Monthly Archives: May 2012

Comedy on the radio

Here’s a link to the programme Word Of Mouth. This programme was about communicating research using comedy. This theme meant that they came along to Bright Club on the night I was performing and asked me a few questions before and after my set. They interview me to find out what I thought of the experience, and how I found it overall. I appear at the beginning and the end of the programme. At the end, they interviewed me just as I came off the stage, so I sound quite high on adrenaline!

Have a listen to the programme, the bits where I’m not talking are also pretty good too ha.

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Now you can’t judge a book by its cover

I love reading, and I also love my kindle. Not only have I been reading far more books since I got it, I’ve also been reading a wider range of books. Whenever I get on the tube I have the option of reading that text book I need to get through…or the latest in that trilogy of books that I can’t stop reading, I have the choice there and then without having to lug around a thousand books in my bag. In that instance I usually choose the fiction book I can’t put down. So I guess in some ways the kindle is actually encouraging bad habits.

One of the downsides to reading from the kindle now, is that no one can tell what I’m reading. Admittedly, if I was the type of person to read Twilight, this may actually be a great thing, I can read trashy novels without anyone else on the train knowing about it. But no, I actually think overall it’s a bad thing. Every now and then, I used to meet some very cool people on the tube, all because of the book I was reading. They’d see the cover and then strike up a conversation about the book: “Oh, how do you like it? I really liked the opening, especially the bit with the…” or maybe “is that so and so’s new book? I read her last one but wasn’t sure about this one, do you like it?” and so on. And I loved these interactions! They were like mini impromptu and anonymous book clubs. But now, with my kindle out, no one knows what I’m reading about, and so no one asks. Again, this may actually be a good thing for some people; when recently talking to my Aunt who was thinking of buying a kindle, I pointed out this apparent flaw to her, that no longer would people chat to her about the book she was reading. Her response to this was “Great. Good point. I’m buying one”.

Well, I used to like those interactions, and I miss them now! So, I started thinking about how I could bring them back. It’s simple really: add a title to the back of my kindle. And that’s what I’ve done!

Ok, I know it’s low tech at the moment. But I want to see if this makes a difference, if people start talking to me about the books I’m reading again. I think this wouldn’t be something that would be too hard to incorporate into a kindle cover: add a little e-ink screen, interface with the device via the spine or mini USB. Done! I think one issue may be that we do judge books by their cover, that is we recognise particular cover images. Especially if that book has just come out on film for instance. So my little title and author sticker might not do the trick, but we’ll see! I shall be trialling this on the tube for a little while to see what happens.

I will let you know.

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Double blogging

To save me talking about my most recent published work for a second time, here’s a link to my Digit Distribution work on the CHI+MED project’s blog.

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Punctuation and number entry

I was recently told a story by JW which made me reconsider by focus on purely digits and the decimal points. I now consider the comma to be an interesting character in the world of number entry.

J explained how he was trying to set up a monthly payment online for a particular bill.  He wanted $170.00 to be automatically taken out of his account, and sent the billing company.  On the website, he got to the text box in the form that asked for the monthly amount he wished to pay, and he entered in 170.00:

Only this isn’t what he typed. He typed this out on a laptop keyboard and so used the top row of numbers, and the full stop as a decimal place. When he typed the decimal place however, his finger slipped and what he actually entered was this:

A few weeks later, J gets a call from his wife, frantically asking him why their bank balance is so incredibly low all of a sudden. After inspection, it turns out that for two months, $17,000 has been leaving their account each month. Oops.

When J submitted the form, he didn’t notice his mistake, there was a difference of two pixels between the decimal point and comma character in the font on the web form. He saw there was something there between the first to zeros and understandably assumed it was the decimal point he’d gone to press.

The first error was typing a comma instead of a decimal point and not noticing it. But really, if this wasn’t picked up by the human, it so easily could or should have been picked up by the system. That comma is in a weird place – if it were representing a thousand marker, there should be an extra zero, or is should be between the seven and the zero. This was a malformed number entry. And the system did not pick up on this. Instead, it chose to ignore that comma, and strip it out of the input, leaving only 17000. And resulting in an incredibly angry customer.

