Adonis Diaries

Archive for May 8th, 2009

Note: I am re-publishing professional articles with tags and within a special category “Engineering/ Research”

1.  “What is your job?”                                                                                                   

2.  “Sorry, you said Human Factors in Engineering?”                                                 

3.  “So, you want systems to fit people?”                                                                    

4.  “The rights of the beast of burden; like a donkey?”                                              

5.  “Who could afford to hire Human Factors engineers?”                            

6.  “In peace time, why and how often are Human Factors hired?

February 23, 2005

“In peace time, why and how often are Human Factors professionals hired?”

In peace time, governments of modern countries are the major employers of Human Factors and industrial psychologists either directly or indirectly.

Many of government’s contracts with private companies attach clauses that require involvements of these professionals in their projects, and so they get hired in order to secure bids.

In peace time, which is rare, companies have the luxury to select who they think are the best qualified candidates from the vast pool of job applicants, locally and internationally.

People assume that the hired applicants are mostly the best qualified technically and the best trained for the jobs.

Most of us are very skeptical about that assumption of hiring the best qualified applicants, especially in underdeveloped countries. 

It seems that this skepticism is applicable everywhere and for good reasons.

When you have to interact with coworkers every day for eight hours a day, it stands to reason that you prefer people whom you think are compatible to your idiosyncrasies.

So far, this approach might be considered rational emotionally, and bearing many elements of common sense and good judgments.

On the other hand, how could any one test his incompatibility of living and interacting with someone else, based on his discrimination on sex, race, color and religion if the opportunities to meet with them is an impossibility or at best the interactions are fleeting?

Under social and political pressures, governments have enacted laws that prohibit discrimination on the jobs unless the applicant is proven unqualified by well documented facts for specific requirements.

Obviously a law is not much of a law if no painful penalties are attached to it and no enforcement mechanisms are contemplated or an appropriate budget allocated for an independent agency and inspections agents.

So, how could an enforcement agency go about clamping down on these companies that discriminate unabashedly and with no impunity?

The first main tool is to collect data and analyze the proportions of the population hired.

A more serious analysis would compare these proportions within each department, especially in the higher levels jobs.

Any critical discrepancy in these proportions will trigger a red alert for direct inspection of the non abiding firms and legal actions taken.

By the by, the enforcement agency would learn to set priorities in their enforcement endeavor and learn what categories of companies are most inclined to discriminate for closer targeting.

So, what other job descriptions can be applicable to the training of Human Factors graduates in peace time?

A few of the design training in sound curriculum offer capabilities for designing instruction manuals, job aids, training programs, evaluation of systems on criteria of safe usage, ease of operation, ease of maintenance and repair, acceptability and retaining products.

Many of these jobs are taken by other graduates who have narrow multidisciplinary training and knowledge but are not described as engineering jobs and evidently lower wages are offered and gladly accepted.

Another job opportunity is designing workstations, not only in manufacturing facilities, but also computer workstations for institutions, private use, and educating the consumers to the various safety and health problems related to sedentary and repetitive jobs.

Note:  The version of a student to my article gave the impression that discrimination to jobs is prevalent only in underdeveloped countries.  I believe that perception is not correct since only a consistant and persistent application and enforcement of the anti-discrimination laws can hold discrimination behavior to a reduced level and check its spread among the companies and institutions.

 “Okay, who can afford to hire Human Factors professionals?”

Who in his right mind hires Human Factors professionals?

This is a very interesting question that even the developed countries were wondering about even recently.

I can conjecture, or frankly I am offering an expectation, that in the last five years the Human Factors profession has managed to get the message through that many job descriptions apply to the technical skills and training of the Human Factors graduates.

This article is basically targeting the students in the less developed nations where the Human Factors discipline is unheard of or the knowledge is so minimal that major universities are still reluctant to include even one course in their engineering curriculum.

In Lebanon, only one university offers a single Human Factors course required for the industrial engineers and optional for a few other engineering disciplines.

Actually, it is the only university that offers industrial engineering as a discipline.

In general, there was a perception that the main tasks assigned to Human Factors engineers or formerly known as Industrial Psychologists required experimentation, testing and evaluation of systems.

