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.

Friday, 21 August 2009

An autopian future?

I don’t feel right snaffling someone else’s blog posts, but I just had to pick up on this gem from Tom Vanderbilt, as it’s so close to my own research interests. (Tom’s is an excellent blog for driving buffs, too, and he’s always got something interesting.)

The ‘Autonomobile’ from Mike and Maaike is a design exercise to come up with a driverless car. This kind of thing comes around from time to time, and the Autonomobile is reminiscent of Concept 2096 (not a great link, but the only one I could find with an image) – another one developed to mark 100 years of the automobile, and an early inspiration in my PhD work. Interestingly, as I remarked on Tom’s blog, these are very similar but the anticipated timeframe is coming down – by 50 years, as the Autonomobile is apparently set for 2040.

I’m less convinced. Yes, these guys are right that technically speaking, we’re not far off. In controlled, closed-loop systems it is possible – see the Heathrow Personal Rapid Transit on their website, which we’ve been looking at lately. But there’s a bunch more human factors which mean that last 20 per cent (or 10, or 5) will be the real struggle. Mainly it’s the reliability issue – until the systems become so good that we can literally sit back and read the paper, there’ll always be the expectation of a human being there to supervise and save the day. And if there’s one fundamental which has come out of all the research on automation – vehicle or otherwise – it’s that humans don’t make good supervisors. We’re meant to do, not watch.

Besides, as others have pointed out, such ‘fully automated’ cars already exist to let us work, socialise etc. during the drive – they’re called taxis. And that’s the other side of the human factors equation – the social acceptability of automated cars. For one, a lot of people drive because they enjoy it. But the harder one to crack will be trust in these systems – will people ever really let go and switch off? And what happens if(when) there’s an accident – who’s to blame?

Driving Ergonomics Special Interest Group

Yesterday I went to the inaugural meeting of the Ergonomics Society’s newest Special Interest Group (SIG) – the Driving Ergonomics SIG. This was hosted at Cranfield University, though the SIG has been set up and chaired by Nick Gkikas of Loughborough University.

There’s currently some 20-odd members in the SIG, and more than half of those turned up yesterday. It’s a really good mix of academic and industrial members too, with representatives from the likes of Jaguar, Nissan, and TRL.

The meeting had a speed-dating feel to it, with rapid fire presentations from a selection of attendees – Steve Summerskill from Loughborough, Chris Day from Nissan, me, and Nick Reed from TRL – all in less than an hour! But this was quite nice to get a sampler of the backgrounds of members. And whether by accident or design, there was good balance between physical ergonomics (Steve and Chris) and the more cognitive side (Nick and me).

It already promises to be a highly active SIG, with much discussion (at the time and afterwards via the new LinkedIn group) about the objectives of the SIG and what various members want to get out of it. We’re planning to meet quarterly, and longer-term ambitions are to have some outputs – maybe a conference session, for instance. I certainly think it’s a Good Thing, and with such an enthusiastic membership it has a lot of momentum behind it.

I’m only sorry I couldn’t get to the pub for more discussion afterwards – but then I was driving home, so couldn’t have sampled the local’s finest anyway…

Friday, 31 July 2009

HCI International 2009

So this is slightly old news now, but seeing as I've finally got over the jet lag and on top of my inbox, I'm just about in a position to tell you about the Human-Computer Interaction International conference I went to last week.

HCII is a series of conferences which has assimilated nine other conference series over the years. I started going to Don Harris'
Engineering Psychology & Cognitive Ergonomics conferences from
the first one in 1996, and then at the 4th conference these came under the HCII umbrella. Interestingly, this year saw the first appearance of a conference track on human-centred design (though they insisted on using the US English spelling, with an extra 'e' in 'centered').

I was privileged to chair a session on each of the EP&CE and HCD tracks, also presenting on our Foot-LITE project in the EP&CE session. Both were interesting sessions with a varied set of topics; the EP&CE session focusing on transport automation, with examples from rail, road (two wheels and four!) and air, while the HCD session covered applications from mobile phones to web design.

The rest of the conference was packed with interesting papers and posters - indeed, the biggest problem with this series is that with
so many tracks, it's hard to decide what you want to go to (let alone keeping on top of the timetable). And it was in a great location - the Town & Country resort in San Diego. The hotel is a little removed from the downtown centre, but next door to a couple of big shopping malls - which offered good eating and drinking options. San Diego is just lovely, a perfect climate and a really good feel to the town.

Curiously, I quite often bumped into the odd superhero around the hotel. I did ponder for a while what interest the Watchmen might have in HCI, but then I realised there was also a big comic conference in town at the same time...

Friday, 17 July 2009

Ergonomics in the news

As I'm sure many others do, I subscribe to Google's news alerts looking out for media stories on ergonomics and/or human factors. When I first signed up, there wasn't a lot of activity, and the stuff they picked up on was pretty obscure. More recently, though, there's been a lot more substantial pickings coming through. Whether this is due to Google getting even better at what they do, or more ergonomics stories in the news, I don't know, but either way it's a good sign in my book.

Then the other day my good mate Steve Shorrock sets up a couple of blogs to help the cause further – Ergonomics & Human Factors in the News, and Ergonomics & Human Factors: Research into Practice. Both of these are going to be great sources of info on popular applications of ergonomics for those both in and outside the field, and I highly recommend them to you. It’s kind of half what I had in mind for this blog, actually, but Steve’s doing a far better job of it than I would, so I’ll leave that to him and focus on other things.

