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Design of Everyday Things: Drinking Water Fountain

9 Dec

Drinking water fountains are visible everywhere – airports, restrooms, parks. It’s a great way to let thirsty people, adults and children alike, to drink water when they are not in the comfort of their homes. It’s also a great way to waste water. More water goes down the drain than a person’s mouth. In absence of a cup or a glass, there is no better design available that minimizes loss of water.

A few months ago, I got off a flight at the Atlanta airport. I was thirsty and went straight to the first water fountain I saw.
Drinking water fountain - sensor activated

I first looked for a button to press or a knob to turn that would get me the water, just the way I’ve always done. When I couldn’t find it, the next second, I noticed a label that showed how to waive my hand under the fountain to activate the faucet. Oh, that’s helpful, I thought and was immediately impressed by the use of sensors in a water fountain. I waived my hand. Nothing happened. Waived again. And again. Nothing. A feeling of embarrassment clouded me, and I felt people looking at the idiot who couldn’t figure out how to waive a hand to activate the fountain. I quickly left and didn’t stop at the next fountain.

Two days later, while returning, I was again at the same airport. I decided to try waving my hand at a different fountain. It worked, and I felt smart again.

Drinking water fountain - mechanicalDesign issues

  1. Use of sensors is a good idea. Nobody touches the button. No more passing of germs from one hand to another, at least through a water fountain. This might be the reason the designers decided to use sensors.
  2. The designers ignored a fundamental design principle and the scenario when the sensors are not working: feedback.
  3. There is no way someone would know if the sensors are not working. A mechanical fountain has a button that people have to press. If they press the button and water doesn’t come out, that’s feedback enough indicating that the fountain is not working.
  4. What if my hands are not free, if I’m carrying something or a baby that I can’t put down? I can use, and have used, my body to press the button to drink water from a mechanical fountain but I can’t do it with this one.

Finally, if you need to use an illustration to show how to use an item as simple as a water fountain, that is, in my book, a bad design.

Related readings
Design of Everyday Things

An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

20 May

My wife and I have been planning to launch a technology-centric non-profit organization to serve the underprivileged kids in poor schools in India. Much research and analysis needs to be done, and it’s going to take us a few years to get everything right. Fundraising, needed to purchase hardware, would take a lot of time too. However, the software, which would be an online product utilizing an adaptive learning model, can be launched sooner, so that we can iterate rapidly and keep improving it.

On a very basic level, for third-grade math, here are the requirements.

A database of math questions with these fields:

  • Question ID
  • Difficulty level
  • Question number
  • Options
  • Correct option
  • Feedback

Adaptive algorithm

  • A multiple-choice question with four options is served.
  • When an option is selected and submitted, the option is compared with the correct option.
  • If correct, the corresponding feedback is displayed.
  • if incorrect, the corresponding feedback is displayed.
  • When the Continue button is clicked, the system checks if the question was answered correctly.
  • If true, another question at the same difficulty level is served to make sure the previous answer was not a fluke.
  • A total of three questions at the same difficulty level is served.
  • If all are answered correctly, the next question would be at a higher difficulty level.
  • If any question is answered incorrectly, more questions at the same difficulty level will be served.
  • If two or more questions are answered incorrectly in succession, a brief tutorial will be displayed showing how to solve the question.
  • The tutorial will be followed by a question at the same difficulty level.

Though there are multiple interpretations of “Adaptive Learning“, I interpret it as a learning model that adapts or shows content based on the users’ current performance. It’s not a one-size-fits-all product, which are common these days though the technology has made rapid advancements. Great content and a great algorithm can be integrated with the right hardware to teach the kids effectively. It’ll take time but I think it’s doable.

A Technology-Centric Non-Profit Organization

14 May

Learning is hard. For most people. Because most of us are average learners.

Learning is hard also because the teachers in schools are not well trained, the classroom size is large, the socio-economic status of some students is low, there are not enough resources in the classrooms, and/or the students don’t expend enough time and effort outside the classroom.

In developing countries like India, there are thousands of schools that suffer from these problems. Surviving on minuscule government funds and poor management, these schools fail to teach their students effectively.

Classroom - India

Classroom in India

A technology-centric non-profit organization
There are many non-profit organizations in India and the US that serve the underprivileged kids. They are focused on training teachers and arranging for resources. Is it possible to build and implement a technology-based learning product for such schools when these schools lack even basic computers?

