Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘designing interfaces

Performance criteria? Are we designing for mankind?

What could be the Human Factors performance criteria?

Note: Re-edit (Human Factors in Engineering, Article #38, written in March 31, 2006)

Performance” is the magic answer offered by university students to questions like “What is the purpose of this course, of this method, of this technique, or of this design?”

Performance is what summarizes all the conscious learning in the knowledge bag, for lack of meaningful full sentences available in the language to express clear purposes.

It takes a couple of months to wean the students from the catch word “performance” and encourage them to try thinking harder for specificity.

There is a hierarchy for this abstract notion of “performance”.

The next level of abstraction is to answer: “What kind of performance?“.

The third level should answer: “How these various performances criteria correlate?  Can we sort them out between basic performances and redundant performance criteria?”.

The fourth level is: “How much for each basic performance criterionCan we measure them accurately and objectively?”

It seems that every discipline has created for itself a set of performance criteria and they are coined in stone, so that an insertion of another element into that set, is like a paradigm shift in its field of science.

If you prompt a business or engineering university student to expand on the meaning of “performance”, when supported by a specific example, it might dawn on him to spell out another piece of jewels such as: “max profit”, “minimize cost”, “improve quality”, “increase production”, “save time”, or “increase market share”.

In order to reach a finer level of specificity we need to define functionally.

For example, what “max profit” means?  A string of monosyllables rains from everywhere such as: “increase price”, “cut expenditure”, “sell more”, and again “improve quality”, “save time”, or “increase market share”. 

If we agree that profit is a function of market share, price, expenditure, added values of products, and marketing services then we can understand what could be the basic criteria and which criteria dependent on the basic ones.

How can a business improve performance?

How can it make profit or cut costs? 

Should the firm layoff redundant employees, force early retirement, dip in insurance funds, contract out product parts and administrative processes, eliminate training programs, scrap off the library or continuing learning facilities,…

Or streamline the design process, reduce advertising money, abridge break times in duration or frequency, cut overhead expenses such as control lighting and comfort of the working environment, stop investing in new facilities…

Or firing skilled workers, settling consumer plaintiffs out of court, searching for tax loopholes, or engineering financial statements?

How can a business increase its market share? How can it survive competitors and continually flourish?

How can a firm improve products for the quality minded engineers?

Should it invest on the latest technological advancements in equipment, machines, and application software, or should it select the best mind among the graduates…

Or should it establish a continuing education program with adequate learning facilities, or should it encourage its engineers to experiment and submit research papers, or should it invest on market research to know the characteristics of its customers…

Or should it built in safety in the design process, or perform an extensive analysis of the foreseeable misuses of its products or services, the type of errors generated in the functioning and operation of its products and their corresponding risks on health of the users, or manage properly employees’ turnover…

Or care about the safety and health of its skilled and dedicated workers, or ordering management to closely monitor the safety and health standards applied in the company?

At the first session of my course “Human factors in engineering” I ask my class:  “What is the purpose of an engineer?

The unanimous answer is: “performance”.

What are the criteria for an engineer?  The loud and emphatic answer is: “performance”!

At the first session of my class I repeat several times that the purpose of the engineering discipline is to design practical products or systems that man needs and wants, that human factors engineers are trained to consider first the health and safety of end users, the customers, the operators, and the workers when designing interfaces for products or systems.

At the first session I tell my class that the body of knowledge of human factors is about finding practical design guidelines based on the capabilities and limitations of end users, body and mind, with the following performance criteria:

To eliminate errors, to foresee unsafe misuses, to foresee near-accidents, to design in safety operations, to consider the health problems in the product and its operation, to study the safety and health conditions in the workplace and the organizational procedures…

And to improve working conditions physically, socially, and psychologically, and to be aware of the latest consumer liability legal doctrines.

A month later, I am confronted with the same cycle of questions and answers, mainly: “What is the purpose of an engineer?”  The unanimous answer is: “performance”.  What are the criteria for a human factors engineer?  The loud and emphatic answer is: “performance”!

A few students remember part of the long list of human factors performance criteria, but the end users are still hard to recognize them in their conscious knowledge.

A few students retained the concept of designing practical interfaces or what an interface could be but the pictures of end users are still blurred.

I have to emphasize frequently that the end users could be their engineering colleagues, their family members, and themselves.

I have to remind them that any product, service, or system design is ultimately designed for people to use, operate, and enjoy the benefit of its utility.

Human factors performance criteria are all the above and the design of products or services should alleviating the repetitive musculo-skeletal disorders by reducing efforts, vibration…

And proper handling of tools and equipment, designing for proper postures, minimizing static positions, and especially to keep in mind that any testing and evaluation study should factor in the condition that a worker or an employee is operating 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and for many years.

