Do You and Your Microwave Speak the Same Language? Some Designers Think It's High Time You Should

Times Staff Writer

Why don't scientists invent something sensible? Wives say it every time they hit their toes on a wastebin and husbands say it whenever a fuse is blown. Why is it the business of no one in particular to stop fitting science for death and to begin fitting it into our lives?

--Jacob Bronowski, "The Common Sense of Science," 1951

When NBC-TV consumer reporter David Horowitz was asked last spring by the Human Factors Society to address their 1988 national conference, he had never heard of the organization.

"I thought maybe it was some sort of religious group," he said last week.

After several months of research, Horowitz not only knows that the society is not a religious group, he has become a convert. Maybe even a missionary.

When he gives the keynote address Tuesday to launch the society's 32nd annual meeting at the Anaheim Hilton, Horowitz will tell the members--a mix of psychologists, architects, computer scientists, designers and anthropologists--that they are not getting enough respect in their efforts to design machines to meet human needs. In that endeavor, consumer advocate Horowitz thinks they should be invited to participate earlier, and more often.

"In my office we get complaints all the time about VDTs that give people headaches, about compact cars built like sardine cans, about tract housing that is almost unlivable. Where were the human-factors people when these were being designed? I think it is very important that the public know what these people are doing and that companies should utilize them."

Horowitz will not get any argument from his Human Factors audience. They acknowledge that, despite being around for more than 30 years, the profession still has a recognition problem.

The society, which now has 4,500 members, was organized in 1957, an outgrowth of World War II's need to develop planes, tanks and weapons that ordinary soldiers and sailors could operate.

Santa Monica-Based Society

Arnold M. Small, professor emeritus of human factors at USC, was chairman of the organizing committee for the Santa Monica-based society.

"A number of us involved in human-factors research and application during the war saw a real opportunity for continued research in laboratories so we stayed on. . . ."

Gradually human-factors specialists began to find roles in the private sector, contributing to designs ranging from evacuation systems for commercial airplanes to the angled toothbrush to the Kodak Disc camera--which used human-factors research to come up with a design specifically for amateur photographers.

And, though members still maintain that "when budgets get slashed, human factors are the first to go," there is no doubt that human-factors work (now also known as "ergonomics") increasingly affects ordinary citizens ("Your microwave oven can almost talk to you now," notes one engineer).

In a sense, noted Steven Casey, a Santa Barbara engineering psychologist who concentrates on equipment design, technology is providing too many options: the calculator with 81 functions, the dishwasher that demands major life-style decisions ("Dry automatically or drip dry? Save energy or don't save energy?"), the beeperless remote answering machine-telephone-AM/FM clock radio, all in one.

"The VCR," said Casey, "is just a beautiful example of how difficult it can be to use a new product, how difficult it can be to program. It's not just the size of those little buttons, but how many there are and how you operate the system. It is not always intuitive."

And if home consumer items have become more formidable in their complexity, so has work.

According to Richard Hornick of Hughes Aircraft Co. and chairman of the conference's program committee: "You can't find a job today that technology isn't involved in."

And while "years ago, the kinds of things we focused on were quite narrow and very limited in focus," Hornick said, " . . . now we have technical groups that can take a look at detailed research and apply it to larger societal issues."

The conference program through Friday at the Anaheim Hilton, with its hundreds of speeches, workshops, panel discussions, symposiums and demonstrations, exemplify this new versatility, he said.

In fact, he said, it might be seen as a contemporary statement about "where we are going in our technology," both in terms of problems and solutions.

Simultaneously, the program is ironic evidence that human-factors professionals serve two distinct roles today.

They may be called on to pick up the pieces after a major engineering or design disaster. (Hornick, who was in a group tapped to study the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, for example, found that "on one control-room panel a red signal was used to mean three different things, ranging from 'emergency' to 'situation normal.' ")

At the same time, human-factors specialists are working on ways to design machinery, from a pencil to a spaceship, that will gracefully serve its user.

