Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘ergonomics

Restructuring engineering curriculums to respond to end users demands, safety and health

In 1987, Alphonse Chapanis, a renowned Human Factors professional, urged that published Human Factors research papers target the practical design need of the various engineering disciplines so that the research data be readily used by engineers.

Dr. Chapanis was trying to send a clear message that Human Factors main discipline was to design interfaces between systems and end users and thus, research papers have to include sections directing the engineers as to the applicability of the results of the paper to design purposes.

In return, it is appropriate to send the message that all engineering disciplines should include sections in their research papers orienting the engineering practitioners to the applicability of the results of the papers to the end users and how Human Factors professionals can judiciously use the data in their interface designs.

As it was difficult for the Human Factors professional to send the right message to the engineering practitioners, and still has enormous difficulty disseminating the proper purpose and goals, it would be a steep road for the engineers to send the right message that what they design is actually targeting the needs and new trends of the end users.

As long as the engineering curriculums fail to include the Human Factors field as an integral part in their structures it would not be realistic to contemplate any shift in their designs toward the end users.

Systems would become even more complex and testing and evaluation more expensive in order to make end users accept any system and patronize it.

So why not design anything right from the first time by being initiated and exposed to human capabilities and limitations, their safety and health?

Instead of recognizing from the early phases in the design process that reducing human errors and risks to the safety and health of end users are the best marketing criteria for encouraging end users to adopt and apply a system, we see systems are still being designed by different engineers who cannot relate to the end users because their training is not explicitly directed toward them.

What is so incongruous with the engineering curriculums to include courses that target end users?

Why would not these curriculums include courses in occupational safety and health, consumer product liability, engineers as expert witnesses, the capabilities and limitations of human, marketing, psychophysics and experimental design?

Are the needs and desires of end users beneath the objectives of designing systems?

If that was true, why systems are constantly being redesigned, evaluated and tested in order to match the market demands?

Why do companies have to incur heavy expenses in order to rediscover the wheel that the basis of any successful design ultimately relies on the usefulness, acceptability and agreement with the end users desires and dreams?

Why not start from the foundation that any engineering design is meant for human and that designed objects or systems are meant to fit the human behavior and not vice versa?

What seem to be the main problems for implementing changes in the philosophy of engineering curriculums?

Is it the lack to find enough Human Factors, ergonomics and industrial psychologist professionals to teach these courses?

Is it the need to allow the thousands of psychologists, marketing and business graduates to find outlet “debouches” in the marketplace for estimating users’ needs, desires, demands and retesting and re-evaluating systems after the damages were done?

May be because the Human factors professionals failed so far to make any significant impact to pressure government to be part and parcel of the engineering practices?

Note: I am Not sure if this discipline Human Factors/Ergonomics is still a separate field in Engineering or has been integrated in all engineering disciplines.

From my experience in teaching a few courses at universities, I propose that courses in Experimental Design be an integral course in all engineering disciplines: students graduate without having a serious idea how to run “sophisticated” experiments or know how to discriminate among the independent variables, the dependent variables, the control variable…and how to interpret complex graphs.

Repetitive illnesses: Shouldn’t beast of burden enjoy the rights that Humain refuse themselves

Note: Repost of 2004 “What are the rights of the beast of burden; like a donkey?” 

Article #4: Human Factors in Engineering

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

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

Donkeys can endure hardships if you provide food and minimal care.

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

They helplessly endure repetitive musculoskeletal pains. Ironically, 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 gizmos.

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

Heavy computer users, for 8 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 is embedded in the computer itself, a program meant to collect 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 the French Rabelais who said: “Science without conscience is the ruin of the soul”.

Note: Nothing has improved with the new communication technologies, but with small mobile phones people don’t have to sit still in one place. People can lay down, move and commit traffic accidents talking and manipulating their new gizmos.


You Might Want to Sit Down for This

Picture1 10It turns out that sitting in a chair, commonly associated with rest, relaxation, recuperation and work, is actually bad for us.

At least, the way we approach sitting is health harmful.

The occasional dalliance with a straight-backed office chair probably isn’t a problem, but when we spend most of our waking life sitting or slumping over in a chair, we invite disaster.

Such sedentarism is a real problem, and a recent one.

Grok certainly wasn’t bound to a desk. He may have had more off time than we do (if modern hunter-gatherers are any indication), but he didn’t spend it subjecting his body to extended bouts of unnatural contortions.

And there’s the other big difference: the way we sit is completely unnatural. Instead of sprawling out, hands behind our heads, legs outstretched, we moderns “relax” in a chair – a piece of furniture with which we have relatively new relations.

From “You Don’t Know Squat” we already know that the modern toilet has only been in widespread use for a couple centuries, and that squatting to eliminate is probably healthier than the sit/strain method, but did you know that chairs with backs enjoy a similar history?

Until the 16th century, chairs were reserved primarily for the gilded classes. Kings, noblemen, and statesmen used them to conduct business and hold court, while your average serf or peon was relegated to sitting on (backless) stools, chests, or even the ground.

Early chairs were ornate, exquisite things made from expensive materials like ivory, ebony, bronze, and acacia wood, and festooned with beautiful carvings and designs; there weren’t any latter-day Ikea-equivalents pumping out mock kings’ thrones made of particle board.