Conclusion: Think about the erroneous characters people enter, even in number entry. Don’t ignore them without thinking about why they might be there.

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Are you teaching or selling?

This is mega important rule 1. And the rule that I see flouted most. When this happens the presentations are inevitably either super boring, or fail to get their point across.Whale taking an exam

What do I mean by this question? Well it’s straight forward: before you begin writing your presentation, ask yourself whether your audience are going to your presentation to learn about a specific thing, or are they going to find something out? When I say learn, I really mean learn; are they going to be taking comprehensive notes on every aspect of your talk? Are they going to be expected to recite this information back at another point? Really, you only need to make a ‘teaching’ presentation when you are explicitly teaching a class.

The other style of presentation, the one that you are probably meant to be giving, is the ‘selling’ presentation. Now I’m not saying that people coming to this type of presentation aren’t going to learn anything, if you do it right they should indeed learn something. But there is a difference between learning about  something versus learning how to do something (selling versus teaching). You may be presenting a paper to a conference, your recent research findings to your lab, or anything in between. Your audience are there not because they need the exact details of your method and results, they want the big picture, they want to know what the “take home message is”. If you do this successfully, your audience will finish your presentation excited about your research, and interested to find out more about it, and the future of your work. Some will want to ask questions to find out more about particular aspects that interested them, or aspects that they want to question. Great! That means your audience has understood you well enough to ask decent questions.  Some audience members may have seen something that would be really useful to them, something they want to find out about in a lot more detail. In this instance, they can buy you a beer afterwards and chat, or go and read the paper in detail.

This is a key point: when writing your presentation, remember what other materials are already out there to support what you’re saying. Your presentation needs to be an advert for your paper, needs to give people a reason to go away and spend a little time reading your publication. There are details they can go away and find out in your paper. Remember that. You don’t want to make your presentation void of all content. Obviously. Tell us how significant your results are, but don’t tell us the processor speed on the computer your participants worked on. Explain the independent variables of your study, but don’t talk us through the system architecture of that awesome computational model your supervisor made in that paper she published 10 years ago. Know what’s important. Know what’s cool and interesting.

One particular example of this that comes to mind is a presentation I attended some months ago. The presentation looked like it was going to be freaking awesome. It was about a new interface for a safety critical system. Seriously. Sounded brilliant. However, the speaker spend 55 minutes of a 1 hour slot, teaching us HCI. Teaching us HCI. It was such a shame, such a great shame. He didn’t understand that his audience was pretty well versed in HCI literature. He forgot that he had an awesome new idea to present to us and focussed on unnecessary details. In the end 5 minutes of his talk, he actually skipped over a few more slides on HCI practice to get to the actual system he came to present. A sad few minutes went by as he quickly skipped by interesting photos of new interfaces and intriguing studies. He had no time at all to sell, he’d spent too long teaching.

Seriously. This is important. Think about it next time you go to write a presentation. Remember your audience probably don’t owe you anything. They don’t have to be there, sometimes they don’t want to be there… Make it worth their while. Catch their attention. Inspire them. Be enthusiastic. Make them excited like you are. Make them want to be there. Make them stay awake.

The importance of presenting in presentations

A week without attending a presentation is a rare thing as an academic. I have now seen many, many presentations in my short Ph.D life time. I’ve seen magnificent, inspiring presentations that leave me with a million questions and thoughts about my research. And then again I have seen other presentations that underestimate the audience, ask the listeners to actually be readers and generally leave you with a sense that the presenter wishes they had never started this research. Unfortunately, I think I’ve seen more of the latter than the former.