I can only see these kinds of developments as good news for ergonomics – getting the stories more widely distributed and making them more accessible to the people that really matter – the end users!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Human factors is back in business!

I’ve been getting a bit more into this blogging lark, realising that it’s more about participation in the ‘blogosphere’ than just standing on a soapbox. Preaching to the converted for anyone reading this, I’m sure, but setting the context for this week’s post.

The fact that we’ve had a couple of major air accidents in recent weeks has resulted in the usual rash of media stories (and now bloggers) commenting on whether the skies are safe any more. What's good about these is they get people thinking about the human factors involved - for good or ill.

This commentary on FastCompany (with thanks to Ferg for flagging this one up) is trying to say the right things, but for me they’re just not getting their teeth into the human factors at the heart of the issue. And, according to the pilot who comments on the post, it’s ill-informed.

Anyone interested in aviation human factors please have a look at the post and see what you think. I for one couldn’t help but join in and have my tuppence worth.

On a more promising tack, this Reuters article picks up on the Air France and Yemeni airliner crashes, seemingly for no other reason that they were within weeks of each other. And both involved Airbuses, but that’s a different story.

Encouragingly, this one does report better on the human factors issues, alluding to mental models and human-machine cooperation. Whilst I wholeheartedly support the promotion of HF on the safety agenda, I do find it difficult to see the link between the facts and the story here, though. As far as I gather, the Air France crash is still a mystery (and looks set to remain one, which befuddles me in these modern times), and I’m not sure we know what happened in the Indian Ocean yet either.

But what really hit me about this particular article was the quote from the President of the Flight Safety Foundation, who says, “We’re back in the human factors business”. As I teach my students that aviation led the way in a lot of human factors, I wonder when they were ever out of the HF business?

Friday, 26 June 2009

Armchair ergonomists

I’ve been to a couple of events this week that have inspired me to think more about how to engage a wider public with ergonomics and human-centred design issues.

The first was the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference, an excellent event with a star-studded list of presenters, including Lord Professor Robert Winston, Professor Kathy Sykes, and Professor Jim Al-Khalili. One of the key principles of this whole area is that we (as scientists) don’t just sit in our ivory towers and assume everyone’s stupid and that we have to teach them. Science Communication is a two-way process, and actually most (non-scientist) people are starting from a baseline with a bit of knowledge about a lot of things.

This is something I think wholeheartedly applies to ergonomics. In fact, most people are amateur ergonomists – everyone knows, on some level, when they’ve used a product or system that has been well (or badly) designed. A lot of them would have a good idea of how they want it fixed, too. I mean, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? A human-centred design process starts with identifying the users’ needs, and who best to tell us about them? So the only problem, as far as I see it, is that these amateur ergonomists just don’t call it ergonomics – and consequently might not think to turn to ‘professional’ ergonomists or The Ergonomics Society.

And that brings me onto my second point – which was inspired by discussions at The Ergonomics Society’s awayday, where Council met up to discuss our vision and strategy for the future. The old ‘ergonomically designed product’ chestnut was rolled out (which I’ve blogged on before – and will come back to later), and that set my train of thought off on armchair ergonomists again. Because it’s about understanding what ergonomics is really about – so not only are people sometimes acting as ergonomists without knowing it, they’re also being sold a perception of ergonomics which is inaccurate.

There’s a great little anecdote from our experience at Cheltenham which illustrates this nicely. I got talking to a little girl and her family about our stand and what ergonomics is all about, and they told me a story about a design exercise the girl did at school recently, to design a pencil that’s easier to use for people. She explained how she made it slightly bigger so it’s easier to hold, shaped for the hand, and grip areas for the fingers. I told her she was being an ergonomist without even realising it! The best bit was that she refrained from just putting a bit of rubber on the pencil…

Friday, 19 June 2009

Distracted drivers

Something I’ve been meaning to post on since I saw it a month ago, is a story on ergoweb with a new perspective on the perennial problem of driver distractions from mobile phones. As the article comments, and as I’ve mentioned here a few times before, the fact that mobile phones are distracting is nothing new to ergonomists. But this new research from Liberty Mutual suggests that drivers aren’t aware of how much they’re being distracted.

I think this is interesting from a number of perspectives. There’s all the deep psychological stuff, such as the interaction between mental workload and situation awareness (that is, the fact that they’re loaded with a distracting task possibly affects their own self-awareness of their performance, let alone awareness of the road situation). And there’s the practical implications, like how drivers will be more willing to engage in these activities if they don’t see them as a problem – also relevant to drink, drugs, fatigue, and any number of driver impairments.

The story focuses on in-car distractions, but it’s also piqued my interest in outside distractions to – relevant to a study I conducted on roadside advertising in our driving simulator at Brunel, which has just been published in Transportation Research Part F. I was stunned by the impact this study had with people on both sides of the argument – safety campaigners and advertising professionals alike – and the preliminary report I produced has been widely circulated while the paper was in the publication process. In fact, the advertising industry commissioned an “independent” report specifically to discredit my report, which mainly criticised the study on the grounds it hadn’t been peer-reviewed (which it has now) and that it was conducted in a simulator (which I defended in the paper). I should probably be upset that they commissioned this report, but it’s actually faintly amusing that they took the study so seriously.