Handcrafted works of art versus utilitarian products mass-produced in China. It almost sounds like chairs are the refined grains of the furniture world.

Or, perhaps more fittingly, chairs are like shoes. They are modern “conveniences” that force our anatomy into unnatural positions while purporting to correct flaws intrinsic to our bodies.

It’s not enough to say that we’re merely imperfect (because we are); we also possess a fatal flaw that only manmade artifice can fix. But what chairs actually do is make sitting in a harmful, slumped-over position for a dangerously long period of time possible.

We bypass our built-in feedback system (you know – pain, fatigue, a sore back) that would usually direct us to correct our posture (or even, maybe, stand up and move around) and we’re able to sit relatively pain-free for hours on end – but the damage is being done.

We’re getting progressively weaker and more reliant on the backing of the chair, and when we’re in a sitting situation without added back support, we can’t handle it.

Instead of sitting erect, shoulders back, back strong and straight, head held high, we just slump over and use the curvature of our spine to support our bodies.

If you don’t believe me, start watching for it. Look around at your colleagues, family, and friends, and see how they sit. Most people slump. Can you imagine the average modern twelve year old, weaned on couches and cheap school seating, slumping over in the saddle as he tries to ride down game on his first hunting trip with the warriors of the tribe? It simply wouldn’t work.

A weak back, one might argue, can be mitigated by proper exercises.

Deadlifts and squats (performed correctly and with great form, of course) will strengthen your “core” and could even make up for all the sitting (personally, I wouldn’t risk it – and it seems kinda counterproductive, like eating a bunch of fish oil just so you can “safely” consume tons of Omega 6s), but are there any other health disadvantages to leading a sedentary, chair-ridden lifestyle? Of course there are.

There’s the obesity that accompanies sloth.

Time spent sitting is invariably time spent not moving. While there is the occasional IT guy who bikes to work, hits the gym on his lunch break, and gets plenty of exercise when he’s not sitting in front of a computer, one Australian study (PDF) concluded that office workers “who spend high amounts of time sitting at work tend to spend high amounts of time sitting on non work days.” 

In other words, it may be that sedentary employees really do take their work home with them. That same study also found that those same workers had a flawed perception of their own activity levels.

The most sedentary ones thought they were getting way more exercise than they actually were. As many of you probably know, a false sense of progress can be highly detrimental to one’s actual progress.

How do you feel about blood clots in your legs?

A New Zealand (they’re really on top of things in that part of the world in matter of ergonomics) study found that workers who spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at their desks were at a higher risk of developing deep vein thombrosis (DVT). Workers who used computers while sitting were at an even high risk.

Metabolic syndrome, our favorite catchall for most of what ails the average insulin-resistant, obese, and near-diabetic, may also be exacerbated by “too little exercise and too much sitting.”

Epidemiological data suggesting that “excessive sitting” is a health hazard prompted researchers to suggest amending current health guidelines, while one scientist even compared the deleterious impact of sitting to smoking regularly.

When doctors compare anything to smoking, you know they mean business (of course, that same doctor’d probably include saturated fat among the condemned, but no one’s perfect).

If all that isn’t enough to convince you, perhaps a healthy dose of all cause mortality will.

The study, conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine, examined whether time spent sitting was an independent indicator of all cause mortality.

The study factored in leisure time, alcohol and tobacco consumption, and even physical activity (the lack thereof which is a common explanation of the poor health ramifications of too much sitting), but sitting time emerged as a factor – “independent of leisure time physical activity.”

Physical activity certainly helps reduce mortality rates, but it might not be enough, and the downsides of sitting can’t completely be explained away by a reduction in exercise.

So, what can we do about it?

In a world of cheap and plentiful chairs, where social protocol and workplace decorum usually demand we plop down for hours at a time, how can the dedicated Primal Blueprinter maintain postural health and strength and avoid the pitfalls of too much sitting?

Ideally, we would avoid sitting for prolonged periods of time – or at all. That’s not very realistic, of course, for obvious reasons. We aren’t all Ernest Hemingway, who famously said, “writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.

(Hemingway’s method of standing to type is actually really nice if you can manage it; my editor, Aaron, has been doing so the past few weeks after injuring his back, and he may never go back to chairs if he can help it.)

If your boss is the type to let you nap and wear Vibrams to work, you might be able to work the “no-chair” angle, but I wouldn’t count on it.

If standing isn’t an option, trying using a stool to sit.

Humans used stools (also chests, or anything backless) for centuries before chairs became common, so we can definitely manage without the support.

The advantage of the stool is that you aren’t tempted to use the backing; in fact, you’re almost forced to maintain a straight, strong back by virtue of the backing’s absence. Sit up straight and tall.

You’ll probably have to consciously maintain the arch in your back (like you’re deadlifting) at first, but in time your muscles will strengthen and you’ll grow accustomed to the position. Oh, if you don’t mind looking ridiculous, I suppose you could use a big yoga/balance ball as a seat.

Constantly punctuating your day with bouts of activity is a decent way to reduce the damage.