With every presentation that makes me feel sad, I think of what would have made the presentation better, for every one that goes brilliantly, I think about why it was so good. I’ve now put together a fair amount of presentations related ideas, which I’d like to share here. Some are based on experiences of presentations I’ve seen, many more are based on presentations I’ve given (the bad and the good). All, I hope, will be useful for other people to think about when making presentations. Too often, I think, people forget that presentation does not  equal power point slides. There is a reason that you, the presenter have been asked to go there, stand up and talk to an audience, rather than simply printing off a list of bullet points for every one to sit and read…

So, I now present the Presentation category. I plan, every so often to add a new post detailing an opinion on an aspect of presentations and presenting. I hope someone will find it useful. I also hope to generate discussion on what others think is importnat in presentations, I’m eager to hear it!

Digit distributions

If you’ve ever wondered what numbers people are typing into those funny machines whilst watching Casualty of a Saturday night, here is a video explaining some of the initial work I’ve done looking into the types of numbers used in hospitals.

The results proved interesting with obvious patterns occurring with some of the digits – nought gets used A LOT. The digit nine gets used a lot in surgery too. Look at the video to find out why I think these sorts of distributions are happening.

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Number Entry isn’t interesting you say?

I did some stand-up comedy based upon my research into number entry interfaces in hospitals. Don’t believe this can be done? See the video for proof.

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Fat Finger Trades

I know the title might not sound that appealing but this is quite an interesting and widely documented phenomenon in the world of financial trading.

Millions of dollars have been lost and entire markets brought down a few points due to a fat finger trade (FFT).

What is a FFT then?  A FFT is an error that occurs when the user attempting to buy or sell shares accidentally hits additional keys to those they are targeting.  The Hindu Business Line provides a nice lists of examples of these errors.  The error normally results in trades being made for 10 or 100 times as much as intended.  As you will find out, context is everything for this type of error.  No big deal if you are working on your home computer and are able to correct the mistake but when dealing with amounts in the millions, this can have a huge impact upon the companies involved, and as listed above, an entire market.

The problems don’t end there.  Occasionally a FFT can have even worse consequences for the company involved.  In December 2005 the Times reports an instance of a FFT occuring at the Japanese company Mizuho Securities.  Instead of selling 1 share at 610,000 Yen, the employee typing this in accidentally sold 610,000 shares for 1 Yen each.  Not only did the error result in huge monetary discrepancies but the company actually sold far more shares than they had, in fact it represented “more than 40 times the total number issued by the company”.  Yikes.

How easy is it to place checks and guards into trading software to ensure that trades aren’t made for 40 times the company’s worth?  The task seems a trivial one so why has it not been implemented?   It could be that in the dynamic and changing world of financial trading the task would involve a fair amount of computation.  But these are just the type of calculations that most pieces of financial trading software are made to deal with.  We could explain the lack of safe guards on poor User Centred Design.  The companies commissioning the trading software will focus on the efficiency and speed at which their employees are able to trade at.  In the fast moving world of stocks and shares speed is key to buying lowest and selling highest (fact generated by me based on films I have seen).  There is no incentive for the software to be designed to do anything else any better.

Well it seems like feedback from these errors is reaching those in charge of designs.  This article in the Sunday Morning Herald of Australia suggests that the FFT is being weaned out due to increased checking in the trading software – fantastic.  Turns out it wasn’t an impossible problem.  The article speculates that perhaps the recent dip in the Dow index was not down to a FFT but rather some error resulting from the program itself.  At this point it isn’t human error, I say hooray and leave the analysis of the computer program to someone more interested in analysing the code of financial trading systems than myself.

One last thought on the FFT example from Mizuho Securities – is this a FFT at all?  It seems like the issue here wasn’t pressing additional keys by accident but rather confusing the two numbers and entering them into the wrong locations in the interface.  This could have been caused by a confusing interface or a lack of experience or simply mixing the numbers up in the employee’s head.  It seems that the term “Fat Finger Trade”, in the media at least, is being appropriated for all types of error that occur in the financial market.  How important is this generalisation?  Well if we just want to read about traders doing stupid things, it’s a pretty useful search term.  But, as a student researching types of number entry error, I really think this generalisation hides the more interesting information.  If we break the generic FFT error down into more accurate descriptions of what’s going on, we can begin to look at causes (were they distracted? keyboard too small? numbers too hard to read? numbers too similar? confusing interface? no training?), and the myriad of possible cures.

