We’re only human, after all

In Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, men answering the call of nature see a fly in every urinal. And, guys being guys, they instinctively aim at it.

It’s not a real fly, just a realistic image etched on strategically important spot on the porcelain – the exact place where embarrassing

splash back of urine is least likely.

Result? Says author Kim Vicente, “”a seamless, harmonious relationship between people and technology that addresses a daily human need for basic hygiene.””

Vicente, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto, has crammed dozens of examples like this into The Human Factor: revolutionizing the way people live with technology, a deliciously readable volume that talks about the good and bad of the way technology interacts with us, and we with it, every day.

Sadly for users, the interaction is all too often bad. Products from toothbrushes to computers are designed to be technologically sound, but not necessarily user-friendly, by engineers who have no concept of the human factors involved in actually using the things.

That, argues Vicente, can be, and has been, catastrophic.

During World War II, for example, dozens of accidents occurred when pilots retracted the wheels of their planes after landing. These were not bad pilots, they were simply flying planes whose controls were badly designed. What they had meant to do was adjust the flaps.

The problem? The levers controlling landing gear and flaps were side-by-side, and identical. Pilots couldn’t easily tell which lever they had grabbed until the plane unexpectedly thumped down on the runway.

The solution was simple, cheap, and elegant – Alphonse Chapanis, a U.S. army lieutenant and pioneer in what Vicente calls “”Human-tech,”” realized that pilots needed a way to determine which control was which, by touch, so he attached a wedge-shaped end to the flaps lever, and put a ball on the end of the landing gear lever. No more thumps.

Closer to home, and more recently, Vicente targets poor control panel design as the cause of both the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters. Operators were unable to detect the critical problems in the welter of confusing controls until it was too late. A lot of people died because systems were designed to be technically sound, but not usable.

In fact, Vicente notes, “”More and more we’re being asked to live with technology that is technically reliable, because it was created to fit our knowledge of the physical world, but that is so complex or so counterintuitive that it’s actually unusable by most human beings. Even in the relatively benign context of everyday tasks, the pattern is already creating dysfunctional effects.””

It adds up, he says, to a failure to exploit the potential of both people and technology. There are, however, successes. Vicente cites the airline industry as a glowing example of the effective application of human factors engineering (he has coined the term Human-tech to describe it), both in the design of its systems and in the training it provides to pilots as the systems change. He also lauds the Palm handheld as “”a benevolent design where the person and technology become one””.

On the downside, the medical world is not a happy place from a Human-tech point of view. Vicente describes a culture of blame that tries to pin the responsibility for errors on practitioners rather than considering the possibility of deficiencies in their tools. This includes situations where identical hoses with identical connectors for different medications on anesthesiology equipment made it all too possible to deliver death or injury instead of healing (the machines have since been redesigned), where nurses were accused of murder when a medication pump’s impossibly complex programming sequence led to the demise of a patient. In other situations children died, and nurses were prosecuted, because of poor labeling on drug packaging.

Airport security is in a similar state. Vicente says that Mechanistic thinking (which looks at strictly technical factors, and ignores the human ones) is largely responsible for security failures. Magical technology solutions that bypass humans aren’t the answer – security systems need to allow human and machine to complement each other.

In each situation Vicente describes five key human factors come into play: physical, psychological, team, organizational and political, and each has its corresponding technologies, and attendant issues. Vicente addresses each, weaving an alarming tale of botch-ups, tunnel vision and refusal to act on painful – even fatal – lessons.

But this isn’t only a book about problems. Vicente offers solutions as well, gleaned from his work and that of many others, including his own students. And he points out that basic engineering education has to change to make technology more approachable to humans, and political leaders who are skilled on the people side need in turn to understand technology. “”Technical skills are essential,”” he notes, “”but many of society’s problems demand a broader view, and many of the students we graduate are ill prepared for the challenges that await them. They wind up perpetuating rather than solving our societal problems.””

The Human Factor is a must-read. Its sometimes disturbing content can make it an uncomfortable read (you’ll cringe at some of the preventable disasters), but you’ll come away with a new awareness of how interaction with technology can affect our lives, and some ideas on how to make that interaction generate good, not harm.

The Human Factor: revolutionizing the way people live with technology, by Kim Vicente. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2003. $36.95.

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.
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