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.