I tell them that any profit or cost cutting is ultimately at the expense of workers/employees, their financial stability, safety standards, comfort, and health conditions physically, socially, and psychologically

Whereas any increase in performance should be undertaken as a value added to the safety, comfort, and health of the end users and workers.

Article #8, April 5, 2005

“What do you design again?”

Human Factors are primarily oriented to designing interfaces between systems and end users/operators.  Of the many interfaces two interfaces are common to people and can be grouped into two main categories: displays and controls. 

Designing the arrangements of displays and controls on consoles for utility companies, aircraft, trains, and automobiles according to applicable guidelines are examples.

Operators and end users need to receive information on the status of a complex system and be able to respond to this information through a control device. Thus, once a designer knows what needs to be controlled in a system and how, then the required types of displays follow.

Displays and controls can become complex devices if not designed to targeted users.

The design of the cockpit interface in airplanes is different from cars, trains or ships.

The design or the interface in cellular phones is different from computer games or computer screens, keyboards and mouse.

A good knowledge of the physical and mental abilities and requirements of the target end users are paramount in the design of any interface if efficiency, affordability, acceptability, maintainability, safety and health are the prerequisite to wide spread demands and marketability.

How the functions and tasks of any subsystems should be allocated, to human or to an automated machine? 

What are the consequences in emergency situations for any allocation strategy? 

What are the consequences of an allocation when a system is exported to Third World countries? 

What are the consequences of function allocation to employment, safety risks, health risks and long term viability of any system?

Who usually are in charge of designing interfaces that require multidisciplinary knowledge?

Given that any of these designs require inputs from marketing experts, psychologists, sociologists, economists, engineers, statisticians and legal experts on the liabilities of these designed objects for safe and healthy usage then who should be responsible for designing interfaces?

Teams of professionals should necessarily be involved in interface designs but because time being of the essence in business competition and cost to a lesser extent many of these interfaces are relegated to engineers applying published standards or relying on personal experience and previous models from competitors.

Human Factors data on the physical and mental limitations and capabilities of target users should be part of any standard book for designing interfaces.

Human Factors methodologies need to be disseminated so that viable interfaces could fit the characteristics of the end users.

The Human Factors professionals failed in their first three decades of existence to recognize that their main purpose was to design interfaces, to design practical system and to orient their research toward engineers who could readily use their data in designing systems.

If this trend of targeting engineers in our research papers continues then this profession could make a serious dent in sending the proper message and open up a market for the thousands of Human Factors graduates who should be needed in the design of systems interfaces.

 

“How Human Factors are considered at the NASA jet propulsion laboratory”?

Article #47 ( written in June 7, 2006)

Professor Charles Elachy, the director of NASA jet propulsion center at Pasadena in California, gave a lecture at LAU, Byblos, during his visit to Lebanon, and was inducted a member of the Board of Director of the university.

I instructed my class to prepare written questions to submit to Professor Elachy after the lecture, but we failed in our endeavor because questions were stricly managed.  I composed a series of questions, and after discussing them with my class, I e-mailed them to Elachy on May 30, 2006.  The mail stated:

            “I teach a single course “Human Factors in engineering“, which is required for industrial engineers. This course used to be elective for the computer and other traditional engineering fields before this year, until it was eliminated as a viable choice in the curricula.

The main value of this course is to offer a behavioral change at looking at the design of projects from a different perspective. A few students in my class of Human Factors in engineering prepared a series of written questions for your lecture at LAU at Byblos, and we would appreciate your reply on the following:

1)   As a leading member of one of the most sophisticated man-made system from conception, to designing, testing, evaluation, production, operation, and execution, then would you consider that any failure in your system is ultimately a human error?

2)  Could you offer us samples of what NASA would consider as near accidents?  In such cases, would your internal investigation of any near accident try to assign the error to a person, a team, or the organization as a whole in order to redress potential hazards?

3)  I read that the engineering work force at your department in NASA is around 5000.  What is the percentage of human factors and “industrial psychology” professionals in that work force who are involved in designing interfaces, facilitator’ tools, training programs, conducting controlled experimentation, testing, and evaluating human behavioral performance in operations in order to foreseeing potential errors and eliminating safety hazards?

4)  To what extent are tailor-made task analysis, foreseeable errors analysis, and decision flow diagrams in every stage of the development process computerized as expert systems, and how embedded is the role of experts in reviewing computer outputs?

5) Could you give us a few samples of the kind of expert opinions that NASA still seek in system development? What are the impacts of expert opinions in the development cycle and how critical are they? On what system do you rely in decisions concerning the allocation of tasks to either operators or automation?