Anyway, I see a clear link from this to the Liberty Mutual findings about awareness of distractions. Advertising, by its nature, is designed to attract attention – almost without us knowing it, otherwise it hasn’t done its job. So it’s a double-whammy if drivers are unwillingly being distracted, and then being unaware of how that’s affected their driving. But it’s not just that – if there’s an intuitive belief that distractions such as advertising don’t seem so bad, then it means there’s an even more pressing need for hard quantitative data to close the case.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Cheltenham Festival of Science

No prizes for guessing what this post is about – last week we took a sample of the Real World Design exhibition to the Cheltenham Festival of Science as a sneak preview for them and a test run for us. Needless to say, this was a fantastic opportunity, afforded to us by some great work in the Ergonomics Society office, which we grabbed with both hands.

Cheltenham is one of the biggest science festivals in the UK, and always attracts some star names – we caught a glimpse of Robert Winston floating about; also in attendance and giving lectures were the likes of Richard Hammond, Carol Vorderman, and Alice Roberts (though I'm personally disappointed I didn't bump into her).

The preview exhibit we took was related to the ergonomics of the Sky TV remote control, which is the most advanced piece of work we currently have on the exhibition project. Fergus Bisset, the design researcher on the project, did a stellar job of putting together an innovative stand at short notice, complete with interactive elements. Fergus also carried the can for the whole duration of the festival, assisted on different days by staff and members of the Ergonomics Society, who kindly gave up their time to help out (pictured right is Dave O’Neill, Chief Executive of the Ergonomics Society). Our thanks go out to all, it was an enormous help and above and beyond the call of duty.

All in all I think we can say it was a successful week – just getting the exhibit into Cheltenham was an achievement in itself! But we also had a lot of interest from children and adults alike, helped no end by being on the EPSRC’s ‘Impact Trail’, so the children were encouraged to come and see us for an answer in their question booklet. It’s also been a learning experience in taking things forward to the big exhibition in November – which I know will come round sooner than we think.

Friday, 29 May 2009

A safer way: road safety consultation

I've been meaning to mention this in my blog for a while, but other newsworthy things have been happening to report on. Anyway, the UK's Department for Transport currently has open a consultation on road safety strategy to take us beyond 2010, when the current strategy expires.

I've been feeding in comments via a couple of avenues, which I don't need to go into too much detail about here, but on the whole I'm actually rather reassured by what I've seen. The main win, in my eyes, is the key acknowledgement of the 'systems' approach in road safety - that is, viewing the road, the vehicle, and the driver as an interactive system, where you can't just treat any one element in isolation. Indeed, this is reflective of a general move towards such thinking in road safety at the European level.

Of course, systems thinking has been an underpinning tenet of ergonomics for some 60 years now (as I found out last week), and whilst I'm not sure we can claim the credit for influencing these high-level policy-makers, it's good to see the principles being taken on board. Happy coincidence or otherwise, personally I don't care where it came from, the good news is that we're all starting to think on the same wavelength.

There are also some positive noises regarding the role of technology in road (vehicle) safety - in terms of primary safety, crash avoidance systems, where they're calling for an evidence-based approach to implementation. The gloss is taken off a little as they seem to slightly overlook the ergonomics issues; the evidence they're seeking is more in terms of technical reliability. So there is room for more critical response to the consultation, after all.

If you have a vested interest in road safety I would encourage a review of the consultation document, and if you feel so inclined to respond then there's nothing stopping you. My views are just my views, and I wouldn't presume to try and sway your opinion, but to my mind it just needs a bit more of a human-centred approach.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Ergonomics Society Annual Lecture

On Tuesday evening this week I had the pleasure of attending the Ergonomics Society Annual Lecture, given by Professor Rob Stammers of the University of Leicester, on 'Kenneth Craik: a progenitor for ergonomics'. It was at the Royal Society of Arts, just off the Strand in London - a prestigious venue with very nice hospitality beforehand!

Craik was a psychologist who did his most profound work during the Second World War, and as Rob explained, was really ahead of his time in coming up with ergonomics issues and theories that we're still working with today. And remember that this is a good 5-10 years before the formation of the Ergonomics Research Society (now The Ergonomics Society) in 1949.

There were many gems in Craik's work that stood out for me, not least of all his exposition of the systems approach as necessary to understand the interplay between human and machine. For me, as someone still (relatively!) early in his career, this was a bit of a revelation as I always thought that systems thinking was a relatively recent approach - it's certainly only just getting into the minds of road safety experts (see the Department for Transport's recent consultation - I'll come back to this another time).

The other one that really hit me was how - as Rob explained it - Craik saw ergonomics as a means of genetic modification in design evolution. In other words, we can't wait for design to evolve out the bad genes, as there's too much at stake - we have to accelerate the process. This is a lovely turnaround from what I often teach my students, in that technology and design are nowadays evolving so quickly that they're outpacing the human ability to keep up.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Museums and conferences

It’s been another busy week, with a couple of interesting days providing great opportunities to wave the flag for human-centred design and ergonomics.

On Tuesday I gave a presentation at the Design Museum to other university lecturers in design, as part of the museum’s ‘Design Factory’ student initiative. I won’t steal the museum’s thunder by saying too much about that here; it’ll appear on the museum’s website in due course. But suffice to say the museum has given us the fantastic opportunity to get involved with this initiative and linking it in with the ergonomics exhibition we’re showcasing there later in the year.

The next day I was invited to give a talk at a conference on drink and drug driving, organised by the road safety charity Brake. They’d picked up on my recent experiment on driving when hungover, which I conducted for RSA, the UK’s largest commercial insurer. I’m quite conscious of the fact that the study hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal as yet, so I prefaced the talk with caveats about it being a pilot study – but it seems there isn’t much else in this area as yet, so Brake welcomed my data as a starting point for discussion. And if nothing else, it suggests more work is needed in this area.

