Observing Human Minds, With Human Eyes


Psychological Experiments

Today I will talk about a type of observation that features heavily in a few books by Malcolm Gladwell that I really enjoyed reading, namely, Blink. The book centers around the study of effects and power of our subconscious mind. I would recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in psychology or sociology.

Much of the book focuses on the results of its psychological experiments, a type of observation with some special features.

The Difference

In the observation studies we learn about in our CS3240 module, one important condition necessary for a successful observation is that the participants are clear about the objectives and purpose of the study.

The complete opposite applies for psychological experiments.

Since the purpose of psychological experiments is to gather data about natural human behavior, the participants cannot be informed of objective and purpose of the study due to the intrinsic need to avoid affecting participant behavior.

Also, as the word experiment implies, the participants are not observed passively but are rather asked to do whatever they want in a specific and controlled environment. The data gathered is then analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively for the results.

Due to the nature of this particular type of observation, the standard rules of conducting and observation must be broken.

The Effectiveness Of Observing Psychological Experiments

Psychological experiments emerged as a type of data gathering method in the 1860s and to this date there are still prevalent critique about its effectiveness, ethics and validity.

One can see the potential ethical issues of conducting studies without informing the participants about the purpose and objectives, especially since the topic is a sensitive one such as your character. The study can extend in very dark or disturbing domains, as you will see from some examples later.

About the effectiveness of psychological experiments, the biggest problem is the contradiction in its setup. Critics argue that by informing participants that they are participating in an experiment, their behaviors have been inadvertently influenced, mostly to the direction of producing ‘nicer’ picture.

Furthermore, interpretation of the qualitative parts of the data is not objective and the resulting conclusions may be biased and potentially misleading and damaging.

However, the results of psychological studies have sometimes been far from nice and sometimes downright shocking, which seems to suggest that the data gathered from psychological experiments may be quite objective after all.

Mind Blowing Results From Psychological Experiments

In n described in the book Blink, participants are told that among the 10 people, 5 white and 5 black, whose photos they will be shown, a specific number are criminals. Their job is to correctly guess who are the criminals according to their faces.

It turns out that a large portion of participants showed a strong inclination to identify black people as criminals. That is to say, most of us are racists.

In another experiment described in the same book, participants are asked to walk down one of two equally long corridors, either A or B to the end point. Corridor A is filled with motivational posters full of positive words while Corridor B is full of posters about depressing posters about aging and illnesses. The time taken to pass both corridors by the participants are tabulated and analyzed.

The participants who walked through Corridor A showed higher movement rate of more than 20% compared to those who walked through Corridor B. It implies that even without us knowing, we are being influenced strongly by our environment, even if its just words on walls.
The last experiment is the most shocking: the Milgram Experiment. Basically, the experiment is designed to test how authority affects the willingness of humans to inflict pain on other humans. More details can be seen here:


According to this experiment, it seems that humans are very willing to hurt other under the influence of authority.

This conclude this weeks post, I hope I have not bored you with a personal interest and you found my $0.02 interesting!


Error Message Design: The Good, The Bad & The Guidelines


Error Messages

This week, we delve into something which everyone has encountered at least once in their lives: Error Messages.

Purpose of Error Messages (courtesty of http://msdn.microsoft.com)

An error message alerts users of a problem that has encountered. This may apply for both online and offline operations.

Our belief: We believe that an error message is one which alerts users of a problem in a way which is simple and understandable. The solution to solving the error should be put forth in a simple and concise manner too.

Key Design Guidelines

Positive Image & Clear Layout. Usage of image and colors positively can reduce the frustration and anger that the user may experience. Colors such as pink, blue and green are known to have a calming effect and using these colors in an error message could enhance the user experience. Positive images can too reduce anger when portrayed correctly.

Tone of Language. Users are like customers and hence, the usage of a friendly tone helps in getting the user re-visit the website or re-try the operation. Furthermore, using a non-accusatory tone allows the user to understand that the error was due to the website and not by them.

