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.

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