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.