This is a question my wife and I have set out to find answer to. A few years ago, we’d decided to found our own education-focused non-profit organization to help poor schools teach their kids. This model requires two things:

Software/Learning product: The learning product can use an adaptive model to help the kids learn by creating a personalized learning path.

Hardware: I envision two options.

  1. Cheap 10″ tablets embedded in the desks to prevent mobility and potential damage. This model can be used in the classroom under the teacher’s supervision.
  2. Large touchscreens in kiosk-style stations. This model can be used outside the classroom in common areas to foster group learning and collaboration.

In the next post, I’ll elaborate on my adaptive learning model.

An Adaptive Learning Model for K12

Don’t Fool Yourself …, Or Why Evaluation Is Important

7 Apr

In 2006, when I was attending Stanford University School of Education for my master’s degree, we were working on our master’s project. One of our professors, who is an expert on evaluation, came to our class to discuss evaluation of our projects. He started by saying:

“Don’t fool yourself into believing that you are developing a great product.”

It was a shocker for us as we all completely believed that we were indeed on our way to developing great products. My project was intended to make it easy for school children to view 3D animations on 3D monitors on concepts that were difficult to visualize in 2D, for example, the rotations and revolutions of planets and the atomic structure of molecules. It was the greatest idea of all time. Why did I need to conduct an evaluation for such a simple, yet powerful concept?

We learned a lot that day, especially not overestimating the usefulness and effectiveness of our ideas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to evaluate our projects so we completed our program and set out, starry-eyed. to change the world.

However, people in real world who develop products and services don’t always care about the users of those products and services. They come up with innovative ideas (or so they think), and start working on the ideas with the premise that they are developing great products. Case in point: Windows 8, iTunes Ping, Google Plus. They ask the users what they think about those ideas, and, thanks to confirmation bias, come back with user feedback that confirm the greatness of their ideas.

They fool themselves into believing that they are developing a great product. They don’t want to look at the analytics because that would disprove their hypothesis. And I have been as guilty of this crime as anyone else.

The right way: Startup companies

Startup companies too start with the premise that they are working on the world’s greatest idea. And they are right. If they don’t think that way, they wouldn’t risk everything to work on that idea. They spend years developing, launching, evaluating, and iterating on their idea. Their best friend? Usage analytics, which gives them insights into how many people are using their products, where, and when. How many people are visiting what parts of the product more? What macro-level trends are visible? Does making a minor change in a color shade increase or decrease the usage of a page or a field?

More than 90% of startup companies die within two years of launching because of several reasons. But they all know how useful and effective their products are (or not) thanks to analytics data. Analytics do not always save an idea but they help fail early, fail fast, fail often, and help people learn and move on. They can fool themselves but not for long. And that’s why evaluation is critical to developing great products.

Design Of Everyday Things: Faucets

16 Jan

Bad design
A few years ago, at Cincinnati/Norther Kentucky airport restroom, I saw a sign above the wash basins that read something like this – “The faucet may not operate if your clothes are dark colored”. This was a classic example of a designer hellbent on incorporating the sensor technology into a product without thinking about the end user. If you wore dark clothes and wanted to wash your hands, you were out of luck! Fortunately, those faucets are gone now.

Another bad design
In my office, the faucets in the restroom dispense water if you place your hands below them, which is fine if you want the water to flow for about 10 seconds after which the faucet shuts off. It intelligently assumes that nobody needs water flowing for more than 10 seconds. You have to wave your hands again to get the water flowing again. Or, as someone told me, you can tap the top of the faucets to get water. There is absolutely no way for anyone to figure out that tapping the faucet can get you water! An absence of signifiers.
faucetThe faucets look elegant; however, there is no way to control the temperature of water. If you want cold water or hot water, you are out of luck! The same faucets on the first floor restroom dispense almost hot water. And there is no way to reduce the flow of hot water or control the temperature of water.

Good design
I see a great design of faucets in my gym. The faucets look beautiful with the sensor clearly visible at the front so I know where I should place my hands. There is small lever to control the flow of hot water. The water keeps flowing as long as you need it. Simple, obvious, and elegant. Presence of signifiers.

Are Xbox Users Democrats?

29 Oct

I cut the cord (got rid of the cable) this year. My Xbox 360 provides me my dose of TV, movies, games, and other entertainment. I also watched the three presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney live on the Xbox. To make matters interesting, there were real-time polls appearing on the screen, and users could vote with their remotes or controllers. I did too. After about half a minute of a question appearing on screen, the results were displayed in real time. That was interesting.

