research

The Short Version

My research at the MIT AgeLab currently focuses on a variety of usability and design issues, combining human factors research and cognitive science to better understand how people use the increasingly advanced technologies of the early 21st century. I examine how drivers use smartphones and smartphone-like in-vehicle interfaces while on the road, and how this impacts their thoughts, stress, and behavior. I also apply my background in vision science to examine how the design of modern typefaces impact their legibility on screens, and other related design issues.

The Long Version (a.k.a., Behind the Scenes)

I’ve always liked Chewbacca. Who doesn’t, really? Looking at a film like Star Wars, it’s tempting to assume that Chewbacca simply sprang fully formed from George Lucas’s head, like Athena from Zeus. The reality is that Chewbacca’s creation was a long journey, the culmination of many influences and months of work. Chewbacca, the Wookie hero we all know and love, is the end result of a creative process (as the aforelinked article makes clear), one guided by the history of science fiction archetypes, the constraints of film production, a smattering of good ideas, and a graveyard of false starts and dead ends. Lovable as Chewbacca is, I find the process of his creation far more interesting than the furry end result.

I’m like this with everything. Whether I’m thinking about films, fonts, probability, or perception, I’m all about discovering that underlying process. You are reading this paragraph at about 300 words per minute. How? People think Helvetica is a much better typeface than Comic Sans. Is Helvetica easier for the brain to process? Is it the momentum of historical preference? High-tech snobbery? Let’s figure that out. You find your smartphone hard to use? Tell me why. What kinds of mistakes are you making, and what could we change to prevent them? Does your behavior change when you drive? It does? Great, now how can I measure that?

Some people are practically born knowing that they want to dedicate their lives to Science. To be perfectly honest, I was never one of those people, and for that matter, I still don’t think of myself as one. I’ve just always been interested in how things work, in what makes one thing better, safer, or more elegant than another. It’s easy to take the world we see in front of us for granted, Chewbacca or otherwise. Getting to grips with the underlying process—the behind the scenes, making of, inside baseball of it all—is the common thread that unifies my personal interests and my varied research experience.