A few samplings from the menu for this week's conference indicate that human-factors work is not only concerned with making technology less stressful for consumers today--but also looking ahead to tailor machinery of tomorrow that is far more safe and user friendly.

TRANSPORTATION: Gene Farber, automotive safety officer for Ford Motor Co. who will chair a Tuesday session on drivers and transportation systems, is looking down the road to the era of the "intelligent highway."

One reason some cars have almost outdistanced the brainpower of their users, said Farber, is that "nobody foresaw the extent of the electronic revolution, because nobody foresaw how cheap the equipment was going to get. The basic chip, the computer, you can buy for a couple of bucks. That means it is reasonable to apply it to all kinds of things."

In the automobile, that has translated into cars with computers that not only control engine functions, but also provide such dazzling features as climate control and an electronic AM/FM cassette sound system with up to 25 controls. "The challenge is to provide consumers with the functions they want without giving them a hopeless, confusing welter of displays," said Farber.

His panelists will include Burt Stephens of the Federal Highway Administration, which has just completed a major examination of how technology can enhance traffic control over the next 30 years. The agency study concentrated on communication between drivers and traffic control centers--somewhat like today's traffic advisories as drivers approach airports.

Although cellular telephones already provide two-way linkage, the future holds much more sophisticated relaying of information, said Stephens, who is chief of safety and traffic implementation for the highway administration. The agency looked at 10 types of systems for improving vehicle-roadway coordination, he said. The simplest was traffic control centers that would use sensors to get information from the highway and pass that along to drivers in receiver-equipped cars.

At the other end of the spectrum, and most controversial, is the idea of the completely automated highway, with an electronically linked platoon of cars traveling nose to tail at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. In between are such innovations as the constant adjusting of traffic signals, in response to sensor information, to maximize traffic flow.

Concludes Stephens: "The technologies (everything from superconductors to image processing) that are needed to greatly improve traffic flows and road safety exist today, but they can only be implemented if a national commitment is made to utilize them."

Such a commitment is being made in Europe today, he said, citing the massive Prometheus project, a joint, 10-year project by 19 countries, 13 European car makers and 40 research institutes. Launched in 1986, Prometheus will set standards for a pan-European electronic traffic system. "That's a major international commitment," Stephens said.

WORKPLACE: Perhaps no area has been as affected by technology as the computerized office, and perhaps nowhere have human factors consultants been more in demand for patching up the unanticipated damage.

"People did not use to spend their entire day staring at a VDT screen," said Jim Wise, a specialist in work environment. "Now they do."

A technology that makes it possible for a person to be seated all day (and the number of people working at VDTs is currently pushing 70 million) presents both physical and emotional problems, say human factors professionals.

One person who is convinced human-factors planning needs to enter the picture sooner than it does is Rani K. Lueder, president of Humanics, an Encinco human factors consulting firm.

For instance, said Leuder, in producing office equipment that won't be introduced until five years down the line, the designer needs to consider such realities as a maturing work force: From 1985 to 1995, the number of people aged 45 to 55 will increase by 60%. Many will be sitting at computer terminals.

"People in their 40s begin to suffer vision problems, muscular problems--there is a whole family of physical things that begin to happen," said Lueder, who will chair a conference session on the design of work environments. "You have to take all these things into consideration when you start designing."

There is ongoing research and debate, for example, about how people sit at computer terminals, and evidence, she said, that "people don't like to sit the way we've been telling them is correct posture--with their back straight and feet flat on the floor." More evidence contradicting the common wisdom is coming out of studies of people who do the repetitive data-entry work that prevails in many companies today.

"It's a commonly held ideal in management that if you allow people to talk to each other, to socialize, while they're working, productivity will go down," Leuder said. But "the researchers in the repetitive data study found the opposite: When people work in isolation, with no visual contact or conversation with others, both their error rates and personal stress go up." These findings have implications for the design of work environments, she added.

