Lollies or Poison

October 16, 2012

Human factors covers many facets of human behaviour and interaction with the natural and constructed environment.  The issue of how to ensure that these environments remain safe for the younger and older members of our society is a case in point.Post image for Product Confusability: Tide Pods

Recently, a dishwashing detergent was packaged so that even adults could easily mistake them for food.  Young children have ingested these dangerous chemicals as the packaging is very colourful and resemble candy or lollies.  The harm done to these children and the increasing toll on the health system would surely outweigh the financial benefit to the manufacturer of this product, who obviously either didn’t think or was blissfully unaware of the consequences.  Perhaps the unwanted publicity of the dangers of this product, especially if there is an impact on their bottom line, may encourage them to design their products with more care in future.

All too often, human behaviour is not taken into account in the design of products.  No amount of urging customers to “be careful” will eliminate the danger posed by badly designed or labelled goods.  It is better business to design them properly in the first place.

When I was involved in training service and police dogs, there were five principles which used to guide us.  Firstly, Knowledge was required – if you didn’t know what you were doing, it made it difficult for the canine to know what was required.  Secondly, Repetition showed the required behaviour.  Thirdly, Patience in attaining the goal was essential.  Praise and Correction were the final principles, the former being more desirable and effective.  It seems that in the case of the design of the products described above, the first fundamental principle was lacking, as is commonly the case in many other applications where the knowledge and expertise of the human scientist is not sought or ignored.

This translates to the whole range of human applications.  Human scientists can provide critical knowledge but this fact is not often understood and can have great impact, both in terms of time and budget when ill informed decisions are made, and especially when the younger and older members of society are involved.

As has been previously posted, the initial BMW iDrive was a product which was installed in vehicles that the older demographic was more likely to acquire, which compounded the problems of poor initial design.  The older drivers did not have the digital savvy or knowledge that their offspring or grandchildren had and therefore the whole concept was flawed from the outset as it did not take into account the basic metrics of the human operator.  Of the five principles that I listed above, Patience is in short supply when you are battling traffic!

Which leads to the point made by the authors of the pieces – consideration of the special needs of the younger and older demographic is central to good design and outcomes going forward.


Simulation to help driver training?

October 10, 2012

Researchers are using driving simulators to help inform new drivers of the pitfalls of texting whilst driving.  Use of mobile communication devices is probably approaching the danger level of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or fatigue and is fast becoming one of the major problems on our roads.English: Fotograph of the SIMUVEG Driving Simu...

I have come across patents for devices which display SMS, Facebook and Twitter onto the windscreen of a vehicle.  I am amazed that the inventors have no perception of the dangers that they are advocating in their quest for a buck.

The main problem is that we are able to multi-task within the cognitive capability that we possess and in many driving situations we are able to ‘get away with it’.  We are not aware of how this affects our driving ability until an emergency situation occurs which approaches or exceeds our sensory, perceptual, cognitive or motor control limits.  This can happen in milliseconds.

English: bmw x5 idrive conroller Deutsch: bmw ...Unfortunately, when allied to the design limitations of the vehicles, this can be deadly.  For example, a major manufacturer has adopted the use of an LCD head down display for all of their vehicles.  As I have posted previously, this will require the driver to take their eyes off the road and use focal vision to control fine motor movement to touch the right portion of the screen.  Pretty poor design if you ask me – more likely a cost control measure without any idea of the consequences.  Obviously no human science input there, similar to BMW’s original iDrive. Allied to this is a curious standard that has been adopted that a function should not require a driver to take their attention away from the driving task for more than 3 seconds.  Wouldn’t a better design allow the driver to control things without having to take their eyes off the road? It is informative that BMW’s current system actually incorporates haptic feedback to achieve this result.

Perhaps we need some special driver training and further reinforcement on the dangers of texting whilst driving.  Or be informed by the latest research in human behaviour arousal and performance monitoring to help determine when the driver can perform tasks.  Given that vehicles now communicate with mobile devices using Bluetooth or similar protocols, any SMS, Facebook or Twitter feeds could be disabled whilst in the vehicle or tailored to operate when the vehicle is stationary, thereby reducing distraction which is acknowledged as the major cause of accidents. This is where ITS can assist if it is designed to integrate with the human who will remain in executive control of a vehicle for some time yet, despite the advances in automation.

All of which demonstrates that human scientists should be involved at the outset in the design and development of the HMI, and inform the powers that be on how the various technologies should be managed to reduce the dangers on our roads.  It would certainly be an improvement on the current situation.


Vehicle Displays

September 10, 2012
Driver in a Mitsubishi Galant using a hand hel...

Driver in a Mitsubishi Galant using a hand held mobile phone violating New York State law. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went to a workshop the other day and heard that a major vehicle manufacturer had adopted the use of touch screen control panels for all of their products.  The speaker had been employed to study the human factors associated with these. His talk was very disturbing – drivers needed more visual attention to use these things effectively as they needed fine motor control (and therefore visual attention) to press the correct area on the screen for their selection, especially if the vehicle was pitching due to the road surface or other conditions.  It made me wonder what bright spark in the company had decided that these displays were a good way to go.  When we are trying so hard to reduce mobile phone and texting use because of the clear and significant problems they pose to road safety, we have a vehicle manufacturer that decides to integrate something into the vehicle which will undo everything that road safety authorities have so far done in this area due to a lack of understanding of the issues involved.

I thought that we had learned from the initial BMW iDrive that technology for its own sake is not necessarily the way to go.  It speaks volumes that BMW now have a very much enhanced vehicle control system which includes haptic feedback so that there is nowhere near the impact on visual resources that the original design had.  And that’s good as the more visual attention is focused on the road, the safer all users will be (put it this way – if a driver is not looking at the external visual field there is no way that they can perceive and react to a potentially dangerous situation).

It made me call to mind a conversation with an engineer who was working on electric vehicles.  He said that they would incorporate noise into the car to emulate the typical sound of current cars.  He insisted that it was the only way to retain safety for pedestrians. It called to mind the situation where a man with a red flag used to signal the approach of ‘horseless carriages’ when they were first introduced in the late nineteenth century.  Why would you introduce noise into the environment when it may not be necessary – surely that is one of the advantages of electric vehicles?  Imagine a city with substantially less road noise (and perhaps more liveable?) as a result.

One disadvantage of course is that the auditory warning provided to pedestrians and other users would not be present, but I’m sure that we have the technology to overcome this aspect.  The almost ubiquitous use of entertainment devices by commuters effectively attenuates these auditory cues in any case as has been tragically illustrated by pedestrians being killed because they stepped out in front of approaching vehicles whilst listening to music from their iPods. However, DSRC network technology could easily provide warning information to pedestrians if it is set up correctly and integrated with the mobile communication networks.  Of course, there would need to be considerable human factors input so that any system is designed properly.

I suppose that all of these examples illustrate the importance of the latter aspect.  It would have been great if the vehicle manufacturer described at the beginning of this post had taken the step of actually testing their idea from a human perspective prior to making such a retrograde decision.  We now have vehicles which inherently create a similar problem to mobile phone use and texting problems that we are trying so hard to overcome – a safety time bomb in each of the vehicles produced by this company. Similar to faulty brakes or steering as it may have the same effect on road safety

One can only hope that the engineers, accountants and marketers who seem to rise to the top of these companies will realise the importance of fundamental human factors in their future products. Not just aspects such as usability testing, but the integral way that humans sense, perceive and process information.  Perhaps we can then apply a safety systems approach to road use and reap the benefits of eliminating the contributors to potential incidents (such as poor vehicle controls) before they occur.