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User Experience Magazine: Volume 5, Issue 3, 2006

User Experience magazine cover Volume 5, Issue 2, 2006

Volume 5, Issue 3, 2006

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Feature Articles



Press Release

IGNORING ALARMS: Turning Off Technology with Deadly Results (September 6, 2006)





Finding Uses for New Technology: Moving with a Magic Thing
By Anu Kankainen

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The article introduces a user research method called “moving with a magic thing” that can be used for discovering appropriate markets for technology-pushed mobile products. The method was originally developed by Giulio Jacucci, but the author and her colleagues have fine-tuned it and applied to fit client projects.

“Moving with a magic thing” is a field method. Users are met in their environment and given a “dummy” mock-up of a mobile device. They are told what functionality the device has and are asked to show what they would like the magic device to do for them as part of their daily activities.

To collect more scenarios, users can be asked to also create a “moving with a magic thing” photo diary. After the initial observation day, they are given a digital camera for a week and asked to take pictures of the situations where they would use “the magic thing”. At the end of the week, users are interviewed based on the photos they have taken.

This method results in high-level use scenarios which do not come from brainstorming activities conducted in a meeting room but are based on the observation of users in real contexts.

The author and her colleagues have created a template to report the use scenarios discovered in the study. Having a template is essential for consistency purposes, especially when conducting similar studies across countries and with several different UX teams. The template is presented in the article as well as examples illustrating its use. The author describes lessons learned when using the “moving with a magic thing” method for client projects.


Cultural Probes: Understanding User Context
By John Murphy

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One of the latest techniques in the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) community is a data collection mechanism called cultural probes. These were introduced by William Gaver, an academic based at the London Royal College of Art in 1999 in the publication Interactions. Since then, they have been discussed, developed and used extensively in the academic HCI research. Although industry practitioners are starting to adopt cultural probes, there are still many questions around the usefulness and practical application of this technique. This is not a simple question and as Gaver says, “the use of probes is geared towards design generation, not problem solution.” This article describes probes, when they are useful, challenges, and how to analyze the rich data collected using the technique.

For Further Reading:

  • Gaver W, Boucher A, Pennington S, and Walker B. (2004). Cultural Probes and the value of uncertainty. Interactions, 11(5), 53-56.
  • Gaver W, Dunne A, & Pacenti E. (1999) Design: Cultural Probes. Interactions 6(1), 21–29.
  • Kjeldskov J. (2005) Department of Computer Science, Aalborg University. jesper@cs.aau.dk
  • Kjeldskov J, Gibbs M, Vetere F, Howard S, Pedell S, Mecoles K and Bunyan M (2004). Using Cultural Probes to Explore Mediated Intimacy. Australasian Journal of Information Systems (2)102-115
  • Light, A. (April 2004), Cultural Probes offer a Different Human-Centred Design Tool Source: Usability News.com, British HCI Group.

Acknowledgements to the IDEA laboratory team at the Department of Information Systems in The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.


Alarm Reliability: What If an Alarm Goes Off and No One Hears It?
By Avi Harel

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Unlike IT applications, in which the users may work with the sound turned off, sound is essential for reliable alerting of control systems. A common characteristic of control systems is that the users interact with the system in bursts; in normal situations they can feel relaxed and idle, but in exceptional situations the interaction becomes effortful and intensive.

A main function of control systems is to alert the users about deviations from normal conditions, and the single most important feature of alerting is reliability, namely, that the users can rely on the system alarm. The challenge for designers of control programs, especially of those used in safety-critical and mission-critical systems, is to enable carefree interaction, so that the users do not need to worry about missing the sound alarms. This enables the users to focus on their main jobs, and to handle emergency situations successfully.

To make sure that the users are aware of the alarm, we need to ensure that the system generates alarming sounds, which are audible and well distinguished from background noise and other operational sounds. Traditional sound design does not support this requirement sufficiently; the users are required to continuously stay tuned to hear the test sound, and to identify situations when the alarm sounds are missing or below hearing threshold.