Eight hours of sitting broken up into digestible chunks and interspersed with random walks and stretches every fifteen minutes is always going to be better than eight hours of uninterrupted sitting.

You could take a walk for your lunch break, or even find time to hit the gym. Just get up, get moving, and get your blood flowing, and do it as often as you can (while still getting your work done, of course).

This may belong strictly in the “flights of fancy” category, but treadmill desk would certainly help you avoid sitting. Plus, you could switch it off and simply stand and work if you ever got tired of walking.

If you absolutely can’t leave your chair for the entire day, you’ll need to put more emphasis on getting regular exercise outside of work. Eating Primally should be helping you avoid sugar crashes and carb comas, so mustering enough energy for a session shouldn’t be a problem.

The reason we formally “workout” is because our lives are so structured; Grok didn’t decide to exercise. His life just naturally required it. In a way, both you and Grok need to exercise to survive – only for slightly different reasons.

To sum things up, staying on your feet or lounging instead of sitting in a chair are the most desirable ways to deal with the chair problem. Modern conveniences, though, have basically become modern requirements, and we’re going to have to deal with sitting in chairs from time to time.

When you are forced into sitting, maintain a strong torso. Keep your shoulders back, your chest up, and your lower back tight and slightly arched.

Get up every 15 minutes or so for a brisk walk. Explore alternative seating arrangements, like yoga balls or backless stools that force you to exercise proper postural positioning. Think of the chair as a crutch – use when needed, but don’t rely on it too much or you’ll never be able to graduate.

Above all, don’t get hung up on the fact that you sit in a chair everyday. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s not going to kill you as long as you take the necessary steps to minimize the negative impact of sitting.

And now for some questions:

How many hours a day do you spend sitting in a chair?

What type of chair do you use?

How would you rate your posture?

Has anyone successfully negotiated a standing working environment at their office job? If so, share your experience.

Let me know your thoughts in the comment board. Thanks, everyone!

Read more:

“Did I choose to be a social designer?” And “Did the will and opportunity collide?”
My niece Joanna Choukeir Hojeily posted on FB:
“Did I choose to be a social designer, did it just happen, or did the will and opportunity collide?
I will be reflecting on how I got to doing what I do now; a practice and industry that didn’t exist 10 years ago when I first started out as a designer. Creating Futures Symposium this coming Tuesday at the ICA in London.
Did I choose to be a social designer, did it just happen, or did the will and opportunity collide?  I will be reflecting on how I got to doing what I do now; a practice and industry that didn't exist 10 years ago when I first started out as a designer. Creating Futures Symposium this coming Tuesday at the ICA in London.
I replied:
“Your field existed since 1942 when designers tried to minimize the frequent pilot accidents in the air war with Germany. It was called industrial psychology, then industrial engineering, ergonomics, Human Factors in Engineering
The advent of fast computing, personal computing and fast graphics facilities shifted the trend to social graphic engineering or design…
It is the varied opportunities in developed countries that upgraded your passion for “social graphic design” projects: Giving priority to the health, safety and ease of use of products and services…”
I have posted about 50 articles on that topic in the category “Human Factors in Engineering”
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.
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.
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”.
Here is a brief story of how I went about finishing my PhD dissertation.
My adviser had a business in forensic of accidents in workplace, safety consultancy and was focused on the lack of safety signs and pictorials since it was the rage of suing in consumer liability cases.
He proposed that I work on safety signs for my proposal and I didn’t feel hot about it: I sensed this topic was at best good enough for a Master’s thesis. The effects of safety signs were very short term, unless the system includes safety behaviors as an important part in the proper functioning of the corporation.
I recall that I worked for a year on a PhD proposal related to graphics of safety signs and pictorials. There were no personal computers and no graphic facilities. I toiled by hand.
My idea was to gather the used and adopted safety pictorials in many fields and try a taxonomy of elemental parts that designers could assemble in their jobs.  This proposal was killed by the team of advisers within half an hour of the session.
I tried another proposal related to cognitive engineering and it was not accepted. I was hooked to the cognitive field but my adviser would have none to do with cognition for my dissertation: he was not interested in such a field and it was not in his line of business.
To be fair, Dr. Purswell was more than patient with me and let me write two proposals related to cognition that both were turned down within a year.
I spent two years on idiosyncratic topics that my main advisor was not comfortable with, and I had no support system to guide me.
Two years earlier, my advisor told me: “Get on with my idea of a proposal. Get you degree and move on. At your age I had already three children...”
Two years earlier, one of my classmate obeyed the same advisor to the word and finished his dissertation (no experiment was conducted) and was accepted at a university as assistant professor, while I was toiling uselessly.
Finally, Dr. Purswell had to deliver an ultimatum or he would have no choice but to suspend my scholarships.
I was ordered to stop all part-time jobs. I obeyed and within a semester I wrote the proposal, designed the experiment, finished setting up the fictitious chemical lab and carried out several intelligence testing protocols just to divert the true objective from the over 120 “subjects”.
The subjects were mostly first year Psychology students because they are required to submit to experiments for credit-hours. That semester was hectic but a lot of fun.
The next semester was the worst of all semesters because I had to input thousands of data and read hundreds of pages of computer statistical results and the gruesome task of writing up my dissertation.
I had Dr. Schlegel in my advisory team and he forced me to use a specialized word processing program, simply because the print was professional and versatile. The problem was that no one could interpret the error in the program and fix it when I got stuck except him. I occasionally had to wait a couple of weeks to meet with him in order to untangle stupid word processing glitches.
By the time I submitted the final written copy I was totally depressed and I had erased from my mind any academic prospect.
To make matters worse, the US was experiencing a depressed market and universities had put a moratorium on hiring professors.
What a foreign PhD graduate with the wrong nationality and in a bad job market is to do to survive?
I asked for what I deserve. My temperament predicted this outcome.
I don’t complain in real life, but the blog is supposed to write about the oddities in life.

