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.