The article demonstrates the need for developing new technologies and utilities that will continuously test sound audibility. The article also presents guidelines for ensuring that the users pay attention to sound alarms: the alarms should be well distinguished from sounds used in normal operation, and the sources of false alarms should be carefully analyzed, to ensure that their rate is minimized.

Postscript: Using Sound for Alerting: Lessons from the War with Hezbollah
This postscript is written in Haifa, Israel on July 25, 2006.

It is now two weeks since Hezbollah began to bombard Haifa using Syrian missiles and Iranian rockets. On the average, there are about two daily attacks, each consisting of about five bombs. Loud sirens have preceded most of the attacks, but some of them were too late. Eventually, we can see that small children absorb their parent's anxiety, and are frightened by the sirens much more than by the bombs (typically, most of the hits are quite distant).

The defense authorities claim that they are not always sure whether the situation is dangerous, and that their policy is to always alert in case of doubt. On the average, we have about four daily false alarms (as I am writing these lines we experience two false alarms in half an hour). People’s reaction to over-alerting is to disregard the sirens, ignoring the risks of real attacks.

Another problem with the alerting system is that the sirens sound for the beginning of the alert situations, but not for their end. Therefore, people are not sure when it is safe to leave the shelters. Basically, there are two situations where the alarms occur. The most frequent situation is when the radar systems of the Patriot batteries detect the missiles after they have been launched. In this case, the missiles might hit within a minute. The radar systems provide predictions for the hits, and the alarms are sounded only at the predicted zones. A less frequent situation occurs when observers see the Hezbollah people actually preparing to fire. In this case, the alarm is valid for about ten minutes, but their target is unknown. Therefore, the alarm is intended for the whole northern part of Israel, but the precise time of the alert situation is unknown.

A direct consequence of the two problems (false alarms and fuzzy alarm termination) is that many people often disregard the alarm, or react too slowly, and when the shells hit close to where they are, they are often surprised. Yesterday, a curious woman went out to her house balcony “to see the hits,” and came in to the house only after her husband shouted at her, just few seconds before a missile hit the balcony. She was lucky, but last week another person in Naharia (a town north of Haifa) was unlucky. He was killed at the shelter’s entrance, just after urging his wife and daughter to come in first.


Point, Counterpoint: What Three Experts Have to Say about Speech Usability
By Melanie D. Polkosky, Susan L. Hura, Juan Gilbert

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Abstract: Speech technology has rapidly growing focus in industry and the importance of usability in creating successful speech systems is gaining recognition. The speech technology industry suffers from several issues unique to this modality. Using speech as an interaction modality calls forth different aspects of user behavior than visually-based technologies and involves aspects of human communication and social behavior that are not well understood in applied work. Also, due to new demands of the speech modality, existing methods of usability testing are insufficient for the unique needs of speech. 

This article presents several views of usability issues in speech technology. Three respondents address questions in three areas: 1) the definition of speech usability, 2) usability and design, and 3) usability testing methodology. Our respondents are three professionals who represent the range educational backgrounds currently involved in speech technology design, and are currently working in the speech industry.

For Further Reading

  • Bevan, N.  (1995). Measuring usability as quality of use.  Software Quality Journal, 4, 115-130.
  • Gray, W. & Salzman, M.  (1998a).  Damaged merchandise?  A review of experiments that compare usability evaluation methods.  Human-Computer Interaction, 13(3), 203-261.
  • Gray, W. & Salzman, M.  (1998b).  Repairing damaged merchandise:  A rejoinder.  Human-Computer Interaction, 13(3), 325-335.
  • Gupta, P. & Gilbert, J.E. (2005). Speech Usability Metric: Evaluating Spoken Language Systems. 11th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, Las Vegas, Nevada, CD-ROM.
  • Hartson, H.R., Andre, T., & Williges, R.  (2001).  Criteria for evaluating usability evaluation methods.  International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 13(4), 373-410.
  • Hassenzahl, M.  (2001).  The effect of perceived hedonic quality on product appealingness.  International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 13(4), 481-499.
  • Hertzum, M. & Jacobsen, N.  (2001).  The evaluator effect:  A chilling fact about usability evaluation methods.  International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 13(4), 421-444.
  • Nielsen, J.  (1993).  Usability engineering.  San Diego:  Academic Press.
  • Olson, G., & Moran, T.  (1998).  Commentary on “damaged merchandise?”  Human-Computer Interaction, 13(3), 263-323.
  • Pruitt, J., & Adlin, T.  (2006).  The persona lifecycle:  Keeping people in mind throughout product design.  San Francisco:  Morgan Kaufmann.

