Presenting numbers to:
train drivers and

Cognitieve psychologie toetst de GUI: is control over de computer gewoon wat icoontjes aanwijzen?";

Application of Information Design 2008, Mälardalen Uni­versity, Eskils­tuna and IIID,25-28 June 2008,Last update March 2014


Once upon a time the interface to control numerical values had four options: one, two, three and many. Today we have an infinite number of values. In addition, the very same numbers are used for very different professions such as: teaching, train driving and travelling. From a psychological point of view there are many similarities in the way professionals use numerical values performing these different tasks.
  • These professionals use the same eyes for perceiving written numbers and they write these numbers in the same way.

  • They all evaluate these numbers as good or bad using the same brains and more or less take the same type of decisions, for instance: increase or decrease learning speed, walking speed or train speed.

  • Even on an emotional level they act similar when it is clear that the numbers are far too low.

  • Having so many similarities in human functions and tasks, shouldn't the interfaces for these professionals be more similar, not only on the lower physiological levels (readability), but on higher cognitive levels too?

    One graphical presentation.
    Three professional interpretations:

  • Teaching: yellow: take care student’s performance is decreasing. Contact student.

  • Train driving: yellow: take care train speed should be decreasing (more). Apply brakes.

  • Passenger: yellow: take care, time left to catch a train in decreasing. Increase walking speed.

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    1 Task analysis

    A common professional action is comparing current performance against a target performance. In all cases, the actions of the professionals are:

  • Perceive the current value.

  • Determine the target value.

  • Calculate the difference.

  • Make adjustments based on the reliability of the values.

  • Take into account the trend.

  • Human activities:


    train driver’s 

    traveller’s activities.

    Obtain information



    Perceive actual value:

    student’s performance now;

    train speed now;

    time now.


    Target value:


    performance level planned;


    train speed below safe speed and above scheduled speed;


    time of departure.


    <target; =target; >target.




    Focus attention if:

    student is below target;

    speed is above safety target;

    traveller might miss his train.

    Trend, e.g.:

    mostly student catches up;

    mostly at next station driver can gain 2 minutes;

    mostly this departure is delayed.


    good or bad test

    speedometer error +/-5km/h

    clock incorrect.




    If >0:

    next subject to learn;

    now: slow down to save energy (next time delay departure);

    get coffee next time: stay in bed longer.

    If =0:

    next subject to learn;

    maintain speed;

    continue walking.

    If <0:

    remedial action;

    increase speed/ brake shortly

    walk faster .

    If <<0:

    call student; next time test in an earlier phase;

    brake now!;

    decide now: run fast for coffee.

    If  too much <0:

    remove student from course;

    safety system brakes;

    train missed, appointment missed.


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    2 Obtain information

    2.1 Readable numbers

    Perceptual psychology has specified how to present numbers in a readable way. This includes how to use leading zero's, capitals, underline, fonts and digitally presented characters (segment and matrix fonts). With these specifications it is easy to find the best design to present a student’s score, train speed and the time of departure.For all professionals leading zero's, underlining, non-serif characters and digitally characters, should not be used. These characteristics impair readability. All professionals need to know the difference between the current value and the target value. Analysis of interfaces shows that it is often not understood that it is the computer who should perform this computing.

    Train driver

    Difference between current train speed (white hand, 130 km/h) and maximum train speed (white border, 150 km/h) is indicated in such a way that the high speed train driver does not need to calculate the difference (see figure immediate below).

    ETCS speed indicator
    Interface for train speed and safety, ETCS, 1995

    Metro and bus indicator Amsterdam Arena
    Indicator for trains and buses, Amsterdam Arena, 2008
    Time to departure for metro's, no calculation for passengers.

    2.2 Obtain information, presentation using graphics

    The conclusion of perceptual psychology is clear: human eyes and human brains are not built for processing numbers. For instance, it is easy to survive in nature without being able to notice the difference between the character 8 and the character 9.Cognitive psychology learns that the visual presentation of a concept should be compatible with the concepts that the user has in mind. Seven is more that one and consequently it is better to present 7 larger. However, the visual difference (form and size) between 1 and 7 is small. Content and visual compatibility can be increased values numbers and their relations using graphics.