Clearly, the new ergonomics reality includes not only muscle and eye strain, but emotional stress as well. Peter Hancock of USC's Department of Safety Sciences, is an expert on "mental workload"--the personal stress that results when a computer demands more work at a more rapid pace.

"In reality, we are asking people to do things that, in many cases, they are not adapted or equipped to do," said Hancock. "The employers want to know how much work people can do before they start making errors: The workers want to know how long they can put up with these levels of load. A solution is a change in employer-worker relationships," he said, "and to some degree that is happening."

AGING: Like other professional groups, but perhaps more so, human-factors scientists are riveted by the demographics of our aging population: Today there are 56 million people in America over the age of 55. By 2010 there will be 76 million in that category. People 55 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the population.

One member of the "Innovation for an Aging Society" panel, Sara Czaja argues that "the increased confrontation with technology--at home, at the bank--for older citizens is a double-edged sword."

On one hand, there are a lot of potentials for enhancement of life, said Czaja, a University of Buffalo associate professor of industrial engineering, who is "working on an electronic message system for older adults, to deal with some of the problems of loneliness and also home safety--it can be linked to emergency response systems."

That's the positive part, she said. "On the other hand, what we have to realize is that to date neither the software nor the hardware were designed with these users in mind. It may be hard to read captions on a video screen, and the use of the keyboard may be difficult for people with arthritis."

Czaja, who is an expert on technology for older citizens, is concentrating on two projects. One is a study of the most effective way to teach older adults to use computers which, Czaja says, "can have big implications for continuing education as well as working at home: With a computer the physical demands of a task are reduced. . . . "

Her second project is to design a prototype electric mail system for novice users.

"Ideally it could let older citizens shop by computer, find out weather information, augment their memory with calendars, be linked to their physicians," she said. "We're putting systems in sample homes and starting off with electronic mail. One 94-year-old woman had so much fun talking to her friends by computer she said she'd give up her knitting for this."

COMMUNICATIONS: Research is currently under way to make business teleconferencing more human by adding a video element that would let the participants see each other much like home viewers see the interviewees hooked up from across the country on "Nightline."

Teleconferencing as we know it is usually done on a low scale, like a review of a technical paper, where the content is the real relevance," explained F. Marco Marchetti of Bell Northern Research.

But many meetings are considered too important to take place over the phone--because a lot of important information in a meeting is non-verbal, such as body language, eye contact, and a whole range of emotional reactions that identify group dynamics. "People want to know who's in charge of the meeting."

One solution is video-conferencing, which would require sending both visual images (from specially constructed teleconferencing rooms) and sound signals through optical fiber telephone line that can carry more signals than traditional lines.

Marchetti, who will lead a conference session on current research, envisions video phones in private homes, too. Earlier experiments with home "picture phones" were rejected, he said, because "people loved seeing who was calling, but they hated being seen when they answered the phone." But future videophones might be programmed to automatically screen calls, he said. "You as a customer could set up the phone numbers of people whose video images you want to allow through," thus limiting face-to-face conversations to preferred callers.

Videophones are only one prediction. "We're in a communications revolution and I think the next few years we will witness all sorts of impacts on the consumer level."

Not So Friendly

Human-factor specialists complain home and workplace aren't designed with people in mind: from function-packed calculators with tiny keys, to isolation-tank work pods, to dishwashers that demand too many choices.

Already Friendly

So they've taken a direct role in some designs: angled toothbrushes, Kodak's Disc camera for amateurs, rear-window brake lights.

Future Friendly

And what's to come? The possibilities seem endless, say specialists meeting this week in Anaheim: a dashboard-mounted guidance system; "intelligent" highways with two-way communication between driver and control tower; comfortable, reclining chairs at work stations; electronic message and shopping systems for older adults; video phones for business conference calls and conversations at home.

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