Links & Exit Routes. It is always ideal to provide users with exit routes. An exit route is a step or a solution to attempt to solve the error. Provision of exit routes or links is likely to encourage users to re-attempt the specific operation or re-enter the website. 

Human – Readable Language. Clear and concise language should be adopted by all error messages. If the cause of the error is due to technical faults and explanation may be too complicated, it is advisable not to include the cause. Deciding to include a complicated explanation may further frustrate the user and he may make incorrect decisions to rectify the problem.

Bad Examples

Famous “Blue Screen of Death”

– Wordy
The error message is too wordy. It provides a novice user facing the error with too much information. Doing so much increase the frustration of the user as he may think there are too much steps needed to solve the problem.

– Poor choice of colors
While it was mentioned earlier that blue has a calming effect. This dark shade of blue gives a perception of coldness while white gives a perception of unfriendliness in this context. It lacks a personal touch which may be threatening to the user.

Technical Information
A novice user just need to know the possible solutions to rectify the error. The designers however, assumes that their users are tech-savvy and understand the technical terms which confuses them and makes the situation more unbearable for the user.

– Unclear Instructions
A nice and simple layout is most of the time key to sending a message to the user. However in this example there is practically no way a average user is going to understand what he or she is going to do next!
– Poor choice of colours
Red is usually associated with anger, and flashing red during error message is not going to help the frustrated users.

Fanciful Design

– Bad layout
No doubt the first thing that users notice is the astronaut, which sometimes confuse users that the website they are entering has become a space related website.

– Poor communication
For users who know what Error 404 means, looking at this will be a good entertainment. However, for the average users, it will only confused the users even more.

Good Examples

Improved version of the Blue Screen of Death as shown in Windows 8

+ Human Readable Language
The improved version of the Blue Screen of Death has shown user just the necessary information (which is to just restart the computer!). For the techincal geeks, they are able to see they summarised error in the smaller font just below the main text.

+ Light colours and simple layout
Blue colour is always nice and pleasant to see. The use of SMS type smiley face is sure to bring a giggle to the user watching it, lowering the chance of the computer been tossed out.

+ Proposed action
Probably what the typical user need to know is to restart the computer, which is been presented nicely.

+ Light colors and a positive image
The light blue color and the smiling image on the coffee have a calming effect which pacifies frustrated or angry users.

+ Personal tone of language
The choice of words used are good. The message informs the user that there is a problem in a casual tone. Furthermore, the font type is informal which allows a calming effect to the user.

+ Proposed Solutions
Various solutions are proposed to the user to attempt to rectify the problem. A customer-centric approach is evident given that services to rectify the error is provided for free; implying that this error is their responsibility and not the user’s.

+ Human Readable Language
The cause of the error may not be known but the designer did not bother the user with any unnecessary information and provided the proposed solution. No technical knowledge is needed to understand the error and the solutions are clearly stated.


It is important that error messages are designed and presented to the user in the most friendly manner possible. Providing a good user experience is key to retaining the user in using its product. There are certainly many way in designing a good error message, and they always follow the few key design guidelines that we have presented in the above section.

Something to end this post with

Interaction Devices: Input & Output Devices


The Other side of the Design Interaction Story

For computer systems, their user interface is a critical component that determines whether the system is effective or obsolete. Equally important but sometimes neglected are the Interaction Devices, which actually enable the users to interact with the system.

Often, user interface design is defined/limited by the interaction device available. We believe that in general, as the flexibility of the interaction device increases, the complexity and clutter of the corresponding user interface decreases.

In this post, we discuss both input and output devices and the many forms they come in, how user interface design has been influenced and what the future may bring.

Input Devices


One of the two primary input devices of the computer, the Keyboard traces its lineage back to the typewriter invented in the 1860s. There are many variants in different sizes and shapes, but they all serve the purpose of letting users type words. We will go out on a limb here and say that the keyboard actually has a flawed interaction design.

Try and recall when you first saw a keyboard. Did you know what ‘F1-F12’, ‘Ctrl’, ‘Alt’ and pretty much half the keys represented? Most of these keys are defined by convention and we believe that is one of the hindrances for the IT-illiterate folks.

