The man behind the machine

Kim Vicente is on a mission.

The professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto and recent winner of the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship presented by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, has dedicated his career to changing the way that people interact with technology.

Vicente, a cognitive engineer, coined the term ecological interface design (EID) in 1988, and has since applied the concepts of EID to systems ranging from cockpit controls, engineering design and nuclear power processes to animation, medicine and network management. He is the author of Cognitive Work Analysis: Toward Safe, Productive, and Healthy Computer-based Work and is the director of the Cognitive Engineering Laboratory at the University of Toronto.

He spoke with Computing Canada about what cognitive engineering means and how he believes it can change the world.

CC: What exactly is cognitive engineering?

KV: Basically, it is looking at design from a human perspective. It’s not just focusing on hardware and software, but asking whether a human being can use whatever the product is that is being designed. Traditionally, engineering is very good with the technical stuff, but often forgets about the human factor. This is very relevant for computer systems, which are frequently not designed with people in mind. It’s very interesting, because the problems that come up with technology are not usually with the hardware, which is usually quite reliable, or with the software, which usually does what it’s supposed to do, but with people who can’t figure out how to use it.

If this happens to you at home with your PC, you get frustrated, swear at your machine and start over again, but if this is a safety-critical system like a plane or a nuclear power plant or an operating room, the consequences can be far-reaching.

CC: Why are so many processes and systems so badly designed?

KV: It’s interesting — most things aren’t badly designed, as long as you don’t look at the human side of things. Deep down, it’s a problem with engineering. People go into engineering and are taught to build stuff, or they go into the humanities, focus on people and don’t learn anything about technology. Each of these is half of the puzzle. In order to change the problems we’re talking about and overcome the frustrations I’m describing, there needs to be a knowledge of both technology and people.

CC: Will this divide really matter into the future, as today’s kids grow up increasingly more comfortable with technology?

KV: It will always be an issue. Technological complexity is getting worse and even these techno-savv

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