Tuesday 4 May 2010

Bicycle ergonomics

I've been getting back on my bike lately, after a long absence that I'd like to say was enforced through some sort of heroic injury, but it's really just down to laziness. Anyway, it's been getting me thinking about the ergonomics of my bike, and bicycles in general. Apart from the obvious pain in the bummular region when you've been out of the saddle for a while, there are other physical and cognitive ergonomics issues on your bike that can impact on safety, efficiency, and satisfaction.

First up, let's look at the handlebars – a company called Ergon position themselves as specialising in bike ergonomics, with their flagship product being a range of ergonomic bar grips. The "anatomically optimised grip shape" is designed to relieve pressure on the ulnar nerves in the wrist, reducing pain and numbness by, it seems, supporting the heel of the hand. In my experience, and I'll agree that this is an unscientific sample size of one, I've never found this to be an issue. Possibly a cheaper and simpler alternative, as recommended to me by a keen cycling colleague I used to share an office with, is to adjust the standard setup of the brake levers that bikes are often sold with. Rather than having them at the horizontal (i.e., parallel to the ground), just droop them a bit for a more neutral hand position, eliminating the unnatural dorsiflexion which the standard setup enforces. I don't want to take too much away from Ergon's bar grips - I'd like to be clear that I haven't reviewed the evidence myself, and although I have a bugbear about claims of 'ergonomically designed' products, these guys seem to have a bit more credence than most.

On the cognitive side, I recently read Richard Guise's enjoyable and laid back novel, 'From the Mull to the Cape', charting his bicycle travelogue up the West Coast of Scotland. I was enthused to find that he'd picked up on an ergonomic issue with the gear levers on the handlebars – an issue I wholeheartedly agree with, having experienced it on my own Shimano set. There is inconsistency between the switches for the front and rear mech, which are controlled by levers on the left and right handlebar respectively. On the left, a flick of the thumb lever will take you up a gear, while the opposing lever takes you down; on the right, this arrangement is reversed. It sounds trivial, and if I understood the mechanics I'm sure there'd be a very good technical reason for it being this way. But from the user's perspective, it does make you think harder than you probably need to – and, even after much experience on the bike, this still confuses me from time to time (I even had to check my bike to make sure I had it the right way around before posting this).

Next up is the LightLane virtual bike lane, an innovative laser light mounted on your bicycle, which projects your own personal bike lane around you while you ride. It looks good, but I think the jury's out on its effectiveness. Potential ergonomic issues include drivers' perceptions as they approach you – this being quite an unusual product at present, and so they might not know what they're dealing with. Perhaps more insidiously, I've read comments on biking forums that cycle lanes actually serve to marginalise cyclists as 'non-traffic', creating a false sense of security and almost ratifying some drivers' attitudes of only giving cyclists the room they've been allocated (which is often less than they might otherwise allow if they were sharing the same tarmac).

Finally, something of a plea for my own personal ergonomics, now that I am back on my bike. Until our British weather finally sorts itself out – if anyone can recommend me a decent, windproof, breathable and high-visibility soft shell (most of my commuting is on-road), I'd be a much safer, more comfortable, and, I'm sure, efficient rider. As for the pain in the rear, I'll just ride it out thanks.

Friday 15 January 2010

Driver distractons - the next generation

Hot on the heels (well, at least warm on the heels) of my last post about texting and driving, news from the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas is that Ford is blazing a trail with a whole new raft of potentially distracting technologies.  "MyFord" essentially offers mobile phone apps through the car using wifi or 3G technology.

I don't need to go into detail about why this might be bad - partly because I don't want to invite trouble (at least until we get the libel reform through), but mainly because the points have been well made elsewhere.  In this article, parallels are drawn with the mobile phone problem, which we already know so much about.  Meanwhile, the Consumer Reports Blog makes some excellent points about how MyFord has been designed according to principles learned from household and consumer products.  But, and I'll quote, "should portable electronics and home appliances really be the benchmark for automotive interface design?"