Twenty years later, and I am still hurting; (Jan. 28, 2010)

I returned to the USA in 1986 for a PhD program in industrial/Human Factors in engineering.  It hurts to recollect this non efficacious decision that was hasty, as all my previous decisions were, a split-second decision with no turning back.  Anyway, most of my jobs and positions after graduation were not related to my specialty, a specialty that I am still trying to define and explain to myself.

Luckily, 15 years later in 2001, I had the opportunity to teach at a university in Lebanon, on part-time basis, two courses related to Human Factors in engineering.  That was a golden opportunity to write over 50 professional articles, 25 of which were my way to re-discover what this field of industrial engineering/Human Factors is all about, in this fast evolving technological breakthrough, and transmits its concept.   I thus published on the category “What is that concept of Human Factors in Engineering?

I applied for a Canadian emigration visa in 1990, a year before graduation, but it was denied me: the Canadian consulate in Houston did not interview me at all. After inviting me for an interview the consulate told me by letter that since I have a USA visa then I had to go back home for application or something to that effect.

I left with $5,000 of my own saved money, much devalued by inflation. Again, I had no one to receive me at the airport and had no acquaintances to shelter me. It was the same lonely and frustrating process as my first travel.  It was as if I never learn anything from past mishaps, but I knew my destination this time around, and what to expect to see. There were no internet facilities at the time and no versatile communications.

I stayed two days at the temporary university boarding building.  A bright Lebanese undergraduate student in electrical engineering named Ghassan visited me at the dorm and connected me with a Lebanese graduate student in Environmental Engineering who rented a house far from campus. This graduate student agreed to take me in for a week and I used to accompany him in his car, mornings and evenings.

Ghassan was an undergraduate electrical engineer and ended up obtaining his PhD in the same year of my graduation; he got a job with Cisco in Oklahoma City while I was totally exposed to an uncertain future.

I forgot the name of the Environmental engineer: my memory is the weakest element of my brain, especially in recall. I remember that I aided this student during his PhD project; I connected him with the specialized person in data design and acquisition and then I helped him imputing data for statistical analysis. He insisted on paying me and when I finally asked for $100 for an entire month of work (I was totally broke at the time) he got furious for accepting the money since he took me in for free, 5 years ago for a week.  This is a typical Lebanese testing gimmick for loyalty or whatever you label it; they insist and your role is to continue refusing, but I was not proficient in that custom and abhorred it.

In the meantime, I had contacted the university student foreign office and a lovely structural engineering undergraduate, a Tunisian student named Suhail, agreed to share his university apartment with me.  Suhail loved everything that is Lebanese, food, music and all, but I was not up to his expectations.  Suhail was a bright and caring person; he finished his PhD in no time and wrote an “artificial intelligent” computer program for structural engineers; the program would prompt you with inquiries and at the end it would suggest the proper equation to use for your problem or project.

The notion of artificial intelligence was the rage at the time and I had audited a course on that topic because I could not afford tuition; I read many books on the topic.  I was working four part-time jobs at minimum wages, within university campus, because I am a law-abiding kind of guy.

Suhail got married at the same period with a Palestinian/US girl in Norman and got a son; he did all these things while I was plugging in to get past my General Exam. I think Suhail’s wife name was Wafaa and she helped her parents in a restaurant that specialized in Near Eastern food. I recall that we occasionally had the specialty of the day around lunch time; probably Suhail’s visits were much more frequent.

Suhail aided me greatly in writing the computer program for my computer generated experiment. I started writing the program in Pascal but I was not that proficient in programming and Suhail translated my ideas into C++.  I had audited a course in C++ because I could not afford any tuition, but had to stop coming to class: I thought that I was taking an introductory course in C++ but discovered quickly that the computer engineers were already proficient in that programming language. The funny part was that the team I was added to were gracious enough to deliver me the programming instructions of its final project.

The Dean, who was from India, refused me a grant and Dr. Foote, my former MS advisor, would not support me as I expected of him. I had no choice but to enroll in order to straighten my visa status from business visa to graduate student.  I paid the full exorbitant tuition for the minimum 12 credit-hours and was completely broke by the end of the semester. I had to take three undergraduate courses, two of them I had taken but the third one (Experimental Design) turned out to be the most interesting and very important for my field and for scientific mind.

I settle for the Human Factor specialty within the industrial engineering department because Dr. Purswell agreed to be my advisor next semester, and offered me a quarter scholarships which allowed me reduced tuition fees.  Dr. Purswell was more interested in the health and safety aspects in this field: he had a private company in forensic engineering for work related accidents.