The rest of the conference was really interesting too, with a number of presentations on campaigns such as the Think! campaign, ‘Talk to Frank’, and an innovative campaign in Scotland exploiting social media such as Facebook and MSN. Clearly there’s a lot of potential in this area, and whilst I’m trying to tap into some of it with this blog, I’m keen to learn more about harnessing it in my research and public engagement activities – so hopefully the blog will get slicker as time goes on!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Crash-proof cars!

I'm fortunate enough to be involved with various groups through my work with the Ergonomics Society, one of which is the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS), as I sit on their Vehicle Design Working Party. At our meeting this week, which was kindly hosted by Thatcham, we got to play with a bunch of new cars fitted with various advanced driver assistance systems.

I'm not going to risk my neck by naming manufacturers, but in short we were able to try a variety of collision mitigation and avoidance systems, as well as different variations on lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist systems. These particularly appealed to me as I'm interested in the effects of such automation on the driver and how the technologies interface with the human.

I've written a paper on how automotive automation can be divided into 'vehicle automation' and 'driving automation' - with the former being all those 'below the line' aspects, which don't impinge on the driver's conscious awareness (such as ABS or ESC), while the latter affect the more 'in your face' aspects of driving (such as ACC or lane-keeping systems). Collision mitigation is an awkward one as it can straddle the line - but in the cars we tried this week, the system only kicks in as a very last-minute attempt to save the day, way after the driver would respond, so in my opinion this falls just on the side of vehicle automation. So it was great to get the chance to try both sorts - and I'd like to share my own personal views on these.

On the whole, the collision mitigation systems were impressive, with successive generations improving on the last (and even a new prototype system that isn't on the market yet, which was widely viewed to be the best so far). Some of them had early warnings, like an icon on the dashboard or an auditory warning - which were really quite ineffectual in such emergency situations. The latest version improves somewhat on these by flashing a massive red light (pretty much a brake light) on your windscreen slightly in advance of intervening itself - giving you at least half a chance to respond.

There was much more variation in application - and opinion - for the lane departure systems though. Different manufacturers opted for different feedback options, whether that's a seat rumble, a steering wheel vibration, or an auditory warning; one manufacturer goes so far as to 'help' the driver by providing gentle resistance to get you back in lane. Personally I felt the steering wheel vibration was most ergonomic, as it's almost exactly what you'd get on a white line rumble strip - so very naturalistic and in line with drivers' expectations. The seat vibration came second for me, with its advantage of being directional (left buttock for left lane excursion and vice versa). I liked the lane-keeping assist, but I thought it was rather subtle and could easily be ignored by most drivers (it feels a bit like a road camber). The auditory warning again was least effective, giving no naturalistic relation to the task nor direction information.

Interface issues aside, the really interesting thing I noticed was the level of debate around the lane-keeping assist/departure warning systems as compared to the collision mitigation systems, with the latter meeting with universal approval from the group. Possibly this might have something to do with the more consistent interfaces, but I think there's also something in the vehicle/driving automation distinction, being as the collision mitigation systems were essentially below the line - like I said, way beyond the point of recovery for human reactions. It really was a safety net. Lane-keeping, on the other hand, was seen as still the driver's domain, and a lot of people were frustrated at the tactile feedback systems - despite these ostensibly being the most 'ergonomic'.

Ultimately, if we are to go down the route of crash-proofing cars through technology (which seems to be the trend - EuroNCAP now assess cars according to their crash avoidance technologies such as ESC), I think we do have to pay attention to the driver/vehicle distinction with automation, and be a lot more careful about how we implement driver automation.

Friday, 1 May 2009

A grand opening

It must be the season for events, as hot on the heels of the Ergonomics Society Anniversary Conference last week, this week it was Brunel University’s turn to steal a little limelight with a major event for the official opening of the Michael Sterling building.

Professor Michael Sterling is a former Vice-Chancellor of Brunel, and having just retired he was the honoured guest at the event. The Michael Sterling building provides extra teaching, research and lab space for the School of Engineering and Design, and is a very modern building with some attractive spaces.

We were privileged in the Human-Centred Design Institute to play our part at the event, starting from the off as Fergus Bisset, who is working with me on the Real World Design exhibition, eloquently opened the proceedings – complete with kilt and all. After the formalities and a buffet lunch, there was a series of seminars showcasing the different research groupings in the School. Dr Hua Dong, Prof Joseph Giacomin and myself gave part of the Design & Manufacture seminar to highlight our work in the HCDI.

All in all we hope it was a positive and beneficial event for our external visitors, but it was even a good chance to catch up on the research activities of our own colleagues in the School – something we don’t get a chance to do often enough. One project which caught my eye was the Brunel X-team electric motorbike, being entered in the Isle of Man TTXGP on June 12th. I’m looking forward to watching that on telly – and only wish we could’ve done something on the human-centred design aspects of the bike!

Friday, 24 April 2009

Ergonomics Society Anniversary Conference

The highlight of this week has to be the Ergonomics Society 60th Anniversary Conference, held Wednesday and Thursday at the Royal College of Physicians just by The Regent’s Park in London.

Actually the festivities kicked off on Tuesday evening with a VIP reception, where we were showered with wine and nibbles and treated to a couple of top drawer speeches from Dr Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, and Professor Pieter Rookmaaker, President of the Federation of European Ergonomics Societies (FEES). Dr Gibson’s speech was particularly encouraging, being a member of the Innovation Universities and Skills Committee and someone who’s especially sympathetic to the ergonomics cause. Prof Rookmaaker also drew our attention to the first European Ergonomics conference to be held in Bruges from 10th October 2010 – surely a must-attend event.

