The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the Way People Live with Technology

The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the Way People Live with Technology

by Kim J. Vicente

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In this incessantly readable, groundbreaking work, Vincente makes vividly clear how we can bridge the widening gap between people and technology. He investigates every level of human activity - from simple matters such as our hand-eye coordination to complex human systems such as government regulatory agencies, and why businesses would benefit from making consumer goods easier to use. He shows us why we all have a vital stake in reforming the aviation industry, the health industry, and the way we live day-to-day with technology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781135877255
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 03/07/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Kim Vicente has been the Hunsaker Distinguished Visiting Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and has acted as consultant to, amongst others, NASA, NATO, the US Air Force, the US Navy, Microsoft Corporation, and Nortel Networks. He lives in Toronto.

Read an Excerpt

Your brain may give birth to any technology, but other brains will decide whether the technology thrives. The number of possible technologies is infinite, and only a few pass this test of affinity with human nature. -- Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Some of the greatest discoveries . . . consist mainly in the clearing away of psychological roadblocks which obstruct the approach to reality; which is why, post factum, they appear so obvious. -- Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers

Prediction is difficult, especially of the future. -- Yogi Berra


I realized that my life would never be the same again late one night in the fall of 1983 when I was a third-year undergraduate student in the Department of Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto. I lived with my parents, and I had taken over their big teak dining-room table to do my homework. My textbooks, papers and class notes were spread out over its entire surface. It was 2:00a.m. and I had been working on a project nonstop since dinner -- something not uncommon for an undergraduate engineering student, but this time I noticed an important difference. I had been working hard, but the time had passed quickly, and although it was late, I wasn't tired and wanted to continue working. I realized I was staying up not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I was fascinated by what I was doing; I was actually enjoying it! I didn't feel that strongly about any other course -- differential equations, for instance. There was something different about this course, human factors engineering -- the unique area of engineering that tailors thedesign of technology to people, rather than expecting people to adapt to technology.1 I remember making a mental note to myself -- this human factors stuff is pretty cool.

Years later, I went on to do a master's and a doctorate, and became a professor of human factors engineering. In retrospect, I can see why the field exerted such a strong attraction: when I was growing up, I did well in science, computer and mathematics courses; I was curious -- probably annoyingly so -- always trying to figure out how things worked. But I also did relatively well in English classes, loved to read novels, liked being around people, and had a streak of altruism and dedication to socially relevant issues. So on the one hand, I exhibited the stereotypical "geek" profile of a budding engineer, but on the other, I also embraced some of the "artsy" characteristics of an activist and humanist. Human factors engineering, because it deals with people and technology, allowed me to pursue all of my interests -- to use both sides of my brain, not just half of it.

When I first thought of writing this book, my goal was to explain the social relevance of my discipline to an educated lay audience, because hardly anybody has heard of human factors engineering even though the lack of fit between us and our technologies burdens our lives daily and has even changed the course of human history (I am not exaggerating, as you will see in the pages that follow). But I wound up doing something quite different, and the reasons why are instructive.

About 95 per cent of the work done by human factors engineers is relatively narrow and deals with designing for individual needs: ergonomic office chairs, user-friendly software, and the like. But what I'm going to describe in this book deals with a vastly broader set of problems arising out of the relationship between people and technology, not just at the level of the individual but also at the team level, the organizational and even the political level. I could tell you that this is what human factors engineering is and you'd probably take my word for it because you've never heard of the discipline anyway. But most of the conceptual territory that I'm staking out in this book has not been extensively travelled, let alone actively explored or thoroughly mined by my discipline.

