Category Archives: Design

How Louis C.K. Could Help Improve Street Sign Design

The opening of last week’s season premiere of Louie offered up a hilarious scene of Louie and a fellow New Yorker trying to decipher an odd assortment of street signs to see if it was safe to park their cars. This must be a fairly common problem in bigger cities because I came across these weird signage clusters a lot back when I was trying to eek out a living as an urban planner. The picture below was taken in front of my sister’s old house in Evanston, IL (a Chicago suburb) back in the 90s. Despite all of the warnings, it was actually okay to park in this spot at the time we were there.

In any given city I suppose there are a bunch of different parking rules and each one has its own sign associated with it. Every now and then you get a situation where overlapping rules apply and the result is a bit of a jumble. It is a classic — albeit minor — case of the law of unintended consequences. There is simply nothing in a city worker’s toolkit that would allow them to provide an appropriate solution to such a complex problem.

What is needed is a more flexible approach — something that clearly outlines the rules of a given situation but can also be easily adjusted to meet slightly different circumstances.

After returning home, I put together a quick idea that involved more of a calendar-like design, with circumstances in rows and time-of-day in columns. My idea was to have a standard sign to which workers could affix a series of universal “no” stickers at the right points. The design is based primarily on the given situation (and does nothing to address the driveway warning) but I thought it was a good start.

The new sign would save taxpayer money by reducing both the number and variety of signs that needed to be made. It would also simplify the interpretation of complex situations for the average citizen and it could be easily modified by city traffic workers if parking circumstances changed. You could even use it to block off areas temporarily by adding a removable (magnetic?) marker during construction or special events.

The one big drawback that I could see for this design is that it leaves a lot of white space open for minor vandalism. Even I might be tempted to play a few games of tic-tac-toe on such a sign. Overall, though, I think it is a step in the right direction. I hope Louie would be proud.

Have a happy Fourth of July, everyone! Make sure you interpret those parking signs along the parade route carefully.

Revised Parking Sign System

Family Pool Trends

With the start of a rather warm, dry summer here in Wisconsin, we’ve decided to take the plunge (literally) and purchase a new above ground pool. We seem to outgrow these things every few years and I’ve become intrigued with the idea that we just keep buying larger and large cylinders of water. After some exhaustive research (which mostly involved looking through a lot of old photographs and estimating pool sizes), I present you with a timeline of our family’s pool history. The bubbles represent surface area and allow for relative size comparison.

Pool History (1997-2012)

Bubble Size = Pool Size

It is interesting to see that — with the exception of a few strays — we seem to buy a new pool every three years. It is also interesting to see the exponential growth in water volume that began about the time my daughter was born (when my son was four). If we keep up that pace, our next pool will be over 10,000 cubic feet — about the size of two 18-wheelers full of water.

There’s a Person in There

My wife works as a speech and language pathologist for a local school district and her caseload is a mix of kids from ages 3 to 21. One of her most difficult cases involves a student with severe cerebral palsy who transferred into the district when he was 12-years-old. This student cannot speak or use his body to convey information and currently expresses himself primarily through eye contact and facial expressions. Because of this extremely limited range of abilities, his cognitive functioning is unknown.

The only real communication options involve interpretation of the student’s eye movements. Professionals can do this using a contraption called an eye gaze board, which is a simple frame to which you attach pictures or symbols. The professional sits face-to-face with the student, holds up the frame, and then prompts the student with a question. By observing where the student looks, the professional can make assumptions about their intended responses.

Needless to say, this approach has some limitations, particularly in this case. The student’s eye movements are hard for even professionals to interpret and the student himself tires very quickly. After careful consideration, my wife elected to see if the student could use an eye-tracking device in combination with a communication board or speech generating device (SGD) — a specialized computer that allows the user to build messages and relay them to others through a synthesized voice. (Dr. Stephen Hawking is a famous user of such a device.)

Users can access these devices directly using a keyboard or touch screen or they can manipulate them indirectly with a joystick, adapted mouse, optical pointer, eye tracking device, or other type of controller. The specific access method depends entirely on the abilities of the user and, in this case, there are not a lot of options. The student is quadriplegic and does not even have enough control over his head and neck movements to use switch access scanning, in which an indicator such as a cursor steps through selections automatically and the user hits a switch when the indicator lands on the desired choice. Blinking is also out for similar reasons.

A comparison of the two options shows some obvious advantages for the eye tracking option. Unfortunately, these devices are not cheap. While an eye gaze board can be assembled from five bucks’ worth of spare parts, a communication board and eye-tracking device cost about $8,000 apiece. No school district is going to spring for such a purchase these days so it became necessary for my wife to apply for a loaner and see if she could build a case for Medicaid.