    Graphical presentation of a complex multi-dimensional overview of student performance.

    Hurry up (graphics: orange half circle), train will depart in 30 seconds.

    Train driver
    etcs ermts mmi experimental design
    Experimental graphical design for high speed and safety information.
    Car driverExperimental graphical design for high speed and safety control by a (self driving) car driver
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    3 Evaluation

    The difference between the current value and the target value has to be evaluated. All professionals do this in the same way: no problem, take care, immediate action!

    Evaluation: no attention

    The variable is within limits. No attention required, no unexpected information, user can consult information whenever he wants.


    Performance learning aim: counting


    to 5

    to 10

    to 15

    to 20

    to 100

    Pupil Bill passed the test (green background) and acquired the learning aim counting to 100 (Teacher examples here are simplifications of a more complex Learning Object Control System).

    Train driver
    ETCS, indication: braking will be needed shortly.
    No problem, current speed (white) below braking curve.
    Public transport indicator, board shortly.
    No hurry (no yellows, oranges and reds), you will catch your train.

    Evaluation: attention shortly!

    The variable has reached a level at which attention is required within a short period.


    Performance learning aim: counting


    to 5

    to 10

    to 15

    to 20

    to 100

    Pupil George's performance not OK (yellow background), yet, but acceptable.

    Train driver
    ETCS, indication train speed OK.
    Train speed OK now, but braking required within a few moments.
    Public transport indicator, board shortly.
    Sufficient time, go to train from this point(30 sec.), but too little time left for buying coffee.

    Evaluation: attention now!

    The variable has reached a level which is not OK , unacceptable, action now!


    Performance learning aim: counting


     to 5

     to 10

     to 15

     to 20

     to 100

    Pupil John's performance insufficient (orange background), remedial action is needed immediately before proceeding.
    Train driver
    ETCS, indication: braking will be needed shortly.
    Train speed is too high, train might pass next signal at danger, brake now!
    Public transport indicator, board now!
    Train will depart shortly (10 seconds), run now!

    Evaluation: game over

    The variable exceeded it's acceptable level. Despite warnings no action has been taken by the professional. Disaster will occur.

    Performance learning aim: counting


    to 5

    to 10

    to 15

    to 20

    to 100

    Pupil Mary will not finish this course (red backgrounds). She has to start again or abort this course.

    Train driver
    ETCS, indication: braking will be needed shortly.
    The train will pass the signal at danger. However, probably the train's safety system performs a system safety stop. The system assumes that the driver is incapable of performing his task. The ticket collector checks the driver.
    Public transport indicator, sufficient time for boarding.
    Train departed 1 minute ago without the passenger.
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    4 Next step

    The examples given were from real live projects and had to take account of traditional practice and available technology. We only could show that the interfaces for these professionals are similar in the way colour was used to control attention.When designed from a psychological top, to a professional bottom, there would be much more similarities between interfaces for different professionals.Finding these similarities would reduce interface design effort substantially. However, this will not lead to unemployment of designers. So far the tasks discussed were one dimensional. There is one dimension of learning objects, only a safe train speed is taken into account and the traveler focuses only on catching this train. Tasks are becoming more and more complex and so will the interfaces supporting professionals performing their task.


    Teaching arithmetic is not sufficient anymore. The pupil has to be taught to do it creative and in harmony with other pupils.
    Train driver

    Driving safely is not the only aim of a train driver. There also is a timetable and he should keep energy consumption low.

    The number of routes and options for a specific public transport trip increases too as well as the options for payment, price and services.
    Control of attention in daily life

    GUI and webaandacht sturing trekken kleurgebruik geel rood oranje infographics

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    Icon designaandacht trekken met rood geel bewegwijzering icon pictogram infographics

    Leren rekenen

    Psychologie kijkenaandacht trekken sturen met kleur geel rood oranje en geluid

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    Keuning en Roding, (2008). DRIS: lezen en wegwezen, Verkeerskunde, no 4, 27 mei.

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    cognitive psychology,  interface design, mmi, usability, web page design

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