There were not enough graduate Human Factors courses in the industrial engineering department for a PhD program: the human factors field was not well-developed as the other industrial engineering specialties and the university lacked qualified professors in that field. I was lucky to complement my graduate course requirements in many other departments such as psychology, “quantitative psychology”, marketing, accounting, economics, and education which offered me new perspectives and approaches to the human element in all these artificial human made systems.

I enrolled in a couple of graduate courses in the Psychology department and I felt at home; my heart got set on the cognitive aspect of human capabilities and limitations instead of the physical aspects that is known as Ergonomics, and the modeling of the human body versus the functions of the brain.

I had taken many courses in cognitive psychology and various statistical modeling and software analysis programs, frequently used in marketing, business, psychology, and econometrics.  One professor by the name Getty gave me credits for the Pascal programming language, the next semester, when I paid for the course that I had audited and did all the homework and exams.

I was hooked to the cognitive field in Human Factors but my advisor would have none to do with cognition for my dissertation because he was not interested in such a field and it was not in his line of business.

To be fair, Dr. Purswell was more than patient with me and let me write two proposals related to cognition that both were turned down within a year.  I attempted several times to get on teams working on interesting projects but I was turned down on account that I should have security clearances; what? GM requires security clearance for designing a new ergonomically functional board for its cars! Or the other project for selecting a dozen indicators, sort of operation measurement of the mental and sensory responses of individuals for flying military jets.  The project was done and I attended the presentation.  I guess this project is operational in selecting applicants.

Finally, Dr. Purswell had to deliver an ultimatum or he would have no choice but to suspend my scholarships. I was ordered to stop all part-time jobs. I obeyed and within a semester I wrote the proposal.  I then designed the experiment, finished setting up the fictitious chemical lab, and carried out several intelligence testing protocols just to divert the true objective from the over 120 “subjects” whom I enrolled mostly from first year Psychology students: they are required to submit to experiments for credit-hours.

That semester was hectic but a lot of fun. The next semester was the worst of all semesters because I had input thousands of data and read hundreds of pages of computer statistical results and then the gruesome task of writing up my dissertation.

I had Dr. Schlegel in my advisory team and he forced me to use a specialized word processing program, simply because the print was professional and versatile; the problem was that no one could interpret it when I got stuck, except Dr. Schlegel; I had occasionally to wait a couple of weeks to meet with him in order to untangle stupid word processing glitches.

What still hurt, after 20 years, is that I was not satisfied with my thesis.  Not that practical applications are expected from an engineer, but because no one controlled the process of my experiment.  What was initially an excellent design of the experiment that turned out to get out of the designed program.

The analysis would no longer correspond to cause and effect designed experiment and I had to contend with descriptive analyses that ruined all the pride that I had as an excellent scientific mind.

I am still hurting; I am glad that the publishing company for dissertations refused to publish it, because the manuscript had a numbered blank page and I could do nothing about it: I had no money at all. to recopy the entire manuscript. And didn’t care for the thesis to be published anyway.

All scarce money going down the drain and no professional future in the horizon.

I am hurting because I hated academia after graduation, and tried my best to keeping academic life at bay, working on lousy jobs hoping that my “unconscious” depression would subside.

This mental block never let go and I had no support system to get on the right track.  Yes, I wasted my life as a professional, but deep in my mind and my heart I know that I have a better and sounder scientific mind than many professionals that I know, and I am still interested in many fields of study and have the capabilities to untangle the good valid scientific projects from the faked ones.

Article 41

“What do Human Factors measure?”: An example of warning alarm systems

This article is an ongoing project.  The dependent variables or performance measurements adopted by Human Factors/Ergonomics are varied and should be judiciously selected to correspond to the tasks, systems, methods, and purposes they are researching.

The professionals in the field of human factors, depending on their primary discipline and interest, consider appropriate performance measurements for the types of controlled experiments, evaluation, or testing methods.  The studies  either answer practical problems that cannot be resolved by the traditional methods that analyze systems’ feasibility and performance or are oriented toward basic research.

The dependent variables should be necessarily directly related, or highly correlated with the essential human factors performance criteria, of mainly reducing errors in the operations, safe usage of products/systems, and health concerns of workers and end users.

Many of these measurements and their corresponding techniques and procedures were initially developed by psychologists, who were attuned to the practical facets of their discipline, and how their research can be applied to engineering design of interfaces between target users and systems that are increasing in complexity and becoming essential in running the functioning of our daily lives.

For example, I asked my class to participate in resolving a problem.  We were to evaluate two warning alarms used in factories and to decide which product to select.  I asked them what could be the potential, valid, and effective dependent variables for this evaluation.

Obviously, the first answer was to measure how loud the alarm is:  this variable would not do because alarms are designed to be loud in order to alert workers and employees, but the data on how many of them heard the alarm goes off will certainly not provide a decisive choice among the mostly loud systems. Loud is not a performance criteria in alarm systems but an engineering objective.

The next step was to make the students think about the real purpose of having a warning alarm.  Obviously, warning alarms are produced to warn against the existence of fumes, the starting of fire, a serious danger, or a drill.  Suppose you were conducting a drill, then what might you be interested to observe and record?

