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.

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