That's an important observation because the negative impact of technology on contemporary society goes well beyond the frustrations caused by the myriad user-unfriendly widgets that surround us in the modern world. The negative impact is also clear in much larger problems, like the terrifying impact of fatal medical errors, the irreversible devastation of our natural environment, the deadly threats to safety in the aviation and nuclear power sectors, the contamination of our drinking water, and even the integrity of the democratic process. Don't get me wrong -- this isn't a book of complaints and whining about the negative consequences of technology. On the contrary, most of the pages that follow will be devoted to discovering how to make technological systems serve our needs. I hope it will take readers on a journey of understanding, and I'll begin the journey by giving a sense of why technology is wreaking havoc, and providing a new way of thinking that makes the human factor central to the design of effective technology in the modern world, whether it be a gadget or a more complex system. Then I'll go on to describe a number of solutions to show what we can and must do to regain control of technology, in our daily lives, in our businesses and in our society at large.

We already know how to design technology that works for people. But what is now becoming clear is that we could apply this knowledge much more widely, we could help solve many persistent social problems of local and global interest and improve the quality of life of everyone on the planet. As a result, the relationship between people and technology isn't just of primary concern to human factors engineers; it's also relevant to a growing number of people from many different walks of life -- perhaps you're one of them -- people who don't think of themselves as human factors engineers. The problems we're facing as a society are so complex and so pressing that they simply will not yield to any one discipline or profession. They require the adaptation of technology to human nature on a grand scale -- what I am calling in this book a "Human-tech Revolution."

Table of Contents

Part One
1 -- A Threat to Our Quality of Life: Technology Beyond Our Control
2 -- Why Is Technology So Out of Control? Walking Around Half-Blind
Part Two
3 -- Let's Get Physical: Fitting the Design to the Body
4 -- Minding the Mind i: Everyday Psychology
5 -- Minding the Mind Ii: Safety-Critical Psychology
6 -- Staying on the Same Page: Choreographing Team Coordination
7 -- Management Matters: Building Learning Organizations
8 -- Political Imperatives i: Technology for Better or for Worse?
9 -- Political Imperatives Ii: Safeguarding the Public Interest
Part Three
10 -- The Way Forward: Not by Widgets Alone

Reading Group Guide

What links the frustrations of daily life, like VCR clocks and voicemail systems, to airplane crashes and a staggering "hidden epidemic" of medical error?

Kim Vicente is a professor of human factors engineering at the University of Toronto and a consultant to NASA, Microsoft, Nortel Networks and many other organizations; he might also be described as a "technological anthropologist." He spends his time in emergency rooms, airplane cockpits and nuclear power station control rooms -- as well as in kitchens, garages and bathrooms -- observing how people interact with technology.

In the first chapter of The Human Factor, Kim Vicente sets out the disturbing pattern he's observed: from daily life to life-or-death situations, people are using technology that doesn't take the human factor into account. Technologies as diverse as stove tops, hospital work schedules and airline cockpit controls lead to 'human error' because they neglect what people are like physically, psychologically, and in more complex ways. The results range from inconvenience to tragic loss of life.

How has this situation come about? The root cause of the problem, Vicente explains in the second chapter, is a "two cultures" issue. There is a divide in the world of technological design -- just as there is in the world more generally -- between humanistic and mechanistic world-views. The humanistic view (in, say, cognitive psychology) deals with people in the abstract, ignoring that using tools is an integral human activity. The mechanistic view, on the other hand, forgets that it is real people who have to use the tools engineers develop. The two groups aren't talking to each other: as theauthor puts it, "our traditional ways of thinking have ignored -- and virtually made invisible -- the relationship between people and technology."

As is often the case in human factors engineering, the solution is both revolutionary and, on the surface, simple: what we have to do is focus on the relationship between people and technology. Taking a cue from systems thinking, Kim Vicente argues that we should focus not just on better products or better practices, but the fit between them. What this means is not the development of more high-tech or low-tech articles, but a Human-tech revolution, where the human comes before the technological but the two are always linked.

In some areas the revolution is already at work: it's not always the case that technology doesn't take the human factor into account. When it does, as in the case of the Reach toothbrush, the Palm Pilot, or the "critical incident" reporting method developed at the Philadelphia Children's hospital, the technology is a success. The Fender stratocaster guitar became the favourite of musicians around the globe because it was designed with the needs of guitarists in mind, in everything from its overall shape to the position of its controls. The Human-tech Aviation Safety Reporting System, a way for pilots to confidentially report near-misses, has made air travel dramatically safer.