Wednesday and Thursday were the main session days, where there were several plenary papers given by esteemed ergonomists from around the world, plus a bunch of interesting sessions on topics from public health, through human factors integration, to accidents and human error.

I teamed up with Prof Jan Noyes from Bristol and Dr Sarah Sharples from Nottingham to give a session on automation, which proved intimidatingly popular with standing room only at the back. One of those where you deliberately avoid looking at the audience for fear you’ll get stage fright. I also chaired a session on road ergonomics with papers from Dr Alex Stedmon (also at Nottingham), Nick Gkikas from Loughborough, and Dr Sandy Robertson of UCL.

Fergus Bisset (who was Twittering away during the conference) and I had a stand promoting the Real World Design exhibition at the Design Museum (see my blogpost here for more), which attracted good attention from the delegates and gave us some more ideas for exhibits in the medical and consumer product areas.

Socially it was great as well, always a good opportunity to catch up with old networks and make new ones, with a very posh dinner on Wednesday night courtesy of our hosts at the RCP. And let’s not forget the location – a glorious part of London, so quiet and leafy that you could easily forget you’re actually in the capital. The RCP itself was an excellent venue, especially the Dorchester Library where the VIP reception was held.

Next year’s conference reverts to the more traditional format – this one was special for the anniversary – and will be at Keele University in Staffordshire. Hopefully see you there!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Driving technology

Well, I had a break for Easter, but the tide of technology marches on. At the risk of seeming repetitive, I have another three-part list of interesting car technology stories that have made the news recently, which are relevant to our Foot-LITE project that I’ve blogged about here before.

First up is a trial on ‘black boxes’ for young drivers in Staffordshire that has been permanently adopted. The box tracks driving style through acceleration, braking and lateral forces, and records red, amber or green flags depending on how the car’s being driven. These are transmitted back to a website for parents to keep tabs on their offspring’s driving, as well as being displayed via LEDs to the driver in the car.

Next, Vauxhall’s new Insignia (the Vectra replacement) has some interesting looking technology (both literally and figuratively) in the form of front-facing cameras, which not only monitor for lane departures (the likes of which we’ve seen before), but can also recognise speed limit signs that are then shown on a ‘memory’ display on the dashboard.

Finally, the CBI is calling for ‘smart dashboards’ to show drivers instantaneous fuel use as well as giving instructions on when to change gear as an eco-driving intervention. And they want all new cars to have these installed by 2012.

What do I think of these? In reverse order, the CBI idea has good intentions but is a bit simplistic in its implementation. We know that gear change is just a part of eco-driving (with throttle use being more important), and our research on the Foot-LITE project suggests that a fuel use indicator might end up being more frustrating than helpful. What’s more, drivers may end up trying to rigidly follow the advice rather than driving sensibly to the conditions – thus compromising safety. In Foot-LITE we’re trying to achieve safe and eco-driving – what we call smart driving.

The black boxes seem to have gone down well with parents and teen drivers alike, but again the feedback given seems a bit basic – I see nothing on the news release about whether the system says what manoeuvres have triggered the flags. So both parents and drivers will have no idea about what aspects of driving style to change, and for those young drivers who genuinely have the right attitude and want to be safe but just haven’t developed the skills yet, the absence of detailed feedback will limit their learning.

The Vauxhall system has the most promise. I have reservations about the lane departure warnings on several levels – they are visual warnings at a time when you should be looking at the road, from the video demo on the website they don’t seem to distinguish right and left departures, and they also have a green ‘warning’ when you are correctly in your lane, which could get confusing. The speed limit memory is a different story, though. I’ve had conversations with driving standards professionals which have concluded a need for just such a device, on the basis that many speeding drivers aren’t doing so for poor attitude, but because they’ve either missed or can’t remember the last sign they passed (I confess that I failed my first advanced driving test for this very reason). More to the point, the rules on speed limit sign placement – especially in 30mph zones – seem almost designed to trip drivers up by restricting repeater signs. Why not put the speed limit on the back of speed cameras, for instance? They have a nice big yellow backboard almost designed for the task. The in-car reminder goes a step further, and in my humble opinion is a more acceptable solution than the heavy-handed intervention levels of intelligent speed adaptation.

With the exception of the speed limit memory, wrap all these technologies up in a box and you’re a good way towards the Foot-LITE system. However – and naturally I’m biased on this – I believe we’ve overcome those shortcomings I’ve outlined above. How? By the application of sound human-centred design principles, of course. And no, I’m not going to give you any more details than that until we’ve completed the project…

Friday, 3 April 2009

Technological progress?

I was lucky enough to convince the powers-that-be at my university recently that I needed a new desktop computer for my office. The old beige box had really outlived its useful purpose and was becoming little more than an oversized, over-specced doorstop.

So I'm now the proud owner (well, looker-after) of a shiny new black box, which is much more reliable, faster, and doesn't hold the door open for me. Thing is, it came packaged with Microsoft Office 2007.

I'm quite certain that I'm not the first (nor will I be the last) to whinge about this online, but there probably won't be too many doing it from a qualified perspective. For those who haven't had the pleasure, it feels like the whole menu and interaction system has been changed, with tabs and buttons replacing our familiar menus, and an ethereal 'Office button' as a catch-all for everything general.

