say. But what’s clear is that there was just the right confluence of world events, human and computer errors, and system-wide communication breakdown that triggered a mass sell-off of stocks at fantastic prices. In other words, there was a catastrophic failure during product interaction. I’m not an investment analyst and have limited knowledge in this subject area, but I am interested in product failure. So Thursday’s stock market episode was very interesting. Here’s a little background on the events of that day broken down into steps leading to the failure. Step 1: When the New York stock market opened on Thursday, bad news was streaming in from Europe—there were fears that Greece would ultimately default on its loans; its people were staging massive demonstrations in Athens; Euro was going down. Step 2: In our very interconnected world, this kind of news makes investors skittish and the stock market was dropping value all morning. Step 3: At around 2:45…

Globalization and Cultural Errors

Jew's Ear Juice

There was a time when a product designed for a specific geopolitical region would have stayed there for the duration of its existence. With few exceptions, products didn’t travel the world to areas where they would be considered a fopaux. These products were cultural curiosities displayed by adventurous tourists for the pleasure and laughs of their friends and family. But things change. Product design and usability protocols now have to include culture experts. What works well in one place, for one group of users, at a particular time won’t do so under other circumstances.

Before you cast that vote on the ballot this November…

Article: McGrath, M (2008). “Political views ‘all in the mind’.” BBC World Service. Visited on 18 September 2008 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7623256.stm Conceptual Design —  to investigate the level of connection between a person’s political views and her/his physiological makeup, e.g. that person’s sensitivity to fear or threat. Interaction Design — small study targeting potential voters, exposing them to various sights & sounds that may provoke fear, and checking their responses against their political views on multiple issues.  Subjects were first asked a series of questions regarding their political views on multiple issues (like gun control, capital punishment, abortion, etc.).  Then, using electrical conductance to measure subjects’ skin & blink responses, they were exposed to a series of intentionally frightful images & sounds.  This is used to determine their levels of sensitivity to fears & threats Interface Design — creepy images like a scared man with a tarantula on his face, and an open wound with maggots in it, and loud, unexpectedly intrusive noises Summary — while this study is geographically limited (conducted only in Nebraska) and statistically insignificant (n=46), it does offer an interesting hypothesis that people who are highly sensitive to threats & fears tend to support a right-wing agenda. From…

Neuro-Parasites & Problem Solving Errors

Dr. Robert Sapolsky is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. He started his career studying baboons, charting the relationship between stress hormones and an individual animal’s social ranking in the baboon society hierarchy. The lower the rank, the more stress the animal experiences, the more consequences there are to the health outcomes and longevity of the baboon. Making a parallel to human society, the conclusions of Dr. Sapolsky’s study is that it sucks to be at the bottom of the social order. In his books “Primate’s Memoir” and “Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” Dr. Sapolsky provides copious details of his work and his conclusions. (see Recommended Books for details) But residing on the bottom of the social ladder is not the only problem a mammal like us can experience. In his video interview with Edge (www.Edge.org), Dr. Sapolsky describes the adventures of Toxoplasma–a protozoan parasite carried by cats which causes an infection Toxo–in our amygdala. Post an active infectious state, Toxo is able to manipulate human dopamine levels. People with the post-Toxo infection have higher than normal dopamine levels, resulting in some interesting cognitive consequences. There’s been solid research that documents a high level of Toxo infections in schizophrenic patients. There…