Technology as Kim Vicente understands it isn't just the physical "stuff" we use. In The Human Factor the word is used in a much broader sense, to include the physical and non-physical elements of complex systems. Information, teamwork, organizational structures and political decisions play a crucial role in determining how well a technological system as a whole functions. The "Human-tech ladder" sets this out in more detail, and also provides the structure for the rest of the book. Design should begin by understanding a human or societal need, and then tailoring the technology to reflect what we know about human nature at the physical, psychological, team, organizational and political levels.

Kim Vicente offers a host of examples of technology relating to human needs poorly and well at each level. The physical is perhaps easiest to understand: a toothbrush that fits into hard to reach parts of the human mouth is better tailored to the human body than one that cannot. At the psychological level, technology has to take into account how people process and remember information, whether in designing voicemail systems or airport baggage checks. Poor Human-tech can be devastating. For example, awkwardly placed and uninformative gauges in the design of the control room at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station left even highly trained engineers uncertain as to the status of the reactor, contributing to the infamous accident there.

At the team level, the Cockpit Resource Management system is a way of training pilots to communicate and share responsibilities effectively. The way people work together is itself a form of technology that needs to run smoothly to avoid disastrous accidents, such as the time an Eastern Airlines jet crashed in Florida because the entire crew was distracted by the condition of an unimportant light bulb and no-one attended to flying the plane.

Kim Vicente discusses the human factor at the organizational level in chapter seven of The Human Factor. "Soft" technology such as staffing levels and corporate culture can be designed so that an organization learns from its front-line staff. For instance, the medical community traditionally holds individual doctors and nurses responsible for mistakes. When things go wrong we tend to blame people -- when in fact they may have made heroic efforts to use poorly designed technology. Errors in hospitals are more often the result of systemic flaws: none is wholly at fault, but together they interact to cause accidents. At the Philadelphia Children's hospital, the Human-tech solution is a system which encourages staff to make full reports on near-misses, and asks them to tell managers about potential dangers so that the hospital as a whole can institute protective measures. This critical incident technique led to a 90% reduction in medical mistakes at the hospital.

The final level of human nature which The Human Factor addresses is the political. Here, a Human-tech shows us that when political elements -- laws, funding, regulations -- ignore what we know about human nature, dangers arise. In the case of the E. coli tragedy in Walkerton, Ontario, Kim Vicente uncovers a host of "system design" elements at the political level -- policy aims, legal regulations, budget allocations -- which interacted with environmental factors and staff incompetence to kill seven people and make thousands of others sick.

In conclusion, Kim Vicente feels that our civilization is at a crossroads: we have to change our relationship with technology to bring an end to technology-induced death and destruction, and start to improve the lives of everyone on the planet. The final chapter of The Human Factor sets out the ways we can regain control of our lives. As consumers, we can recognize and distinguish better designed products, and buy the more Human-tech ones. By participating actively in society we can remind people that ignoring the human factor, as happened at Walkerton, has terrible implications. In our workplaces we can all ensure that more human friendly technologies, hard and soft, predominate. Companies need to take a Human-tech approach to the rules and practices they institute, and design soft systems to guarantee that their employees have the competencies, information, goals and commitment to do their jobs. Other bodies, from the media to engineering schools can all play their part in making technology with a close affinity to human nature the norm rather than a rarity: a better world will be the inevitable result.

From the Hardcover edition.

1. What did The Human Factor make you think about your own relationship with technology? Did it make you notice any "bad fits" around you that force you to change your behaviour? Do you have your own human-tech solutions? Will you alter your purchasing habits, or professional practices, as a result of reading this book?

2. Do you agree with the Kim Vicente that our civilization is at a crossroads -- what he calls a time of "transitional instability" -- as we move from one relationship with technology into another? Did you find his argument convincing?