Auditory Displays in Healthcare
By Penelope Sanderson

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Anyone who has spent any time in a critical care area of a hospital is aware how noisy it can be. There is so much noise that one group of researchers went so far as to suggest there should be a department of sound in every hospital to monitor and control noise pollution.

This article gives an introduction to the several types of audible feedback in use, including earcons (constructed short melodies), auditory icons (everyday sounds used to convey meaning, though these are rare in healthcare), and other sonifications including parameter mapping, which is familiar from tools such as Geiger counters. Medical applications of various approaches discussed in this article include blood pressure, pulse oximetry, and respiratory measurements.

It is encouraging that medical equipment manufacturers are increasingly hiring HCI and HF practitioners to join product development teams. It is also encouraging that editors of healthcare journals such as Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, Quality and Safety in Healthcare, Journal of Clinical Monitoring and Computing, Anesthesia and Analgesia, and others are increasingly publishing papers that promote a user-centered design process. Despite this, medical electrical equipment manufacturers and members of standards committees could benefit from much greater awareness of the value that human factors and usability professionals can bring to equipment design, and the dangers of not taking such considerations into account.

For detailed illustrations of the alarm sounds recommended by ISO, see MedicalSounds_graphics.pdf.


  • Barrass, S. & Kramer, G. (1999) Using sonification. Multimedia Systems, 7, 23-31.
  • Blattner, M., Sumikawa, D., & Greenberg, R. (1989). Earcons and icons; theiry structure and common design principles. Human Computer Interaction. 4, 11-44.
  • Blike, G. T., (2004). Human factors engineering: It’s all about usability. ASA Newsletter, 68(10).
  • Brewster, S.A. (2002). Non-speech auditory output. In J. Jacko and A. Sears, A. (Eds.) The Human Computer Interaction Handbook Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (pp 220-239)
  • Brewster, S.A., Wright, P.C. and Edwards, A.D.N. A detailed investigation into the effectiveness of earcons. In Auditory Display: Sonification, Audification and Auditory Interfaces, edited by G. Kramer, SFI Studies in the Sciences of Complexity Proc. Vol. XVIII, Addison-Wesley, 1994, pp. 471-498.
  • Bridgland, I., & Menon, D. (2001). Monitoring medical devices: The need for a new evaluation methodology. British Journal of Anaesthesia, 87, 678-681.
  • Busch-Vishniac, I. J. West, J. E., Barnhill, C., Hunter, T., Orellana, D., & Chivukula, R. (2005). Noise levels in Johns Hopkins Hospital. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 118, 3629-3645.
  • Cabrera, I. N. & Lee, M. H. (2000). Reducing noise pollution in the hospital setting by establishing a departmentof sound: A survey of recent research on the effects of noise and music in health care. Preventive Medicine, 30, 339-345.
  • Craven, R. M., & Mcindoe, A. K. (1999). Continuous auditory monitoring: How much information do we register? British Journal of Anaesthesia, 83, 747-749.
  • Edworthy, J., Loxley, S., & Dennis, I. (1991). Improving auditory warning design: Relationship between warning sound parameters and perceived urgency. Human Factors, 33, 205-231.
  • Fitch, T. & Kramer, G. (1994). Sonifying the body electric: Superiority of an auditory over a visual display in a complex, multi-variate system. In G. Kramer (Ed), Auditory display: Sonification, audification and auditory interfaces. (pp. 307-326). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Gaver, W. 91997). Auditory interfaces. In M. Helander, T. Landauer, & P. Prabhu (Eds.), Handbook of Human Computer Interaction. Amsterdam: Elsevier. (pp. 1003-1042).
  • Kramer, G. (1994). Auditory display: Sonification, audification and auditory interfaces. SFI Studies in the Sciences of Complexity Proc. Vol XVIII. New York: Addison-Wesley.