Comparative Evaluation (Eye Gaze Board & Eye Tracking Device)

Eye Gaze Board Eye Tracking Device
Ease of Set-Up Easy Difficult
Ease of Listener Comprehension Difficult Easy
Y/N Response Accuracy 20-30% 80%
Number of Communication Functions 4 14
Size of Picture Field 4 pictures 12 pictures
Length of Time Before Fatigue 10 minutes 30-40 minutes
Maximum Length of Utterance 1 4+
Able to Fine-Tune Dwell Times No Yes
Able to Independently Introduce a Topic No Yes
Able to Communicate with Multiple Listeners No Yes
Able to Call for Attention No Yes
Able to Communicate with Non-Professionals No Yes
Able to Repair Communication Breakdown No Yes


1st Trial

The loaner — a Dynavox Vmax/EyeMax system — arrived in the last few weeks of the 2011 school year and came with some standard navigation screens or “boards” that are based on vocabulary and language ability levels. The user categories include — in order of ability — emergent communicators, context-dependent communicators, and independent communicators.

The primary choice for this case was between context-dependent, which means that the student’s ability to communicate depends on the environment, topic, or communication partner, and independent, which means that they are able to combine single words, spelling, and phrases together to create novel messages about a variety of subjects.


Examples of the Context-Dependent “Child 12” Navigation Page (left) and Scene (right)



Examples of the Independent Gateway “Child 12” Set-Up (left) and “Child 40” Set-Up (right)



These navigation boards make extensive use of picture communication symbols (PCS) and the Fitzgerald color coding system for language development. PCS are simply standard graphics whose meanings are easily understood while the Fitzgerald “key” system assigns colors to specific grammatical forms. The psuedo-3D appearance of the buttons looks a little dated to my eye but the perceived affordance may be necessary for some users. The program itself is highly customizable.

To create a message using the different boards, a user would navigate through the system and click on each component in turn until they were finished. For the purposes of measuring message complexity, each of these steps counted as one “navigational unit.”

A simple request for a sandwich might look like this in a context-driven environment (for an utterance of four navigational units):

The same request in a word-based environment would look like this (for an utterance of three navigational units):

My wife’s student’s communication level is context-dependent. However, the navigation boards available for context-driven communication were too complex for him to use and many of the topics simply weren’t relevant. (He would never use either of the above examples because he doesn’t eat solid food — all nutrients are provided through a gastro-intestinal tube.) To get around some of these issues, she programmed a customized board based on his particular abilities and interests.

Some of these modifications were fairly extensive. Since her student had no understanding of grammatical structure at this time, she simplified the color scheme so it only used three colors: orange for the “back” button, blue for any folder that could be opened, and gray for any item at the bottom of a decision tree. She also tightened up the button groupings to reduce difficult eye movements and eliminated any buttons that would appear “underneath” the back button to reduce navigation errors. Finally, she set the dwell time between 8.5 and 9 tenths of a second — the effective “window” for reading the student’s gaze accurately.


Customized Communication Board



The student was able to use the system for about 2 1/2 weeks in late Spring 2011 and for one week in Fall 2011. During the trial period, the student was able to use the twelve-button screen for several language functions, including basic greetings, requests, yes/no responses, exclamations, expressions of physical state, and even a few jokes (knock, knock jokes that my wife programmed into the computer). The range of communication partners included school faculty and several family members.

For casual observers, the student’s performance using the device was revelatory. One teacher who overheard the student working on a craft-related activity stated simply, “Wow, there’s a person in there.”

Although, it might seem obvious that such a tool would be beneficial for this particular student, the services were not deemed “medically necessary” and the initial request for Medicaid was denied. The evaluator felt that there just wasn’t enough evidence showing independent use of the system to create novel utterances. (Attempts to include some peer-appropriate language may have backfired when the evaluator dinged the student for overly frequent use of the phrase “smell ya later.”)

Another, longer trial was suggested.

2nd Trial

The next loaner arrived in April 2012 and my wife was determined to gather more quantitative data and provide as much documentation of the second trial as she could. Each of the student’s statements during the trial period were marked down and evaluated for complexity (number of navigational units or levels), conversational turns (the alternations or volleys between two speakers), and functions. Functions include descriptions (items, past events), requests (actions, information, objects), responses to requests, social devices (spontaneous calls, exclamations, greetings) and statements (emotions, future events, personal information, opinions). After four-weeks, there were 265 individual utterances available for analysis.

A few initial findings:

  • The student’s accuracy of responses to yes/no questions increased to 80% using the eye tracking device in conjunction with the SGD (compared to 20-30% on the eye gaze board).
  • The student’s ability to look at an item on command improved to 85%.
  • The student was able to comprehend all of the noun and verb phrases programmed into the device.
  • The student demonstrated comprehension of the following:  categories, colors, shapes, sizes, actions words, possessives, time words, words denoting quantity, pronouns and wh-questions.
  • The student spontaneously accessed the machine to call attention and participate in conversations with a variety of adults and peers.
  • The student combined multiple symbols to create a message and often used one symbol in novel ways. For example, he would use “bye” to indicate that he wanted to stop an activity.
  • The student demonstrated the ability to repair conversational breakdowns. After an unintended response, he would often use the method of multiple “clicks” on a word to emphasize his correctly intended response.