More interesting was the fact that Obama crushed Romney on every issue. Xbox users overwhelmingly voted for Obama, about two-thirds to one-third. This was an interesting thought experiment. Almost every poll is saying that the two presidential candidates are tied while the most reputed Gallup poll concluded that Romney is leading. These polls have been proved to be pretty accurate even with a pretty small sample size of 500 – 1000 carefully selected voters. However, on Xbox, more than 100,000 people participated in the voting, and every question had about 35,000 -40,000 respondents, which is a pretty big sample, though it’s a random one. In research, however, a random sample is what everyone tries to have thereby removing all biases.

So why do Xbox users vote for Obama? I have some theories:

  • On most questions, Obama’s name was the first option. People tend to select the first or default option. However, people voted for Obama even when he was the second option, which shows that people were not just clicking, they were actively participating.
  • Women tend to support Obama, but Xbox users are more male than female.
  • Children love Obama, but they are less likely to watch a presidential debate or vote on domestic and foreign policy matters.
  • Young voters (18-29 years) favor Obama over Romney. And they are probably more likely to own Xbox. This could be a plausible reason.
  • The blue states users have more Xboxes. It is possible that the east coast and the west coast, being densely populated, have more Xboxes, and are traditionally democratic. But the red states should counterbalance this number the way the opinion poll results show a tie.
  • Obama has an overwhelming support among the international community. It is possible that they are voting too, but how many international users care about the debate? And was the debate even broadcast outside the US?
  • African Americans support Obama, but it is unlikely that they have more Xboxes than other demographic profiles or they vote more.

Whatever is the reason, we’ll know in a few days if the Xbox polling was accurate. This is a very interesting way of using technology with a large random sample to predict election results. We’ll wait and watch.

Update: Per CNN’s exit polls, young voters (18-29 years) overwhelmingly voted for Obama (60% Obama vs. 37% Romney).  The breakup for the 30-44 age group was 52%-45% in favor of Obama. This is also the makeup of the demographic that owns and used Xbox most. This seems to be the main reason Obama had a wide lead over Romney in the Xbox polling during the presidential debates.

Additional readings
Results from the second US Presidential debate

The Wisdom of Crowds

22 Oct

James Surowiecki, a journalist, had coined the term – The Wisdom of Crowds – in 2004 (The title of his book). In this book, he argued that none of us is as smart as all of us. Or, in other words, expertise is overrated. Not that the experts are not needed in this world, but the collective wisdom of people leads to better decisions. It seems counter-intuitive, but it has been proven to be true.

  • Google was the thirteenth search engine when it had launched in1998 and yet, it became a resounding success because of the quality of its results. The search algorithm takes into account hundreds of factors but the most important factor is the number and reputations of Web sites linking to a particular Web page. It is, in essence, a vote for a page by other knowledgeable people – a collective wisdom in play.
  • Wikipedia, an openly editable encyclopaedia, allows anyone to make changes to its articles. Instead of relying on the knowledge of a few experts, Wikipedia harnesses the small chunks of information people have on a topic and combines those chunks to create millions of articles. Surprisingly, the articles outnumber the professionally produced Encyclopaedia Britannica and the number of errors are comparable too.
  • Reviews on Web sites like Amazon (products), Rotten Tomato (movies) and Yelp (restaurants) rely on the feedback of many people to produce an aggregate rating.

This concept begs a question, though. Can we put a group of people in a room, give them a task, and they would come up with the best decision? Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple. This concept, to work best, has some preconditions that must be satisfied.

Diversity: The people in the group must have diverse opinions, educational and work backgrounds, experience, knowledge, and skills, which would lead to creative ideas and a large quantity of ideas. A group comprising experts on the same topic tend to think similarly.
Independence: The people must think independently from each other. In a group setting, groupthink takes over and the conversation usually follows the most vocal or the highest ranked person.
Decentralization: There is no top-down directive so nobody is in charge and the problem of mere compliance is avoided. Everyone contributes freely and voluntarily.
Incentive: There must be some incentive for the people to contribute to the overall effort. Intrinsic reasons (because I want to) work much better than extrinsic reasons (I have to because I’ve been asked to or paid).
Aggregation: There must be a mechanism to aggregate the contributions of the group. An online environment (Google, Wikipedia) works great even if the group size is millions. In an offline environment (an office setting), a designated leader can do the collection and compiling.

Additional readings
The Dirty Little Secret About the “Wisdom of the Crowds” – There is No Crowd