System used by human subjects are evaluated for performances based on errors committed, safety usage, reaction times, health effects, subjective feeling of acceptability, reliability and usability.

Most of these assignments are geared toward the cognitive aspects of the users, which are basically the domains of psychologist because they are better trained to designing experiments based on human responses, collecting data, setting the proper questionnaires and selecting the right statistical packages for the interpretation of the results.

Many of these assignments are similar to the marketing professionals for generating likes and dislikes of users, the acceptability and tendencies of users for any new products.

This time consuming discipline is not very appreciated by profit minded companies.

So, who hires the thousands of these fresh graduates and why major companies agree to hire a few of these professionals?

Why are governments the main sources of retaining these graduates?

Prior and during major wars powerful countries badly need human factors professionals.

Why? Here is the story.

The main reason is that every able body has to be recruited for the war effort.

Running extensive psychological, physical and mental tests to allocate the right person to the appropriate task, equipment and department are not feasible financially under the time constraint.

The army and the nation need these able bodies to interchangeably fill the losses anywhere and any place.

One excellent option is to design equipments, tasks and procedures so that almost every soldier can perform his duties without extensive training or the need to go about selecting soldiers with the appropriate characteristics.

The other reason is that women had to fill the gap in the industries when the men are out to waging wars.

For production to be efficient, such as error free with minimal accidents, it was good sense to redesign production equipments, machines and workplace to fit women who have different capabilities and limitations physically and cognitively

 “What are the rights of the beast of burden; like a donkey?”

November 13, 2004 

Note:  I am re-publishing professional articles instead of updating them for readers who missed then 5 months ago.

People used to own donkeys for special works and they still do in many places.

Donkeys are relatively cheap, if you can find them, and are quite obedient and resilient.

Donkeys can endure hardships if you provide them with food and minimal lodging.

Low level employees in data input jobs are far less loved and appreciated than the former hot blooded mammals.

They helplessly endure repetitive musculoskeletal pains and many of the clerks do proudly claim these pains as a badge of honor.

They are remunerated cheaper than donkeys because all that their job entails is to just sit and do monotonous work.

They suffer all the sedentary diseases: neck, head, shoulders, and back pains.

They suffer irremediable hands, fingers and wrists handicaps for the rest of their wretched lives.

Graphic designers are certainly a tad better: 

They are paid slightly better not for their artistic imagination but, may be, because they can also use a few more computer application programs.

Historically, the design of the characters on the first typewriters was meant to slow down typing:

Fast typing used to jam the arms of the mechanical typewriters.

A large order by a big company at the time hampered any redesign of the characters for the newer technological advances in the manufacture of typewriters.

Still, secretaries had to awkwardly learn typing fast to meet production and greed.

The benefits of redesigning the shapes and forms of computer keyboards, which could temporarily alleviate the many cumulative musculoskeletal disorders from harsh continuous and daily typing, did not reach the common typists and data entry clerks.

These low level employees were not worth any investment in upgraded keyboards.

Higher level employees, who barely use computers for any productive task, were honored with the latest gismos.

In fact, I believe that even the best ergonomically designed keyboards cannot solve these disorders:

Heavy computer users, for eight hours daily, are still performing repetitive movements, sitting still, eyes riveted to a display.

They are still asked to perform maximally, under the watchful and tireless computer supervisor:

An efficient program embedded in the computer itself; a program that collects data and analyzes performances of the donkey clerk.

Employees should not demand any redesign of the characters on keyboards.

Any faster typing design will be at their detriment and they will pay the price bitterly.

Their task will come to higher risks to their health and safety with no increase in wages. 

They should know that faster standards will then be required of them;

Instead of 60 words per minutes Mr. Greed might ask of them to be able to type 300 wpm.

It is not enough to improve technology; we need to restrain its consequences.

Bless Rabelais who said: “Science without conscience is the ruin of the soul”.

“So, you want systems to fit people?” February 21, 2005

 “So far, it sounds that Human Factors in engineering is a vast field of knowledge and it could have many applications.”  You are absolutely right, the profession is multidisciplinary.