6)  Do you think that NASA has already accumulated an exhaustive list of cognitive and physical capabilities/limitations of human operators compared to machine potentials?  How efficient is a human operator currently evaluated within this growing trend in technology and automation?  What kind of guidelines does NASA engineers rely on for designing interfaces or anything that requires operators’ interactions with the system?

7) What types of inspectors do you mostly hire, such as technical versus people oriented? Would your guidelines for hiring technical or people performance inspectors differ (for example in-house hiring or outside contracting)?  Is assigning an employee to inspection jobs is generally viewed by engineers as a negative coded message for position downgrading?”

On June 4, I received the following reply from Eachy:

“Dear Adonis, my response to your questions will not be in the direct order because our work here is not a production activity.

Each spacecraft is different and they are always first of a kind.  However, we do have a system of checks and balances.

We have one organization which does the design and development (about 3,500 technical people) and a separate organization which does Quality Control (about 350 technical people).

The role of QC is not only to check on the quality of the work, but also to help the development organization do it right to start with.  So, we assign a few QC experts to each project, but they report through a different chain than the project manager.

When we have a problem we try to understand the root cause and develop procedure/training to avoid it in the future.

We do not try to blame a person but we put a number of reviews and independent checks to make sure problems don’t slip through the cracks.”

I read Professor Elachy’s response to class.  It was clear that Human Factors professionals are still viewed as more relevant in the production activity phase, although there are many cases where they were involved in analyzing missions from their inception, knowing that NASA pioneered the process of hiring Human Factors in the agency.

Update 1:Professor Elachy was awarded this year 2011, the French highest order in scientific achievement. He had done his highest studies in France before Charles Elachy was hired in the USA.

Update 2: Charles Elachy is the head of the team that landed the rover on Mars to find out if there is life on this hot planet

What’s that new concept? (Article #7)

“What message should the Human Factors profession transmit?” (April 4, 2005)

I have in a previous article, in a short sentence that may have gone unnoticed, mentioned that the main objective of Human Factors in Engineering is designing interfaces between complex systems and targeted end users.

Modern days are an accumulation of very complex systems that societies can no longer live without and have to suffer their consequences in health, safety, comfort, risks or fatal accidents. 

Modern days rely on communications systems, on health care, on educational, on information, on transportation, on energy, on financial, on tourism, on diplomatic, and even on political systems.

Usually, there are purposes for establishing any system and the money generated could only be the consequences of satisfying human specific demands that a developed standard of living requires, or are encouraged through advertisements, or are initiated by new laws to regulating a society.

Transportation systems, from automobile to trains to airplanes and ships have allowed distances to be accessible to many users for daily business in remote areas from where they reside.  More people are tempted to doing routine business trips to other countries and the trend might increase if entrance visas to foreign countries were to be eliminated.

A transportation system consists of safe routes, safe vehicles, safe maintenance facilities, safety standards, health standards, and efficient human support from ticketing, to baggage claim, to insurance, to inspection, to monitoring and to planning for future expansions.

Modern days rely on power generation and distribution systems, from the kind of energy sources, to the distribution lines, to the demand and supply of energy, to the maintenance facilities and all the safety and health standards and human support interfaces.

This modern world, more than in any previous centuries, is plagued with complex systems that are automated in many portions with no human understanding of how a system functions or can be repaired or be redesigned except a few rare professional experts.

These vast and very costly systems are created, assembled, maintained and run by different specialized personnel who have no serious interconnections among one another.

Every section of any system requires an interface with another section so that the end user can communicate with another section without any obligation to know or understand the details of the other section.

These interfaces have to be designed to be used with minimal skills, knowledge or special training.

These interfaces have to be usable friendly and to fit most of the personnel regardless of gender, race, stature or religious affiliations.

These interfaces should have functions and tasks that correlate well with the capabilities of the users.

Consumers require easy to use objects, safe objects, error free and accident free objects.

Consumers need to access these complex systems quickly, cheaply, without the requirement for extensive training or intermediate personnel to doing business or making the objects function according to their idiosyncrasies.

The Human Factors engineering discipline should be the application of the body of knowledge, information and facts about human abilities, limitations, (physical, mental and psychological) and characteristics to the design of tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs, and environments for safe, comfortable and effective human use;.

The Human Factors engineering discipline is expected to direct its research toward practical design purposes and offer data that can be readily applied by engineers from different discipline.

Note:  My initial version attached the word “system” to every service offered in order to exaggerate the trend in our modern world.  The baffled student who was assigned to read my version was prompted by the whole class, in a rhythmic fashion, sarcastically pronouncing “system” to every word he read.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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