I gather it's an effort to make the respective software more usable - and in the long run that may well be the case (despite what I've said before in this blog about other companies, I would expect Microsoft to have teams of usability experts doing this job properly). It's just in the interim they've violated two core principles of usability - consistency and compatibility.

Consistency is about things working the same between and across systems. So if I turn this dial clockwise and the amount increases, I expect the same to happen if I turn that dial clockwise. Compatibility is similar, in that people build expectations about how stuff should work - either through experience with similar systems or just through natural qualities of the design.

So Microsoft spent years drumming us all into a mould for how Office works, only to throw most of it away with the latest evolution and (to the user, at least) start again. It's not compatible with how I've learned previous packages to work, and it's certainly not consistent with older versions. (Even the software formats are not compatible with each other - people sending 2007 documents to old-Office users often find them sent back because they can't be opened.)

I'm exaggerating slightly for theatrical effect - most of the functionality is still there, and in many cases enhanced. It's just how we access it that's changed. Familiar and frequently-used functions like Print and Undo are tucked away in hard to find places. Word Count has a spot of its own on the bottom information bar, but until you've found it you think it's disappeared as you can't find it in the menus (sorry, tabs).

Look, I'm sure I'll get used to this version in time and find it much more efficient. But they're asking their users to adapt (violating rule number one of ergonomics in my view) - possibly for the greater good in the long run, but that's a risk which could backfire (more usable alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard never took off because people were so used to the traditional layout). Nevertheless, product stereotypes have to be broken at some point, otherwise we'll never make progress - an ergonomic dilemma which is hard to resolve. In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away with Office 2007, and once I've figured out how to customise it, I'm sure it'll work better for me personally. Until then, though, I feel like I've taken a bit of a step backwards.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Satnav stories

I'm back on my horseless carriage this week, with two more stories about driving ergonomics in the news.

The first broke on Wednesday, as Sky News reported on the "Driver led to 100ft cliff edge by sat nav". We see these stories from time to time - whether it's driving up a one way street, driving into a river, or in this case nearly off a cliff - people blindly following the instructions from their gadget. It's an issue of trust in technology, which is widely discussed in the ergonomics literature.

Raja Parasuraman, one of the foremost authors on the topic, talks about 'use, misuse, disuse, and abuse' with technology (specifically, automation). If it seems too smart, we become overreliant and misuse it; if it keeps going wrong, we lose trust and misuse it. The abuse comes from designers and manufacturers who use technology for the sake of it without considering the user.

Now, the satnav is not automation, but it adds a layer of technology that has many benefits and disadvantages. For some users - and this may just be a trait rather than reflecting anything about their intelligence - there is an implicit faith in the technology. "It comes from a satellite, so it must be right", that kind of thing. It's almost like we suspend judgement when following instructions - and it could equally happen if it were a co-driver giving us directions, depending on how much you trusted their judgement (which is exactly the same point). Obviously it's less likely to happen if you were reading a map yourself - you'd probably take in all the information around you to make your decision.

Naturally, the law doesn't allow for suspension of judgement when in charge of a car, and on this occasion the driver faces a court case for driving without due care and attention. He may look back and laugh one day, but it could've been a lot worse.

Just to briefly touch on the second related story as it's just arrived in my inbox - Philadelphia is on the verge of joining a long list of US cities that have banned mobile phone use when driving, as reported here. I already talked about this a couple of weeks ago (see this post), so I won't labour the point. But I was particularly reassured by indications that the message is getting through - and I quote the Police Commissioner, "There is no debate, cell phones and driving do not mix." Quite right, as the plethora of ergonomics studies shows. Unfortunately this particular bill only relates to hand-held phone use, whereas the literature clearly demonstrates that hands-free is just as bad. If only we could have a precedent for banning hands-free...

Friday, 20 March 2009


I was intrigued and amused this week to see a book review in The Independent newspaper for "Why We Make Mistakes" by Joseph Hallinan, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, no less. Sounds great, I thought, and right up my street - a book on human error aimed at the pop science market.

At first glance it seems to tick all the boxes, too - talking about lapses of memory, optical illusions, and even medical errors that were down to equipment design. All very relevant to ergonomics. But hold on - did that word actually appear anywhere in the book?

It certainly didn't appear in the review, and the more I read, the more it irked me. This really is a book about ergonomics, but there is no reference to the underlying scientific discipline anywhere. The book (or the review, at least) actually has it wrong in places too - referring to the phenomenon of 'change blindness' (not by name, of course) as an ophthalmological problem - but it's actually about information processing and expectations, nothing to do with our visual acuity. And there are even some areas where it's treading on thin ice - for instance, the author's own claim that it's a "field guide to human error" ... well, I'm afraid Sidney Dekker wrote the Field Guide to Human Error, and he's a proper ergonomist.

The icing on the cake was when I read the plans for the UK release (later this year) to be titled 'Errornomics' (cashing in on the success of 'Freakonomics'). But for a consonant or two, he so nearly stumbled across the right word!

I'll probably end up giving it a read when it comes out in the UK, though I'm quite prepared to get wound up reading it (not least for the fact it'll be a case of "why didn't I do that"). I'm all for bringing this subject into the public consciousness, but I'd rather the source material were acknowledged. Could've been a chance to make 'ergonomics' a household word - alas, I fear the chance has been missed.

Friday, 13 March 2009


I should start out by saying I never meant for this blog to become purely transport related (although that is my main research area); it just so happens that I've picked up on a bunch of driving stories in the media lately that have human-centred issues. Hence this being the third in a row of driving-related posts. I promise I'll get back to wider HCD issues soon!