Let us consider the problems that an excellent human factors designer has to cope with when he has to incorporate the human dimensions into his design and the body of knowledge he has to learn and incorporate in his practice:

First, there are no design drawings for people as traditional engineers are familiar with because the structure of human organisms is approximately delineated and the mechanisms are imperfectly understood.

Second, people vastly differ in anthropometric dimensions, cognitive abilities, sensory capabilities, motor abilities, personalities, and attitudes; thus the challenge of variability is different from physics where phenomena behave in countable fashions and can be accounted for in design.

Third, people change with time; they change in dimensions, abilities and skills as well as from moment to moment attributable to boredom, fatigue, lapse of attention, interactions among people and with the environment.

Fourth, the world is constantly changing and systems are changing accordingly; thus interfaces for designing jobs, operations and environment have to be revisited frequently.

Fifth, contrary to the perception of people regarding the other traditional engineering fields, when we deal with human capabilities, limitations and behavior everyone feels is an expert on the basis of common sense acquired from living and specific experiences and we tend to generalize our feelings to all kinds of human behaviors. For examples, we think that we have convictions concerning the effects of sleep, dreams, age, and fatigue; we believe that we are rather good judges of people’s motives, we have explanations for people’s good memories and abilities, and we have strong positions on the relative influence of nature and nurture in shaping people’s behavior.  Consequently, the expertise of human factors professionals are not viewed as based on science.

To be a competent ergonomics expert you need to take courses in many departments like Psychology, Physiology, Neurology, Marketing, Economy, Business, Management, and of course engineering.

You need to learn applied statistics, system’s modeling (mathematical and prototyping), the design of experiments, writing and validating questionnaires, collecting data on human performance, analyzing and interpreting data on the interactions of human with systems.

You need updating you knowledge continuously with all kinds of systems’ deficiencies that often hurt people in their daily lives, and learn the newer laws that govern the safety and health of the employees in their workplace. 

All the above courses and disciplines that you are urged to take or to be conversant with have the well being of targeted end users in mind.  To be an expert well qualified designer you need to assimilate the physical and cognitive abilities of end users and what they are capable of doing best; you need to discover their limitations as well so that you may reduce errors and foreseeable misuses of any product or interface that you have the responsibility to design. 

You need to fit the product or interface to the users and avoid lengthy training or useless stretching of the human body in order to permit the users to efficiently manipulate your design.  An excellent designer has to know the advantages and limitations of the five senses and how to facilitate the interaction with systems under minimal stress, errors committed, and health complications generated from prolonged usage and repetitive movements of parts of the body.

I am glad, my newly found friend, that you are attentively listening to my lucubration.

I would like it better if you ask me questions that prove to me that you are enthusiastic.

Could you enumerate a few incidents in your life that validate the importance of this field of study?

“Well, suppose that I enroll in that all encompassing specialty, are there any esoteric and malignant courses that are impressed upon me?”

Unfortunately, as any university major and engineering included, many of the courses are discovered to be utterly useless once you find a job.

However, you have to bear the cross for 4 years in order to be awarded a miserly diploma. This diploma, strong with a string of grade of “A’s” will open the horizon for a new life, a life of a different set of worries and unhappiness.

I can tell you for sure that it is not how interesting are the courses but the discipline that you acquired in the process. 

You need to start enjoying reading, every day for at least 5 hours, taking good care for the details in collecting data or measuring anything, learning to write everyday, meticulously and stubbornly, not missing a single course or session, giving your full concentration during class, taking notes and then reading your notes afterwards, coordinating the activities of your study groups, being a leader and a catalyst for all your class associates.

You need to waking up full of zest and partying hard after a good week of work and study, staying away, like the plague, from those exorbitantly expensive restaurants and dancing bars because they are the haven of all those boring, mindless and useless people who are dependent completely on their parents.

Well, you will hear, frequently, that securing a University diploma is a testing ground for your endurance to accepting all kinds of nonsense.  It is.

Most importantly, it is testing the endurance of your folks who are paying dearly for that nonsense.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

May 2009
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