CSU-X Lab studies human and computer interactions

From the December 5th edition of the Cleveland Stater

By Doug Vehovec

At the crossroads where computer and behavior sciences meet, an emergent field of study seeks to understand the interaction between human users and computers. The user perspective draws on communication theory as well as design and psychology, while the computer component offers qualitative data like processing speed and memory capacity. The integration of the two fields allows one to utilize the strengths of the other. Doing so provides researchers with a clearer picture of the relationship between humans and our ever-increasing interaction with machines.

These interactions are studied in user experience (UX) labs. Often developed internally by companies looking to understand what appeals to their consumer base, these labs use specialized software and scientific analysis to discover the meaningful aspects of the interaction.

On Nov. 18, Cleveland State University hosted the first day of experiments in the CSU-X Lab, a research project funded through a grant award. The lab is headed by Dr. Cheryl Bracken, a communications professor at Cleveland State.

“We wanted to figure out how to take our existing theoretical research and embrace this idea of applied research,” said Bracken. “We thought, if we brought all that together and packaged it, we could build a lab that would be beneficial to both faculty and students. But it would also allow us to serve the greater Cleveland area.”

The “we” that Bracken speaks about are former colleagues Drs. Yung-I Liu and Paul Skalski. Since developing the lab, Liu took a new position and is no longer at Cleveland State. And the university community still feels the poignant loss of Skalski to medical complications earlier this year.

Aided now by three Cleveland State grad students, Bracken uses the lab’s cutting-edge equipment and techniques to conduct research comparable to that being done nationally. Jen Ford, Jen Poland and Hocheol Yang work in the lab as an independent study.

Yang’s involvement with the lab arose through previous work with Skalski. He was introduced to Bracken and her research, and was eager for the opportunity to work with her in the lab.

“Dr. Bracken is famous in this field,” Yang said of the lab’s director. With his earlier work in the field of physiological analysis, the native South Korean brings his own considerable experience to the table.

After a few weeks running tests in the lab, Yang works the controls on the software and sensor devices like it’s old hat. To demonstrate the lab’s capabilities, he pulls up a research sample which shows an aggregate heatmap of subjects experience with various still images.

The work involves several components. First, researchers create content that users are shown on a monitor. At these early stages of study, content is limited to still images – typically advertisements. The study uses fictitious products to increase the control element of the experiment, by removing preconceived notions from the equation. Bracken’s prior work in advertising and marketing research proves helpful in generating content used to gauge responses.
Graduate assistant Hocheol Yang works with
some of CSU-X Lab’s customized content.

Bracken explains that one of the groundfloor premises of the lab is to test the old adage that “sex sells.” Different versions of ads for the same product are presented to users. Variations in things like the sex of the human model and whether or not they’re scantily clad allow researchers to gather quantitative data to determine the ads’ effectiveness.

“The primary concentration is on ‘high sexy’ and ‘low sexy,’” Bracken said of the initial experiments in their most simple terms.

Yang’s heatmap example shows that people look chiefly at a person’s face, regardless of other variables, and ad copy to a lesser extent. Bracken explained that faces are what people tend to look at first, and then hands.

The research is still only in the preliminary stages, and it will take time to properly analyze the data. But Yang is enthusiastic about the lab’s work, which he believes is strengthened by the use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

“It’s very interesting to see exactly where people are looking,” Yang said. “I love to do experiments and see how people react to Internet stimulus and text. These things really change lives, and understanding them is really important.”

Armed with the customized content, researchers use sophisticated software to analyze users’ physiological responses. The software calculates things like fixations, where users look on the screen and for how long. Overlaying that data over the image gives researchers a map that shows them exactly what the users experience was like.

In terms of both size and hardware availability, CSU-X lab is comparable to others like it across the country. And in some ways its capabilities even surpass others.
For one thing, CSU-X runs tests with a minimum of 20 subjects per condition. Other UX labs typically test two or three people at a time, making adjustments based on just a few responses. The difference lies in the kinds of results researchers hope to find. In Bracken’s case, the academia-focused aspect of her research translates to a need for more thorough data with broader application opportunities.

The expanded nature of work in CSU-X requires a larger investment in tools and materials. This means the lab needs not just better, but simply more equipment in order to maximize the potential.

To illustrate the point, Bracken revealed that the next step in the project is to begin studying moving images, as well as user interactions with more common devices like cellphones and tablets.

“The study I’m running in the spring is going to look at usability of mobile devices and compare older adults and college-age students,” she said.

To conduct the research, she purchased special attachments for those sorts of devices that can perform the same functions currently used with the lab’s desktop computers, like the heat-mapping feature.

“I said ‘I want two,’ and the guy was like ‘no one’s ever bought two before.’”

The guy in question has clients like Google and Cisco, giants in the communications technology field. The work in CSU-X builds on that work, and adds a layer of theoretical research that she hopes will prove marketable to companies seeking to optimize the value of their communications.

With the first few weeks of research conducted, Bracken is encouraged by the results so far. She and her lab assistants, like Yang, have a full slate of studies planned for the spring semester. With the additional equipment and expanded tests that include video and other moving images, the CSU-X Lab is poised to enrich the field of user interaction research.

“We’re very confident that we’ll publish a lot of research and have an opportunity to start working with clients in the area,” said Bracken.

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