At this junction, ideas started to fuse from every corner;: the noise of the alarm should be jarring and very uncomfortable to the ears, visual stimuli should be designed in the product such as in police cars; automatic connections to fire brigades should be contemplated when installing warning alarms; more than one exit door should be opened; emergency exit doors should not be blocked by inventory materials.

Now, where the warning alarm should be installed?  Should it be next to the emergency door because this is the normal direction where heads turn to, or in the opposite direction because the reaction of people is to move in a direction away from the warning noise?

I meant to explain the fundamentals of evaluation methodology and ended up with practical answers, which is fine and encouraging, but we had to get back to methodology and what could be the most appropriate safety measure.

Most probably, how many workers actually vacated the premises on hearing the alarm could be a good starting decision variable.

Better, how many vacated within a standard duration in accordance with safety regulations might be an improved measuring stick.

At this stage there was confusion in discriminating among, controlled experimentation, evaluation, and testing methods, as well as the differences among dependent, independent and control variables.

Obviously, what we were discussing was testing the effectiveness of warning devices, since evaluation is targeted for the packaged deal that includes after sales services, maintenance, repair, instructions manuals, extra commendable features, and so forth.

In addition to rating each specification, evaluation methods might consider comparing end-users behaviors such as like/dislike, acceptance, or rejection depending on psychological preference judgments.

For example, we were supposed to be discussing how to test among warning products, but it was not straightforward to the students.  Students were talking of other factors such as the frequency range of the alarm, whether it is in the lower or upper frequency scale, the timber of the alarm, the loudness range and levels to manipulate, the characteristics of the background noise, the layout of the facility, the type of noises emanating from the machinery and equipments, the outdoor noise level, the characteristics of the workers and their hearing deficiencies, and how the workers were initiated with drills, safety warnings and instructions.

What could be the performance measures for warning products in controlled experimentation?

In this case, the investigator needs first, to select objective, accurate, and reliable measurements such as the increase in heart beats above individual baselines, or the duration needed before the heart beat return to its resting level, or the reaction time for any changes in the dilation of the pupil of the eyes, or other physiological characteristics, which are not highly correlated among themselves, if more than one dependent variables are used, and should be used.

Secondly, the purpose in controlled experimentation is to select the characteristic of sound or noise that best affect the outcome of the study in order to design a performing warning alarm with the purpose of eventually reaching design guidelines for products/systems; and third, that the conditions and location of the experiment have to allow the repeatability of the experiment.

More than one session is necessary to sort out the difficulties and distortions in the untrained experimental minds. However, we agreed that in testing the warning alarms we need to control important factors that might affect the results such that we need to test all the selected warning alarms in each one of the facilities, in every location that they might be installed, during the day and night shifts, in the morning, after lunch, and at the end of a shift if necessary and funding is available.

Article #18, April 14, 2005

“What does this general course in Human Factors cover?”

One course in Human Factors is offered in the school of engineering and architecture. 

It is a required course for industrial engineers in order to satisfy the accreditation requirements in some of the USA universities.

I am under the impression that no professor, associate or assistant professor in the university has taken a single Human Factors course.

Before I was asked to teach this course a mechanical engineering associate professor tried his hand at it for may be one or two semesters. 

Apparently it was a nightmare for him and preferred to concentrate on the environmental aspects in the workplaces: namely, noise, lighting, heat and temperature.

These topics were very much in the liking of the students and the teacher. 

They were convenient since they fitted nicely within general engineering topics with plenty of computation and quantitative sources.

These topics could as well give an engineering impact to match the name of the course Human Factors in “Engineering”.

This fact was impressed on the chairman of the department and for many years considered the environmental factors to be the sin qua of the Human Factors discipline.

I admit that as a part-timer my public relation was poor and I had fleeting contact with the full timers and did not try hard to educate the concerned parties to the other facets of the discipline. 

I also admit that the Human Factors professionals failed in sending the right message to the engineering practitioners.

Originally, the Human Factors association comprised also industrial psychologists and ergonomics professionals. 

Many colleagues were more interested in basic research and new methods that did not target directly the engineering practitioners.

Most of the research papers were evaluation of already outdated inventions and could not keep pace with the new technologies dumped on the market.

In the 90’s a few professionals sounded the alarm and tried to redirect the focus for the research papers; they explicitly emphasized that Human Factors is a design profession and mainly designing interfaces between complex systems and end users.

The end users could be operators, workers, employees, engineers or consumers of products.

The purpose of these designed interfaces was to permit ease of use, efficient and comfortable use for long duration, safe usage in a healthy environment.

These practical professionals insisted that research papers should be oriented toward practical engineering demands for readily available data that could be applied in designing systems that fit human operators within their capabilities and limitations.

I put together a course material of a thousand pages.

It is a terrible nightmare for students who practically never read but nevertheless they should be skilled in circumventing arduous hurdles in learning.

The materials were divided in four parts: part one is called basics in designing for people, part two is named physical applications and methods, part three is about the environmental and organizational factors in workplaces and part four covers the cognitive(mental) applications and methods.