  • IEC (2005). IEC60601-1-8: Medical electrical equipment—General requirements, tests and guidance for alarm systems in medical electrical equipment and medical electrical systems. Geneva, Switzerland: International Electrotechnical Commission.
  • ISO (1994). ISO 9703-2: Anaesthesia and respiratory care alarm signals – Part 2: Auditory alarm signals. International Organisation for Standardisation.
  • Morris, R. W., & Montano, S. R. (1996). Response times to visual and auditory alarms during anaesthesia. Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, 24, 682-684.
  • Morris, R. W., & Mohacsi, P. J. (2005). How well can anaesthetists discriminate pulse oximetry tones? Anesthesia and Intensive Care. 33, 497-500.
  • Sanderson, P., Crawford, J., Savill, A., Watson, M., & Russell, W. J. (2004). Visual and auditory attention in patient monitoring: A formative analysis. Cognition, Technology, & Work, 6(3), 172-185.
  • Sanderson, P., Wee, A. & Lacherez, P. (2006). Learnability and discriminability of melodic medical equipment alarms. Anaesthesia, 61, 142-147.
  • Santamore, D. C., & Cleaver, T. G. (2004). The sounds of saturation. Journal of Clinical Monitoring, 19, 89-92.
  • Sarter, N. (2006). Mulitmodal information presentation: Design guidance and research challenges. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 36, 439-445.
  • Schulte, G. T., & Block, F. E. (1992). Can people hear the pitch change on a variable-pitch pulse oximeter? Journal of Clinical Monitoring, 8, 198-2000.
  • Walker, B. & Nees, M. (2005). An agenda for research and development of multimodal graphs. Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Auditory Display (ICAD 2005). Limerick, Ireland, July 6-9.
  • Watson, M. & Sanderson, P. (2004). Sonification helps eyes-free respiratory monitoring and task timesharing. Human Factors, 46 (3), 497-517.
  • Watson, M. (2006). Scalable earcons: Bridging the gap between intermittent and continuous auditory displays. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Auditory Display (ICAD2006). Queen Mary University of London. 20-23 June.
  • Wee, A., & Sanderson, P. (in press). Effects of mnemonics in learnability of melodic alarms with registered nurses. Proceedings of the 50th Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. 16-20 October, San Francisco, CA.
  • Williams, S., & Beatty, P.C.W. (2005). Measuring the performance of audible alarms for anaesthesia. Physiological Measurement; 26, 571-81.

Additional notes:


Editor’s Note: Sonification—Its Time Has Arrived
By Aaron Marcus

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For Further Reading:

  • Bly, Sara (1982). “Presenting Information in Sound,” Proceedings, Human Factors in Computer Systems Conference (15-17 March 1982, Gaithersburg, MD), 1982, pp. 371-375.
  • Bly, Sara, et al. (1985). “Communicating with Sound.” Panel Session in  Buxton, William, Ed., Proc. SIGCHI, San Francisco, CA, USA., pp.  115-119,  ISBN:0-89791-149-0
  • Kramer, Gregory, ed. (1994).  Auditory Display: Sonification,  Audification and Auditory Interfaces, Proceedings Vol. XVIII, Santa Fe Institute, Studies in the Sciences of Complexity. Menlo Park: Addison–Wesley Publishing Co., Inc.
  • Preston, Alice, and Fowler, Susan (2004). “Yeah, I hear you: Why aren’t there more sounds and graphics in our applications?”  Workshop, Proc. UPA, 7-11 June 7-11, 2004, http://fast-consulting.com/upa sounds and graphics/UPA2004-AWResults.htm
  • For information on the neuroscience of music and sound, see Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain, 1998 (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/038078209X/ref=pd_bxgy_img_b/103-4624822-2295002?ie=UTF8). Also of interest: This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin, 2006, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0525949690/ref=s9_asin_image/103-4624822-2295002?n=283155.

What’s News: Make it Easy
By Tema Frank

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