Friday, 27 November 2009

Ergonomics: Real Design

Well, it's finally arrived - all of our hard work over the last year or so has paid off, and the Ergonomics: Real Design exhibition at London's Design Museum is now open.

There was a media preview last Tuesday, which generated us some excellent coverage on the BBC and in The Independent, as well as several popular design magazines. Then it opened to the public on Wednesday, and by all accounts the feedback is good, and people are engaging with the exhibition as we hoped.

Last night was the big fanfare though - the Ergonomics Society (now officially known as the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors) held a private VIP reception for over 100 people, which - in my humble opinion - went down very well indeed. There was certainly a real buzz about the place, and for me it really brought it home that the exhibition had really happened. I think until I saw people actually going round it, it hadn't quite sunk in with me. All very exciting.

I must say thanks again to everyone who pulled together to make it happen - Fergus, Gemma, Margaret, Laura, Roger, Colin, and of course Reg, who got the ball rolling in the first place and has stuck with the project all the way through. Finally, a nod to the sponsors, the EPSRC, who are evidently quite pleased with it as it's currently featuring on the front page of their website too.

For more info, see the Design Museum's website.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Human-centred ketchup!

I just couldn't resist following up with this little tidbit I heard on the Chris Evans show on Radio 2, on the way home from my driving meeting I just blogged about. His theme for the show was red vs. brown - that is, in terms of sauces. He had a representative from Heinz giving us the history of ketchup, but the bit that pricked my ears up was his explanation of the design decision to turn the bottles upside-down. In almost his exact words, basically he said that it was designed by the people - their customers, the users. They'd observed and listened, and decided the upside-down bottle would satisfy a key user need.

Who'd have thought it? Human-centred design in action at Heinz. Marvellous.

I'm sure you can listen to the show on BBC iPlayer for a little while, but I couldn't tell you exactly when in the show this interview happened - it was definitely in the first hour, but I was too busy watching the road rather than watching the clock, of course.

New cars, new toys

I’ve been playing with new cars again today – one of the few perks of the job which crop up from time to time. I can’t give too much away as it was a closed meeting, but most of the cars and their associated technologies are already on the market so I can talk in general terms. Suffice to say I got to drive several cars much more valuable than my own (some would even pay off my mortgage…), and each jam-packed with active safety gadgets. In fact, that was one of my first observations – the sheer amount of technology and computing power now being rammed into cars, with radars, cameras and sensors literally everywhere.

Anyway, that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. I’ve aired my thoughts about vehicle automation before on this blog, so I won’t go over old ground, but there was a couple of new observations I wanted to pick up on.

One or two of the vehicle manufacturers are using speed sign recognition cameras, sometimes coupled with a GPS map database, to display current speed limit information inside the car. I can only think this is a Good Thing – I don’t have evidence, but to my mind many speeding offences aren’t for lack of restraint, rather are to do with drivers missing or forgetting the last sign they passed. Sometimes the road environment even tries to trip us up, with outdated laws preventing the use of repeater signs for 30mph limits, for instance. I for one would really like one of these cars with a speed limit aide-memoire, and would much prefer that over an ISA system which just stops me from speeding. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a speeder, it just makes me uncomfortable to take control from the driver in that way. And this is a personal and professional opinion, as I’ve written about in this paper.

Which brings me onto my next point – who’s in charge? The same paper talks about philosophies of ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’ automation – basically regarding who has the last power of veto, the computer (hard) or the human (soft). We’ve seen aircraft manufacturers take different approaches based on these philosophies, and it’s now fascinating to see vehicle manufacturers doing the same thing. My view is the same as it’s always been – we should support drivers, not replace them. But I qualify that in the paper by talking about ‘below the line’ vehicle operations (such as ABS, ESC – and I could now include last-minute collision mitigation in that) which can be automated since they don’t consciously affect the driver’s task.

It seems that many of these technologies are going down well with the customers. My concern is whether that translates into better (safer) driving (for which we don’t have the data yet), and if there are any longer-term behavioural compensations that might cancel out any beneficial effects.

One thing I certainly didn’t expect from the day, though, was for the cars to be groping me – one of them had a seat massager (for passengers), while another had a ‘dynamic seat bolster’ to stop you sliding about in corners. Definitely a new experience for me…