In all fairness, I haven't even seen the interface myself, so I'm just speculating, and I could therefore add a little balance to the argument.  Perhaps, if the interface is well designed, it might reduce distraction by bringing all the drivers' in-car infotainment interactions in one place.  The ergonomic view argues that an integrated interface is better than lots of disparate systems dotted all over the car, vying for attention with their bells and whistles.  And if, as we might as well accept, drivers aren't going to stop using their phones and will invariably bring other nomadic devices into the car, maybe it's better that we have a bit of control over that and design it into the car?

Probably this is clutching at straws.  But who am I to say - we should let the research sort it out.  And for that, maybe we should thank Ford for putting more research opportunities out there...

Monday 4 January 2010

Texting while driving

Okay, so I'm catching up on stuff after the Christmas break, but this is one paper that's made quite a splash - I'm certainly not the first to be blogging about it.  The latest issue of the journal Human Factors features a paper by Frank Drews and colleagues which, I gather, is the first peer-reviewed study on the effects of texting on driver performance.

As you might expect, texting and driving is bad.  Worse, in fact, than talking on the phone - and we already know that's bad enough, having been equated to serious drink-driving.  Texting slows brake reactions, impairs longitudinal and lateral control, and increases crash risk.

The study has already attracted some critcism for only involving young drivers - but I'd say that if young people can't text and drive, then the effects would be worse for older drivers.  The research will, I'm sure, be done in time, and this paper will no doubt become very heavily cited.

One other implication in the media coverage which concerns me is the potential for this to drown the effects of talking on the phone while driving - some of the articles I've seen are spun to suggest that because texting is so bad, phoning isn't so bad after all.  We (as a community) need to make sure that we don't forget how bad phoning and driving is - whether handheld or hands-free.

Surprisingly, you can download this paper for free here - though how long this will be available I don't know.

Review of the decade

At the end of every year, there always seems to be a contagion of top 10 (or 100, or 1000) lists in the media reviewing the previous 12 months - usually on TV, featuring various rent-a-quote nonentities.  Naturally, at the end of 2009, there were even more of these to ensure we'd covered the last 10 years.  However, a couple of websites have caught my eye as they've been reviewing the technological progress in the 'noughties'.

I must have a short memory, as I was quite surprised to see just how many gadgets that we now take for granted are less than a decade old.  The iPod and iPhone, Freeview and flatscreen TVs, and more recently the Kindle and other e-book readers have all been born since 2000.  Perhaps with even more impact, the rise of the social web started in 2000 with the launch of Friends Reunited.

Obviously I'm interested in the human-centred design implications of such advances.  It all serves to reinforce my long-held conviction that with the world getting more technological, the implications for cognitive ergonomics are ever more significant.  I'm sure I said somewhere that the 21st century is the century of the user...

Friday 18 December 2009

The end of the 60th

So 2009 is coming to an end, and with it I think a rather successful 60th anniversary year for the Ergonomics Society - or should I say, the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (IEHF), for on 20th October the change of name was officially approved by Companies House.

Naturally I'm biased towards the exhibition at the Design Museum - which runs to 7th March 2010, so we are prolonging the celebrations a bit. Trying to be as objective as possible, 'Ergonomics: Real Design' has gone down pretty well so far. Last time I reported on the excellent media coverage at the opening and the VIP reception a few days later. Since then it has been picked up by other national and international listings (including the Wall Street Journal), and the other day I learned it was even getting exposure in New Zealand courtesy of Dave Moore of the NZ Ergonomics Society. By all accounts visitor feedback is good and footfall at the Design Museum is up, though we're in the process of conducting our formal evaluations to see just how big an impact the exhibition has had.

Next year we plan to keep the momentum going through (hopefully) touring the exhibition internationally, and an IEHF campaign to better integrate ergonomics into design process. Despite the fact that it's "just another year", I'm sure we'll be just as busy and I do, of course, plan to keep you updated here!

In the meantime, it only remains for me to wish everyone reading this, a very Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Friday 27 November 2009

Ergonomics: Real Design

Well, it's finally arrived - all of our hard work over the last year or so has paid off, and the Ergonomics: Real Design exhibition at London's Design Museum is now open.