Anyway, two items have been brought to my attention this week related to the Foot-LITE project that we're working on in the HCDI (which I've already discussed in this blog). One is on the T3 gadget website, looking at the interface in the new Honda Insight which displays how eco-friendly your driving is. In a nutshell, the display changes colour from blue to green as you get better, and it gives you 'leaves' as a reward for driving in a more environmentally friendly manner (not dissimilar to the Ford concept, which can be seen here).

The other one was on the Guardian blog just this week, reporting on an enhanced satnav system ('econav') that gives you extra information on your driving style, such as excessive accelerating or braking, and when to change gear.

Interestingly, these two systems represent different ends of what I'd call an intervention spectrum in terms of vehicle technology. As far as I can tell, the Honda system provides minimal instructional information to the driver about actually how to change their driving, instead using its own on-board systems to maximise economy - even to the point of 'smoothing out' the driver's acceleration. You just get to know how good or bad you're doing. Econav, on the other hand, does nag the driver (in the Guardian reporter's own words), suggesting optimal gear shifts, acceleration, and other factors (it looks like speeding is monitored, for instance). As a bolt-on, then, it can't intervene with your driving, so it gives you a ton of information instead.

I'm not going to go too far out on a limb (with or without green leaves) to say which is better - in fact I think there are pros and cons to each, concerning the level of information given to the driver (have a look at the displays and make your own mind up). What I will say, though, and echoing my previous post on the Foot-LITE project, is that this is definitely a boom area in driving - these two systems are just a sampler of many emerging on the market - and as such deserves more attention from ergonomists and human-centred designers. I can't say how much HCD work has gone behind the products we're already seeing, suffice to say it seems like a bit of a bandwagon and probably some have been rushed out more than others. But this is one thing we can't compromise on: what we're working so hard to get right in the Foot-LITE project is how to give the feedback to the driver in a way that encourages the desired behaviour but doesn't take their attention from the road to the point where it causes a distraction - the really human-centred eco-co-driver. Without giving too much away or being too judgemental on the sorts of devices we've seen so far, I still reckon there's a gap in the market here.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Driving ergonomics

Following on from my post about the Foot-LITE project last week, a number of driving-related stories have caught my eye in the media since. Each of these has an ergonomics spin related to my professional and personal interests.

The first is a report on the local BBC news about new developments in vehicle automation (featuring one of our colleagues on Foot-LITE, Eric Chan from Ricardo). What really amuses me about this piece is the barely-contained skepticism of the reporter, who clearly doesn't like the idea of the car doing half the task for him. Whilst I've always said I never want to come across as technophobic about such matters, the points he's making are valid ones. Issues of trust (in the automation), behaviour modification (note the junction which he takes much faster than he would've done normally) and allocation of function (what's left over for the driver to do and is this really a coherent task?) are all relevant ergonomics challenges. Where this particular system is going in the right direction, however, is in its efforts to provide support for higher-level aspects of driving - hazard detection and avoidance. My view is that we don't need to automate the low-level, vehicle control activities - because we're already quite good at this stuff. Where we need help is in the more complex, decision-making aspects of the task - where we're more susceptible to errors.

The problem of mobile (cell) phones and driving reared its head again in this report, based on a new study by David Strayer at the University of Utah. I'm not going to labour the point because it's been well made already, but what I will say is that this is one area of the science where it's as good as an open and shut case. As scientists, we never say we've absolutely proved any finding - we only tak in degrees of certainty. However, the evidence base for the detrimental effects of phoning and driving is so strong now, it's as close to certain as we're ever going to be. I'm not saying we should stop researching it, but all of the data so far say pretty much the same thing. I'd go so far as to say it's a fact - using your mobile when driving increases your accident risk. And that's whether it's hand-held or hands-free - the research says it's the same either way. So whilst we now have it enshrined in UK law for hand-held phones, we really ought to take more responsibility and ignore the phone completely when we're on the move.

Finally, the increasing popularity of hybrid and electric cars raised a potential ergonomics problem in my own mind recently as I was cycling around my local town. Waiting at a traffic light, I was confident that I had clear roads around me, but when I did my 'lifesaver' check over the shoulder before pulling away, a hybrid car in electric mode had silently crept up on me. Making me realise how much I used my ears when cycling, this experience set me thinking about the safety concerns for cyclists and pedestrians - especially partially sighted ones. Sure enough, ergonomists have picked up on the issue (see this report) and go so far as to suggest using fake noises in electric cars to get around the problem. Kind of a 21st-century equivalent of the man waving the red flag in front of the car.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Human-centred driving

One of my main areas of research is in transport ergonomics - planes, trains and automobiles all interest me, though it's fair to say that cars have featured most strongly in my research history. We're currently working on a project called 'Foot-LITE' at Brunel, as part of a much wider consortium involving universities and industry partners.

Foot-LITE is aimed at encouraging safer and 'greener' driving, by monitoring your driving performance and giving you feedback on how you're doing - both in the car and afterwards using a web-based interface. Our role at Brunel is mainly to cover the ergonomics of the interface design - making sure it's usable to promote the desired behaviours while not introducing distraction or other undesired effects. We're about to embark on a series of experiments in the Brunel University Driving Simulator over the coming months to test the prototypes we've developed.

Whilst I don't think our project partners would argue that we're the designated ergonomists on the team, in many ways I see the whole project concept as an embodiment of the human-centred design philosophy. It's a response to a distinct and contemporary set of user needs (safety and environmental impact) but doesn't impose any kind of authority over the driver - it's purely an advisor, acting like a co-driver or assistant. So it's very much a voluntary service, as opposed to some levels of technology or automation that purport to take over control from the human - which isn't very human-centred.