For the alphabet keys, they are actually designed to hinder typing speed. The QWERTY layout is inherited from the typewriter ancestors, which stamped letters on paper one by one. The typewriter would fail and smudge ink if the users typed too fast, a limitation that keyboards have evolved out of. However, due to widespread usage and training, the number of keyboard users has a reached a critical mass where it is extremely difficult to adopt a newer and more efficient keyboard layout.

Once upon a time, ‘quick typing’ was slow

Despite its flaws, keyboards do serve their purpose very well, which is validated by their continued existence and popularity, even ‘ascending’ to touch screen devices.

As a result of the layout of the keyboard, certain interfaces have been designed to work in such a way that the keys on the keyboard are utilized in an efficient manner. One such example would be the interface of first-person shooters (FPS). In most FPS, if not all, that use the keyboard as the primary input device, the first thing that comes to the mind of most gamers would be the W-A-S-D layout to move around in the game. The way the keyboard has been designed has such a heavy influence on the gaming industry that such a layout has become a common practice.

Shortcut keys have been made in such a way that it conveniences users to go about doing their daily tasks on the computer. Shortcut inputs such as ctrl+c, ctrl+v, etc. From this example, we can clearly see how the layout of the keyboard has affected the way developers go about assigning these shortcut keys. As a conclusion for the keyboard, we can clearly see that its design, especially the layout of the keyboard has significantly influenced many generations of interface designs.


The other primary input device for the computer and vital cornerstone of the WIMP interface type, the mouse was developed in the 1970s. Contrary to the keyboard, we consider the mouse as an example of good interaction design.

The concept of the mouse is simple and effective: move the mouse to move the cursor. Even children understand how to use the mouse after watching the white arrow flow and spin around along with the mouse.

The design of the mouse has seen little change since their invention since they serve their function very effectively. The addition of the scroll button has more or less completed the design of the mouse. The design is so efficient in such a way that there has been little, or no need for any change in order to improve it.

Once again, the mouse has affected the interface designs to such an extent that simple tasks can be done just with a few clicks. Instead of having to type in long inputs for some commands, having a mouse has made it easier for developers to just simply create a button on their interface to make the command as easy as a click-and-go.

Improvements to the mouse, especially in the gaming industry, has allowed for even more simplified interface designs. This is achieved by having additional buttons on the mouse which can be configured and customized to suit the users’ individual needs.

Of course, sometimes having more buttons does not mean its good. It is more of the practicality of the mouse itself, and whether an additional button really serves any purpose at all. This is greatly illustrated by the two pictures below. A comparison between the Razer Ouroboros versus the product that Logitech would rather not mention.

What have you done?

The advantages of additional buttons

The most unintuitive part of the mouse as an interaction device to some people (myself included) is the name itself.

The mouse is so important to the computer as an interaction device that its hard to imagine what it would be like without the mouse. A lot of human-computer interactions would not have been possible without the invention of the mouse.

To end off the overview of the mouse, we would like to dedicate our appreciation of the efforts of Douglas Engelbart who has invented such an evolutionary device for the computer. Sadly, he has never received any royalties for his invention.

Douglas Engelbart – Inventor of the mouse


The current hype for computer interaction devices would be the touch-screen. Fun fact: the touch-screen technology has been around for quite some time. In fact, the touch-screen was first pioneered in the 1970s, just about ten years younger than the mouse. So, the question is, why now?

In the past, touch-screen was considered obselete as it was much more expensive to implement a touch-screen desktop. Moreover, having a touch-screen interface back then didn’t have a significant improvement on user experience from using a keyboard or a mouse.

The introduction of the iPod touch into the market can be considered as a major milestone for touch-screen devices. It has opened up the users to a whole new perspective as to how touch-screen can be utilized to maximize user experience. Games have been made more interactive where users can directly control the in-game characters with their hands. Developers have designed their user interfaces -to fully utilize the capabilities of touch-screen.

Touch-screen has also made it possible for users to input characters by simply “writing” with their fingers on the touch-screen devices. It has thus opened up a whole new horizon of possibilities for future touch-screen products.