There was a media preview last Tuesday, which generated us some excellent coverage on the BBC and in The Independent, as well as several popular design magazines. Then it opened to the public on Wednesday, and by all accounts the feedback is good, and people are engaging with the exhibition as we hoped.

Last night was the big fanfare though - the Ergonomics Society (now officially known as the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors) held a private VIP reception for over 100 people, which - in my humble opinion - went down very well indeed. There was certainly a real buzz about the place, and for me it really brought it home that the exhibition had really happened. I think until I saw people actually going round it, it hadn't quite sunk in with me. All very exciting.

I must say thanks again to everyone who pulled together to make it happen - Fergus, Gemma, Margaret, Laura, Roger, Colin, and of course Reg, who got the ball rolling in the first place and has stuck with the project all the way through. Finally, a nod to the sponsors, the EPSRC, who are evidently quite pleased with it as it's currently featuring on the front page of their website too.

For more info, see the Design Museum's website.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Human-centred ketchup!

I just couldn't resist following up with this little tidbit I heard on the Chris Evans show on Radio 2, on the way home from my driving meeting I just blogged about. His theme for the show was red vs. brown - that is, in terms of sauces. He had a representative from Heinz giving us the history of ketchup, but the bit that pricked my ears up was his explanation of the design decision to turn the bottles upside-down. In almost his exact words, basically he said that it was designed by the people - their customers, the users. They'd observed and listened, and decided the upside-down bottle would satisfy a key user need.

Who'd have thought it? Human-centred design in action at Heinz. Marvellous.

I'm sure you can listen to the show on BBC iPlayer for a little while, but I couldn't tell you exactly when in the show this interview happened - it was definitely in the first hour, but I was too busy watching the road rather than watching the clock, of course.

New cars, new toys

I’ve been playing with new cars again today – one of the few perks of the job which crop up from time to time. I can’t give too much away as it was a closed meeting, but most of the cars and their associated technologies are already on the market so I can talk in general terms. Suffice to say I got to drive several cars much more valuable than my own (some would even pay off my mortgage…), and each jam-packed with active safety gadgets. In fact, that was one of my first observations – the sheer amount of technology and computing power now being rammed into cars, with radars, cameras and sensors literally everywhere.

Anyway, that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. I’ve aired my thoughts about vehicle automation before on this blog, so I won’t go over old ground, but there was a couple of new observations I wanted to pick up on.

One or two of the vehicle manufacturers are using speed sign recognition cameras, sometimes coupled with a GPS map database, to display current speed limit information inside the car. I can only think this is a Good Thing – I don’t have evidence, but to my mind many speeding offences aren’t for lack of restraint, rather are to do with drivers missing or forgetting the last sign they passed. Sometimes the road environment even tries to trip us up, with outdated laws preventing the use of repeater signs for 30mph limits, for instance. I for one would really like one of these cars with a speed limit aide-memoire, and would much prefer that over an ISA system which just stops me from speeding. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a speeder, it just makes me uncomfortable to take control from the driver in that way. And this is a personal and professional opinion, as I’ve written about in this paper.

Which brings me onto my next point – who’s in charge? The same paper talks about philosophies of ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’ automation – basically regarding who has the last power of veto, the computer (hard) or the human (soft). We’ve seen aircraft manufacturers take different approaches based on these philosophies, and it’s now fascinating to see vehicle manufacturers doing the same thing. My view is the same as it’s always been – we should support drivers, not replace them. But I qualify that in the paper by talking about ‘below the line’ vehicle operations (such as ABS, ESC – and I could now include last-minute collision mitigation in that) which can be automated since they don’t consciously affect the driver’s task.

It seems that many of these technologies are going down well with the customers. My concern is whether that translates into better (safer) driving (for which we don’t have the data yet), and if there are any longer-term behavioural compensations that might cancel out any beneficial effects.