On another level, Foot-LITE represents a foray into the world of environmentalism - largely untrodden ground for ergonomics and human-centred design, which has traditionally been associated with safety, efficiency and satisfaction. As we look to the future challenges for this field, I'm of the mind that we can't ignore the environmental agenda. More to the point, being a behavioural issue, we can use persuasive technology (as Dan Lockton does) to encourage behavioural changes in just the way Foot-LITE seeks to achieve. Climate change is therefore another area that human-centred designers can - and probably should - firmly do something about.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Ergonomically designed!

The title says it all for the point of this post – the use of the phrase ‘ergonomically designed’ in adverts. It’s one of my big bugbears, and I’m sure it’ll crop up time and again in this blog. Typically associated with consumer products, what we usually find is that it’s got a rubberised grip or somesuch, but more often than not you could put safe money on there never having been an ergonomist within a hundred yards of it.

But if I’m taking issue over whether there’s been any ‘proper’ ergonomics on the product, I should say what it means to be ‘properly’ ergonomically designed. Really, it can be anything from a relatively small focus group or user testing trials, right the way through to structured scientific studies and full-on analyses. It all depends on the context (you might not want to spend a huge amount of money and time on a tape measure, but if it’s a complex safety-critical system you’ll probably be more inclined to invest in it), the key point being that it has been designed with users, or with users in mind.

The latest one I’ve seen is the JML ‘Ped-egg’, essentially a cheese grater but for getting dead skin off your feet (charming, of course). Halfway through the TV ad (which streams on their website) they show off how it’s ‘ergonomically designed’, with someone showcasing how it fits in their hand (ironically, their hand actually looks rather big for it).

Now, before the JML legal eagles come down on me, or I unknowingly upset the chief ergonomist at JML, I’m not necessarily saying this is a false claim - they may well have done some ‘proper’ ergonomics on it (make your own mind up). But, to step away from the Ped-egg and return to the general case, there are two things going on with this kind of advert. First, there’s the potential abuse of the term - it's like ‘knock-off ergonomics’. That’s not just us being precious as ergonomists - it's the kind of thing that can give the whole field a bad name, if such an ‘ergonomically designed’ product ends up giving someone RSI or something. All our hard work to convince people of the cost-benefit equation in ergonomics down the drain.

But on the other hand, there’s something of a silver lining here. For manufacturers to be making these claims in such a high-profile way suggests that they see it as adding value to their product. Ergonomics as a marketing tool - fancy that! Naturally I’m biased, but I think that should be the case for anything. Ergonomics should add value, and it should be a selling point - but only if it’s done properly.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Ergonomics is 60!

On BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme this morning, there was a piece on the 60th anniversary of Murphy's law - the law of physics which states that "everything that can go wrong, will go wrong". It was prefaced as one of the year's anniversaries that will affect us more on a day-to-day basis than, say, Darwin or Galileo's discoveries.

I've got another one. This year coincidentally marks the 60th anniversary of ergonomics in the UK - as it was in 1949 that the Ergonomics Research Society first formed. Now known as The Ergonomics Society (and changing its name this year to the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors) the Society is the UK's professional body for this field, with some 1500 members.

I'm involved with The Ergonomics Society as its Chair of External Relations, and we're planning a host of events throughout the year to mark the anniversary. There is a series of breakfast meetings for industry practitioners, there's an historical Society lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in May, a prestigious anniversary conference at the Royal College of Physicians in April, and we're culminating with an ergonomics exhibition at the Design Museum opening in November.

The exhibition, which we've called Real World Design, is being run in partnership between Brunel University (myself and Fergus Bisset), Loughborough University (Prof Roger Haslam), the Design Museum and Laura Grant Associates, with support from The Ergonomics Society and the Office of the Rail Regulator. The project is funded by the EPSRC, and I dare say I'll be keeping you updated on it here as it progresses.

I like the synergy with the Murphy's law anniversary - ergonomics affects us all at an everyday level, and in many cases it is also about things going wrong. That is, a good application of ergonomics can stop (human-made) things going wrong in the first place. Maybe then, some years in the future, we could be celebrating another big milestone for ergonomics and everyone will have forgotten about Murphy's law...

Friday, 6 February 2009

Human-centred design

I’ll be honest right from the off - I'm a newbie. This is my first blog, and this is my first post. My plan for this blog is to share and air my views on human-centred design (HCD; aka ergonomics, aka human factors - semantic differences but essentially we’re all on the same side, and I use these terms interchangeably). My motivation is that I believe HCD matters - not just to my colleagues and me, but to everyone.

We all come across ergonomics every day, at home, at work, and at leisure. Consumer products, transport, workstations - any time we interact with, well, anything that’s been designed. But most of the time you probably don’t notice it - except when ergonomics goes bad, when it’s right in your face, causing errors and frustration.

Sticking with the honesty, I’ll come clean and say I’m not a designer. My background is in psychology, and I got into this by applying my knowledge of what people can and can’t do to their performance in complex systems (transport - driver/pilot performance, in my case). But through my career I’ve come round to the idea that the people best placed to make a difference here are those who put the products and systems out into the real world - the designers and engineers. That’s why at Brunel University we’re training the next generation of human-centred designers.

Over the course of this blog I’d like to share our achievements at Brunel, as well as my own personal encounters with HCD in everyday life. I hope you find it useful as well as stimulating to think about your own experiences of HCD - good or bad.