The sheer amount of competitors in the touch-screen industry (Apple, Samsung, Windows, etc) has allowed the touch-screen technology to improve at a much faster rate than in the 70s – 90s. This has resulted in lower manufacturing costs for touch-screen capable devices, and thus we are seeing more devices having touch-screen.

The touch-screen has such a significant influence on human-computer interaction that sometimes, we would find ourselves touching the screens of various devices and only to be surprised to find that the device is not touch-screen. It is not hard to imagine a future where the touch-screen would totally take over the roles of the keyboard and the mouse.

With the upcoming windows 8 desktop prototypes which demonstrated how the touch-screen can replace the functions of keyboard and mouse, the effectiveness of the touch-screen has evolved a whole lot from what it was in the early days. As the companies continue to develop devices for touch-screen devices, it would definitely affect how interfaces would be designed. Afterall, interfaces are greatly affected by the nature of the input device.

Future of touch-screen? -from the Minority Report-

Motion-sensing input devices

As we look further into the future of interactive input devices, the general trend that the industry is heading towards is that of contact-less devices. From the Xbox Kinect to the Playstation Move, and not forgetting Wii’s WiiMote, there is a wide variety of ways to go about implementing a motion-sensing input device.

The invention of motion-sensing devices has allowed unique interfaces to be developed. Users can now use their actions to directly affect the interface. A prime example of such an interface is the WiiSports, where user actions can be directly sensed and reconstructed in the gaming world. The motion is captured by the WiiMote, where there is a gyroscope and accelerometer in it to capture user movement.  This allows for newer interfaces that can be designed to be more life-like.

The Xbox Kinect on the other hand, is able to read movements of users directly off the camera and use the resulting data to control the movements of in-game characters. Compared to the WiiMote, this allows for more degrees of freedom, and thus its even more accurate to the movements in real life.

The PlayStation Move is more a hybrid of both the WiiMote and the Xbox Kinect. By using a camera to capture the movement of the sphere at the tip of a wand-like controller, user actions can directly affect on-screen movements.

Motion sensing opens up another horizon of possible interfaces that are slightly different from what is offered by touch-screen devices. It would be interesting to see which technology would be dominant, or perhaps, a hybrid of both could be possible. No matter which technology turns out to be the dominant one, it would definitely greatly affect the way interfaces would be designed in the future.

Output Devices


Monitors have been around since 1980s, when they were mainly CRT monitors. Over the years, newer technology has been introduced to enhance the visual effects that can be projected to the users.

From CRT to Liquid Crystal, to OLED monitors, then to HD, followed by 3D, the monitor has had a very fast development rate over the past few years.

Once again, the changes in the monitor affect the way in which designers design their interfaces. Better graphics and a larger array of colours enable designers to add even more things onto their interfaces. HD allows designers to go into the very fine details, while 3D allows a perception of depth when it comes to interface design.

As an output device, the monitor captures the visual attention of the users, which is one of the major interaction between the user and the computer. Therefore, any improvements in technology of the monitor would definitely affect the way in which designers would go about designing their interfaces.


Speakers, on the other hand, capture another component of the human’s five senses, that is, of course, the hearing. Compared to the monitor, there has not been much changes or improvements to the way speakers are made. This might be partially due to the fact that there is only a very short range of frequencies that the human ear can perceive. This means that any improvements to the speaker would most likely not make a difference to the user.

Then again, interfaces depend heavily on the way sound can be output from the speakers. Having a speaker means the computer can send sound notifications to the user and is widely used in all applications and interface designs.

What the future may bring

When we consider the general direction interaction devices have evolved, a interesting and somewhat ironic trend is that they are evolving themselves out of existence. The mouse took over some of the functionality of keyboards by allowing WIMP interfaces to replace command line interfaces. The touch screen entirely replaced the pointer concept. Perhaps as we progress further, interaction devices will shrink to non-existence and we end up using the good ol hands and feet again. Or maybe even less. (see video) Imagine playing games with that.