In our age of information processing and communication the cognitive aspects (memory, idiosyncrasies, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, and psychophysical measurements among others) of Human Factors interface designs should be allocated a course by itself but it is not bad to try every year asking to add a follow up optional Human Factors course.

 “An exercise for taxonomy of methods”

Article #14 in Human Factors

I am going to let you have a hand at classifying methods by providing a list of various methods that could be used in Industrial engineering, Human Factors, Ergonomics, and Industrial Psychology.

This first list of methods is organized in the sequence used to analyzing part of a system or a mission;

The second list is not necessarily randomized though thrown in without much order; otherwise it will not be an excellent exercise.

First, let us agree that a method is a procedure or a set of step by step process that our for runners of geniuses and scholars have tested, found it good, agreed on it on consensus basis and offered it for you to use for the benefit of progress and science.

Many of you will still try hard to find short cuts to anything, including methods, for the petty argument that the best criterion to discriminating among clever people is who waste time on methods and who are nerds.

Actually, the main reason I don’t try to teach many new methods in this course is that students might smack run into a real occupational stress which they are not immune of, especially that methods in human factors are complex and time consuming.

Here is this famous list of a few methods and you are to decide which ones are still in the conceptual phases and which have been “operationalized“.

The first list contains the following methods: operational analysis, activity analysis, critical incidents, function flow, decision/action, action/information analyses, functional allocation, task, fault tree, failure modes and effects analyses, time line, link analyses, simulation, controlled experimentation  operational sequence analysis, and workload assessment.

The second list is constituted of methods that human factors are trained to utilize if need be such as: verbal protocol, neural network, utility theory, preference judgments, psycho-physical methods, operational research, prototyping, information theory, cost/benefit methods, various statistical modeling packages, and expert systems.

Just wait, let me resume.

There are those that are intrinsic to artificial intelligence methodology such as: fuzzy logic, robotics, discrimination nets, pattern matching, knowledge representation, frames, schemata, semantic network, relational databases, searching methods, zero-sum games theory, logical reasoning methods, probabilistic reasoning, learning methods, natural language understanding, image formation and acquisition, connectedness, cellular logic, problem solving techniques, means-end analysis, geometric reasoning system, algebraic reasoning system.

If your education is multidisciplinary you may catalog the above methods according to specialty disciplines such as: artificial intelligence, robotics, econometrics, marketing, human factors, industrial engineering, other engineering majors, psychology or mathematics.

The most logical grouping is along the purpose, input, process/procedure, and output/product of the method, otherwise it would be impossible to define and understand any method.

Methods could be used to analyze systems, provide heuristic data about human performance, make predictions, generate subjective data, discover the cause and effects of the main factors, or evaluate the human-machine performance of products or systems.

The inputs could be qualitative or quantitative such as declarative data, categorical, or numerical generated from structured observations, records, interviews, questionnaires, computer generated or outputs from prior methods.

The outputs could be point data, behavioral trends, graphical in nature, context specific, generic, or reduction in alternatives.

The process could be a creative graphical or pictorial model, logical hierarchy or in network alternative, operational, empirical, informal, or systematic.

You may also group these methods according to their mathematical branches such as algebraic, probabilistic, or geometric.

You may collect them as to their deterministic, statistical sampling methods and probabilistic characters.

You may differentiate the methods as belonging to categorical, ordinal, discrete or continuous measurements.

You may wish to investigate the methods as parametric, non parametric, distribution free population or normally distributed.

You may separate them on their representation forms such as verbal, graphical, pictorial, or in table.

You may discriminate them on heuristic, observational, or experimental scientific values.

You may bundle these methods on qualitative or quantitative values.

You may as well separate them on their historical values or modern techniques based on newer technologies.

You may select them as to their state of the art methods such as ancient methods that new information and new paradigms have refuted their validity or recently developed.

You may define the methods as those digitally or analytically amenable for solving problems.

You may choose to draw several lists of those methods that are economically sounds, esoteric, or just plainly fuzzy sounding.

You may opt to differentiate these methods on requiring high level of mathematical reasoning that are out of your capability and those that can be comprehended through persistent efforts.

You could as well sort them according to which ones fit nicely into the courses that you have already taken, but failed to recollect that they were indeed methods worth acquiring for your career.

You may use any of these taxonomies to answer an optional exam question with no guarantees that you might get a substantial grade.

It would be interesting to collect statistics on how often these methods are being used, by whom, for what rational and by which line of business and by which universities.

It would be interesting to translate these methods into Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, or Russian.

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Article #9, April 6, 2005

”Besides displays and controls, what other Interfaces do you design?”

Human Factors professionals are hopefully directing their efforts into designing interfaces between systems and end users and focusing their research into collecting useful data that can be directly applied by engineers and designers.

As mentioned in the previous articles, the two main interfaces that common people might guess are the displays that inform a user of the status of the system and the control devices which allow the end-user to modify the status of the system to a normal functioning behavior.

Since end users are the target and they do determine the success of any systems, consequently, for any system to be accepted, purchased and retained the end-user has to be able to operate the product easily, efficiently, without undue training, be relatively affordable and safe for use by the intended users.