During the trial period, the student gradually shifted from single-level utterances to more complex navigational structures. By the second half of the trial, 61% of his utterances used a combination of symbols and the average length of utterance increased from about 1.6 navigational units during the first two weeks of the trial to over 1.8 navigational units in the second two weeks. A basic MS Excel t-test performed on this metric suggests that this change was significant.


Distribution of Utterances by Navigational Units (1 vs > 1)


Distribution of Utterances by Navigational Units


The mean score for Half 1 (M=1.605 SD= 0.727, N= 119) was significantly smaller than the mean score for Half 2 (M=1.836, SD=0.822, N= 146) using the two-sample t-test for unequal variances, t(261) = -2.42, p <= 0.016. This implies that the student has the attention, memory, and problem-solving skills to use a SGD to achieve his functional communication goals.

t-Test: Two-Sample Assuming Unequal Variances

Half 1 Half 2
Mean 1.605 1.836
Variance 0.529 0.676
Observations 119 146
Hypothesized Mean Difference 0
df 261
t Stat -2.42
P(T<=t) one-tail 0.008
t Critical one-tail 1.651
P(T<=t) two-tail 0.016
t Critical two-tail 1.969

Interestingly, many of the student’s more complex utterances were in conversations with peers — pre-teens with no training in speech and language communication. The student also increased the number of conversational turns per topic over time and, as with conversational complexity, his performance was better with his peers. He had longer conversational “volleys” and used many longer strings of symbols than his conversations with adults.


Navigational Units Comparison by Listener

Listener 1 2 3 4
Peer 45.6% 40.5% 8.9% 5.1%
Professional 46.2% 36.3% 16.5% 1.1%


Conversational Turns Comparison Over Time

Half 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 59.5% 25.0% 9.5% 4.3% 1.7% 0.0%
2 52.8% 27.1% 10.4% 5.6% 3.5% 0.7%


Conversational Turns Comparison by Listener

Listener 1 2 3 4 5 6
Peer 53.9% 23.7% 11.8% 6.6% 3.9% 0.0%
Professional 55.6% 27.8% 9.4% 4.4% 2.2% 0.6%


While there is no doubt that this technology would prove incredibly beneficial in this situation, the strict rules surrounding Medicaid requests makes the outcome difficult to predict. By carefully documenting the results of this second trial (and including some awesome tables and charts), my wife hopes to tip the scales in her student’s favor. The report was mailed yesterday so cross your fingers. As my wife’s student might say (through his technology-assisted communication device): “Let’s get this party started!”


  • June 22, 2012 – The request was approved. There is some hard work ahead but this is a big hurdle to clear. Congratulations and good luck to everyone involved!

You Are What You Watch

Experian-Simmons released some survey data in December that looked at the relative popularity of major television shows for three different political groups: liberal Democrats; conservative Republicans; and middle-of-the-road voters. Each show was given an index based on the concentration of specific voters and this information was used to create lists of the top programs for each political group in both entertainment and news categories.

Although these top ten lists were interesting on their own, the fact that each individual TV program actually had an index rating for all three groups offers an opportunity for more complex analysis. The most obvious next step involves comparing pairs of groups in a 2D scatterplot chart. The Tableau visualization below shows the results.

A few notes:

  • Entertainment shows are in blue, news shows are in orange.
  • Shows without enough data for a particular group were still plotted as a zero index.
  • Hovering over each data point reveals the show and its indices.


The first thing I noticed was that news shows were much more partisan than entertainment shows. In fact, almost all of the shows with the most extreme scores were either news shows (primarily FOX and MSNBC) or fake news shows (Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report). PBS gets a few high scores on the liberal side but the standard television networks are all fairly evenly watched.

Another thing that strikes me is how similar the watching habits of middle-of-the-road voters are to those of conservatives Republicans. The only noticeable exception occurs with news programs, but it is a pretty big exception: FOX News. All of the top ten conservative news programs were all on FOX while none of the top middle-of-the-road news programs were on that network. It might be encouraging for conservative politicians to see the similarities in entertainment interests between conservative voters and independents but I suspect that the gulf in news sources would be hard to overcome.

Many of the other differences have been noted elsewhere but are worth repeating: liberal Democrats tend to favor funnier shows and stories involving morally complex characters while conservative Republicans favor shows where people are doing stuff — either real work or reality competitions.