One thing I certainly didn’t expect from the day, though, was for the cars to be groping me – one of them had a seat massager (for passengers), while another had a ‘dynamic seat bolster’ to stop you sliding about in corners. Definitely a new experience for me…

Friday 16 October 2009

Ghosts of transport yet to come

I had the privilege this week of presenting at the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety's (PACTS) conference on 'Beyond 2010: the challenges ahead'. This was largely centred around the proposed road safety strategy for the future (which I've commented on before) and had a very much 'what are we going to do about it' feel. Interestingly, the opening sessions were largely focused on the environmental aspects of driving and promotion of eco-driving, as opposed to safe driving. I found this surprising given the context, but perhaps represents a shift in emphasis for transport policy. Naturally I was banging the drum for human-centred design and how it can solve all our problems for safe and eco-driving in the future. Simple as that.

One of the most memorable presentations from the day was the last one (probably a recency effect...) from ACPO's Mick Giannasi, talking in part about Gwent Police's recent campaign on texting and driving. The 'Cow' video has made it around the world already and has had some ten million hits apparently, even though it was only supposed to be a local thing and was done on a budget of about £10k. (Excerpts are on YouTube - link above - though you have to log in as it's deemed to be graphic material.) This is just amazing impact from both road safety and public engagement perspectives. Mick also showed evidence of how it's already working locally, with its first screening at an event for young drivers in South Wales - cameras were trained on the crowd to record reactions, and interviews afterwards showed the effect it had on those present. It really is hard-hitting.

After the PACTS conference I went straight to Imperial College for the Lloyd's Register Educational Trust's Annual Lecture in Transport Risk Management. Gretchen Burrett, Director of Safety at National Air Traffic Services (NATS), talked about human factors in aviation and air traffic control. She gave a really splendid exposition of the benefits of human factors in safety-critical systems. One of the stand-out points for me was how they're actually recording positive changes in behaviour as markers of effectiveness for HF in the cost-benefit analysis - that's as opposed to just monitoring reductions in errors or accidents. I was really impressed with this approach - I've long thought that one of our biggest barriers in uptake of HF is persuading people of the benefits. Since nobody notices the absence of accidents, people like Gretchen are otherwise the unsung heroes of safety. Measuring positive changes that people will actually notice is a great way for HF to hammer home its message.

Monday 5 October 2009

Distracted and inattentive

Last week I attended the First International Conference on Driver Distraction and Inattention, held at Lindholmen Science Park in Gothenburg. The site is next door to Chalmers University, which itself has good links with Volvo research – so it was an excellent choice of venue, and as you can see from the pictures, a very pleasant setting to boot.

The conference itself was top notch too, with some high profile speakers and delegates, and a programme jam-packed with interesting papers for people of our ilk. In fact, there were often too many to choose from, with three parallel sessions meaning I missed a lot of stuff I wanted to see – and the proceedings aren’t going to be out for a few months either. But I’d rather have too much choice than too little – sign of a good conference for me.

We were well represented for the HCDI at Brunel – Stewart Birrell presented a paper on our Foot-LITE project, while I got involved with a symposium on roadside advertising. This is still a very hot topic, and quite timely for me as my paper has just been published in Transportation Research Part F.

The ever-ebullient Peter Hancock gave a philosophical perspective to open the conference, arguing that it is perhaps driving which forms the distraction from life, rather than life being a distraction from driving, and how the different roles we play in life can affect our role as ‘driver’. Coincidentally, these kinds of thoughts are reflected in a recent post by Tom Vanderbilt as well. I like the notion of driving being a distraction from life – it accords with what a lot of people argue about life being too busy and everyone being time-poor these days (which brings us full circle with the ‘need’ for the car to be a mobile office). However, I’m not sure where it gets us in terms of solving the problem – however you view driving, it’s still a safety-critical task, and our job is to make it as safe as possible.

Other interesting themes emerged from the conference; as you might expect a number of papers looked at the effects of in-vehicle technology – both positive and negative – while there was also a reasonable amount of research on older drivers. Perhaps disappointingly, given the great efforts of the organisers to include inattention in the conference title, most of what I saw focused on distraction rather than its cognitive cousin.

Overall they packed an awful lot into two days that it felt like a longer conference (in a good way!) – including a great social dinner at the Universeum science centre, which was duly sold to us as having a traffic safety exhibition … and sharks.