Let us consider the various stages that the designs of a system go through in order to effectively deliver on its purposes and objectives:

First:  To define the objectives and specifications we have to determine the user’s needs and characteristics, organizational structure, work flow, and human performance measurement procedures and parameters. An expert ergonomics is trained to study and analyze all these requirements.

Second:  Next, we have to define the functional and operational requirements.  An expert ergonomics can and should participate in this stage.

Third:  The basic design stage of function allocations to operators or machines, work procedures and performance feedbacks are intrinsic knowledge to ergonomics.

Fourth:  Designing interfaces and work areas are the primary training of ergonomics engineers.

Fifth:  Designing facilitator material such as developing staffing, instructions, performance aids and training are the expertise of ergonomics.

Sixth:  Evaluating and testing specifications and performance are within the training of human factors/ergonomics professionals.

All interfaces that help a user operate a product or subsystem according to the above criteria are part and parcel of the responsibilities of Human Factors professionals.

Consequently, the interfaces within the Human Factors professionals’ capabilities and training are mainly, workstation design, instruction manual, job aids design, training programs and evaluation of systems.

Many other job descriptions during the first stages of system design and operation are within the knowledge and training of Human Factors as well: mainly, task analysis, operation-sequence diagrams and allocation of functions and task to either human operators or machine, or automated sections in systems.

Obviously designing an interface for a mandated trained user like an airplane pilot or a nuclear power plant engineer is easier, complexity of the system being comparable, than designing for common people of all gender differences, stature, age, race and cultural variety.

Designing operation and maintenance manuals attached to any product is an important job description that could promote the acceptance and usage of a specific product.

Usually, the instruction manuals contains safety signs, messages and pictorial for the main steps in the operation and thus enhancing safety and avoiding unnecessary litigations down the road.

Designing training programs for the operation, maintenance and repair of products for targeted personnel are within the job description of Human factors graduates.

Evaluating systems’ performance for essential criteria, including training time, safety built-in design, understandability of the manuals and acceptability are within the training proficiency of Human Factors graduates.

One of the widely promoted job descriptions is designing workstations.

Workstations design is not about just chairs, tables, keyboards, computer screens and the dozen other gizmos related to a fully functional workstation from communication to printing to audio-visual facilities.

A functional workstation has to account for the tasks involved, the positions of the operators, the arrangement, the lighting environment, and the entrance and egress facilities that could harm the operator.

A Human Factors should evaluate a workstation on the health and safety criteria of a designed workstation as well as its operability.

For example, we have already talked about repetitive trauma disorders, pains in various parts of the body and permanent health problems.

Note:  A student version found that designers of menu interface had difficulty with 91% of the guidelines. Analyses of the cause of the users’ errors were studied for recommendations.

“What is your job?” (December 3, 2004)

When striking conversation, people are not usually interested in the details about your line of work.

This behavior is not conducive to explaining what could be my job because my discipline is a vast field that encompasses a wide gamut of knowledge that renders the graduate more akin to a generalist than a specialist that employers prefer.

For that reason I feel inhibited when the first unsolicited question asked is: “What is your job?”

You may agree with me that in general people are interested mostly in the way you generate money for your survival.

Explicitly, they need to judge your social status from the level of your education.

Implicitly, they want to know whether you are earning plenty of money.

If you are rich enough, then how do you go about making money?

If you indeed are well off, then do you have a job for me?

If not, then: “Nice talking with you, I’ll have to mingle a little; I’ll see you later on.”

People know in advance what the purpose of your opening question is.

They are ready to blurt out:” I am sorry that I cannot help you find a situation.”

Many times, people just want to have a conversation;

They are not that interested in your social status, as long as it is somehow decent.

They need to know what books you read recently;

What are your hobbies that swallow your time and keeps boredom at bay?

What are your opinions on current hot issues that are preventing sleep to visit you?

Anyway, this is my excuse to being basically asocial.

The other nagging difficulty is the responses generated to the question about my profession such as:

“You said that you are an industrial engineer? You mean like a mechanical engineer?”

“Certainly we don’t have many industries in Lebanon to keep you busy.”

“What are you jobbing exactly? Are you actually a technician or a maintenance man?”

“You are saying that you also majored in Human Factors engineering, like splitting genes and DNA and manufacturing clones? 

“Yes, I heard about ergonomics, like designing comfortable chairs?”

“You said Agronomy? You mean like your specialty is in agriculture or designing gardens?”

People are not aiming at investigating what this profession is supposed to do.

Would you tell them that a sound industrial engineering curriculum is multidisciplinary?

Would you tell them that it should expose you to managerial skills, to marketing, and the importance of knowing your competitors in the same line of business?

Would you tell them that it should make you acquire excellent presentation skills in order to get promoted and writing skills because no company is going to assign you a secretary to help you out constructing a few complete sentences that make sense?

Would you tell them that you may have to gather data on employees’ performance, quality control of products, time measurements to adequately finish a job, minimizing unwarranted inventory expenses and to optimize revenue or profit or cost or time or wastes by using sets of mathematical equations that await validation to see if the result actually works?

Obviously, it is not relevant to venture into the esoteric courses that the undergraduate curriculum forces upon you, like stochastic processes or integer programming or lately engineering reliability that you may never use or have any inkling to approach.




September 2020

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