So newspapers, you can have your buzz words but when you the reader see it, think about what’s really going on – it’s far more interesting.


The price of electricity is on the rise

Tony Leventhal received a shock in 2007 when his credit card company called to ask him about a rather large payment to the electricity company. It turns out a reasonable £170 bill had turned into one for a massive £17,000Source BBC News. Full story.

How might this have come about? Well we’ll put this one down to human error. There are a few scenarios I can see that may have caused this error. Firstly, let’s look at the mistakes that could have occurred whilst reading the number to be entered. So the operator who was typing in the amount (at whatever stage in the process) is fairly new at this job and is working on transcribing bill amounts into the system. He’s a little distracted thinking about lunch whilst working. He sees the amount £170.00 and does one of two things. He might misread the number, by ignoring the decimal (making it £17000) or he reads the decimal point as a comma, albeit misplaced (reading it as £170,00). Both of these instances result in him inputting an amount 100 times larger than intended. How can we solve this issue? Well it all comes down to how this information was presented to the operator. Was it printed neatly? Was it scribbled down on some paper from a customer’s home meter reading when their electronic gadget went wrong? Who knows, but there are a few conventions we can take from the medical domain to help people read decimal numbers more accurately. One of which is to make the decimal point large. Don’t hide it at the bottom of the text, we don’t need things to look pretty, we need them to look readable. Another convention that works in conjunction with the large decimal is writing the decimal portion of the number in smaller numbers (see the Design for Patient Safety page). With these simple additions, reading and transcribing numbers can be easier and a lot more accurate.
Now let’s think about the possible slips whilst typing. In the following cases the operator has correctly read and knows the right number he is to enter. An error occurs however, due to the keyboard or display, and the operator is not aware when he makes a slip. I don’t actually know what the input layout is like on screen but let’s take a quick look at two possible form layouts and the associated error causes.
The first layout theory is simple and probably what you’d expect:
In this situation the operator may have aimed to type in £170.00 and accidentally missed the decimal key for whatever reason (he was distracted by something, the keyboard was still sticking from that time he spilt coffee on it etc.) Without the all important decimal place, the operator inputs the huge amount of £17000. As far as the operator knows, there’s no reason the decimal point hasn’t been inputted, he thinks he typed it and so does not double check the number. How could we prevent or protect against this error? One way would be to assume and check that every number typed into the system has a decimal point, even if the amount only comprises of pounds and not pennies. With this check in place the operator, upon entering the erroneous number with no decimal point, will be presented with an alert requesting they add a decimal point to the number. At this point hopefully the operator will look at the number they entered, the one they thought they typed a decimal place in, realise and correct their mistake.
Another way of fixing this problem might be to separate the pound and penny fields. This layout looks a little silly but who knows, this might be how it works! I’ve seen crazier input systems.
So this layout ensures that pounds and pennies are split. The operator doesn’t have to worry about decimal points! Hooray, hurrah! But really this doesn’t actually solve the problem. Now the operator has the option of accidentally not pressing an entirely different key, this time the tab key. Now our operator goes to type in the amount but doesn’t press the tab key, again for the same reasons, resulting in the first field being filled with 17000. And again, this problem is solved by having the system check the second field is filled with some value.
In both possible input systems, the small check to ensure that there is a decimal portion of the number would prevent the error we see above. It seems like this system could add a bit of time to the number entry process with operators having to type in the penny amount even if there are none. But only one in every hundred bills will be a round pound amount. If the operator is used to typing in the pennies then typing the two trailing zeros will mimic their usual typing pattern (type the pounds the ‘decimal/tab’, ‘digit’, ‘digit’).
I can’t say for sure that this error did occur by human error but I think the evidence and suggested scenarios are compelling and plausible. Let me know if you have any other suggestions for what happened and ways to prevent it. Or if you have any inside information about how this process actually works!