Of course, having complained about the lack of 2D analysis for this data in the major online outlets, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that each show has three indices apiece. Logically, we should be trying to show the data in a 3D scatterplot.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds since most of the major charting applications aren’t very good in 3D and they don’t provide any interactive option for the web that I could find. The best options seemed to be R or something called CanvasXpress — neither of which I had worked with before. I chose R, which allowed me to create both static and interactive 3D plots. However, only screenshots of the interactive plot are available at the moment. Several hours later …

Much Ado About Coughin’

Whether you know it as whooping cough or the 100 days’ cough, pertussis — a bacterial infection that causes severe coughing fits — is no fun. According to Wikipedia, it affects nearly 50 million people annually and causes almost 300,000 deaths worldwide. Although most of these deaths occur in developing nations, pertussis is the only vaccine-preventable disease that is associated with increasing deaths in the U.S.

Pertussis can be particularly dangerous for young children, so health departments keep a pretty close eye on local outbreaks and ask parents to keep their kids home from school while undergoing treatment. Unfortunately, the infection is very contagious and early symptoms are pretty mild. Combine this with some parental fears surrounding the vaccine and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for the occasional quasi-epidemic.

This year’s “winner” in the whooping cough stakes is apparently Wisconsin. As of April 21, 2012, the CDC estimates that the Badger State has had over 1,000 cases of pertussis, which is about as many cases as all of the Pacific Coastal states combined. Among these unlucky cheeseheads were the two fully-vaccinated kids that currently live under my roof. (My wife speculates that they picked it up at an extremely packed showing of The Hunger Games.)

Now that the quarantine period is over and my two little data points are on the mend, I thought it would be interesting to use some of the CDC data to experiment with Google Charts. I was especially interested to note that Google had a treemap feature. In the chart below, the size of the rectangles represents the current number of whooping cough cases, while the colors represent the increase or decrease over the same period in 2011. (Note: in the revised treemap option, the size of the rectangles represents the current number of whooping cough cases per million in population.)

Pretty simple example, no drill downs or tooltips for now.

U.S. Cases of Whooping Cough (April 21, 2012)

Toggle Between Cases and Cases per Million

Oh, and if you’re looking for Minnesota or Oklahoma, neither state has any current cases.

My favorite online example of a treemap is the Map of the Market on The navigation is very robust and you can nest groups of categories on the primary display. Google’s product allows you to drill down several levels but I couldn’t figure out a way to combine them in one view. I also like the way SmartMoney’s chart allows you to display additional information about each element when you hover over it with your mouse. I suspect that this is possible with the Google version but it is not explicitly called out in the documentation.

Does it work? For comparision, here is the same data in a standard Google bar chart:

U.S. Cases of Whooping Cough (April 21, 2012)

The bar chart results in a lot of whitespace and it needs to be much bigger in order for all the bars to fit. I tried a bubble chart as well (below) but there are limitations for this format, too. In particular, clumps of bubbles are difficult to read. I had to transform the data using a logarithmic scale to spread the shapes out a bit.

U.S. Cases of Whooping Cough (April 21, 2012)

2012 Cases vs. Cases per Million (Size=Population)

Geographic References in Local Business Names

This little exercise came about after I read an article on the old Northwest Territory in the U.S., which basically consisted of all the land west of Pennsylvania, northwest of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River. As the country expanded westward, this geographic area gradually became known as the “Midwest” (or the East North Central States region) but not before the older name left its mark on the local culture. Organizations like Northwestern Mutual Life (Milwaukee) and Northwestern University (Chicago) still refer back to to the days when these places were located on the fringe of the country, not at its center.

It occurred to me that researching such place names would be a good way to see if there was still a residual “shadow” of the old Northwest territory so I downloaded a sample list of company headquarters with the phrase “Northwest” or “Northwestern” in their names and plotted them on a map. Alas, this attempt failed to find anything significant (there was too much competition with the Pacific Northwest in name usage). However, I did look up some other regional terms with more positive results.


The geographic patterns for most of these terms are fairly distinct but there are also some areas of overlap. It was especially interesting to see regions that had local businesses in three or more categories. The old Northwest territory fits this mold with a combination of Midwest, Great Lakes, and Prairie.

What ‘The Office’ Gets Wrong About the Office

I start a new job next week and so I’ve been working on documenting all of my old tasks and projects in preparation for the transition. As I was going through old e-mails, I came across the introductory note my manager sent out to the department on my first day back in June 2004. Comparing it to the departure e-mail from my current manager, it’s amazing to see the changes in personnel over a seven-year span.

I prepared this chart using the distribution list from both e-mails, a drawing program, and a site that creates proportional venn diagrams. Only eight people are listed twice — including me and a person who left the company and has since returned. Some of the people who are only listed once have more tenure then me — they just may have gone to/come from another department. Still, it represents an interesting fact about the modern office. Change is constant.