3. Among the most startling case studies in The Human Factor is its discussion of the complex causes of medical error, which costs tens of thousands of lives a year. Did the author persuade you that systemic faults, not individual doctors and nurses, are to blame for the majority of medical errors?

4. In the chapter on the team level of the human-tech ladder, Kim Vicente points to cultural effects in team co-ordination: have you experienced difficulties in working or living with people whose basic cultural assumptions are different from your own? How can these be effectively overcome?

5. Kim Vicente gives examples of the "dark side" of human factors engineering, from store designs that encourage people to buy more to efficient execution devices. Do you agree with him that technology is morally neutral? Should engineers take into account the possible uses of their inventions?

6. The Human Factor takes Adam Smith's ideas as a contribution to Human-tech thinking, even though Smith died in 1790. Which other thinkers or inventors do you see as part of the Human-tech revolution, whether they knew it or not?


What inspired you to write The Human Factor?
I've spent 20 years of my life working in an area of research that is concerned with how to design technology to match what we know about people, and I thought it was time to reach out to the general public to see if we can't use this body of knowledge to improve people's quality of life. Most people have never heard of human factors engineering, or this way of thinking about the role of technology in our lives, yet the degree of fit between people and technology can affect us -- for good or for ill -- not just when we use consumer gadgets, but each time we go to a hospital, get on an airplane, or interact with the environment.

Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
I think it would be useful to read the first chapter or two and then discuss examples that each reader is familiar with that illustrate the problems that I describe. We probably all have our favourite examples of technologies that drive us crazy at home or at work. The meat of the book is in the middle and deals with more complex safety-critical systems, so after reading that part, I would suggest that readers think about what they can do on a personal level to help effect change. This could be as simple as thinking about ease of use the next time you buy a gadget or as ambitious as having discussions with your professional colleagues about how the world view described in the book is relevant to your work or business.

Which authors have been most influential on your own work?
Many, but I can highlight three here. Jens Rasmussen, my mentor from Denmark, taught me awhole new way of seeing the world, which I have tried to convey in the book. John Ralston Saul, who has been very kind to me, inspired me to reach out to the public to try to effect social change. And Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, taught me that academics can (and perhaps, should) periodically leave the ivory tower to use what they've learned to try to make the world a better place.

Do your ideas ever come from your personal experience -- good or bad, at work or home -- with technology?
Usually, it's the other way around. Because my job is to understand how to improve the fit between people and technology, I see bad fits all around me at work or at home. Sometimes, I think I annoy my friends when I go to their homes and immediately notice designs that didn't take into account the human factor!

You give many examples of people adapting to make the most of poorly designed technology. What's your favourite example of this?
Good question. I guess one of my favourites is from a nuclear power plant control room where there were two controls that were right next to each other and looked exactly alike, but did different things, so they were easy to confuse with each other. The control room operators got fed up with this, so they unscrewed the knobs on top of the controls and replaced them with two beer tap handles -- one for Heineken and the other for Michelob! The shapes of the handles were completely different, the textures were different, and the colours were different, so with this "redesign", the controls were easy to distinguish!

Human factors engineering often seems to provide a "common sense" solution that was overlooked. Would you agree that the human factor that makes technology seem more natural?
Yes, absolutely, and that's actually a problem in some ways. Good design is transparent, meaning that we don't notice it. The tool remains in the background because we're focusing on the task at hand, not the details of the widget. So we frequently don't consciously think about good designs because they provide a seamless fit between people and technology.

How can we ensure that the human factor is taken into account more often? For example, do you think legislators or bureaucrats could require designers to consider the human factor?
I think everybody has a role to play, and I talk about that at some length in the final chapter of the book. All of us -- citizens, corporations, governments, international human development organizations, media, and universities -- can make a difference. That's one thing I want to make clear: this is not a book of complaints; it has concrete suggestions and many examples for how to make better use of technology in society. And it's also not an anti-technology book: technology can make our lives better, but only if we put human needs and capabilities first.

You suggest that technology is morally neutral, and can be used for good or ill: your "dark side" examples include execution devices and shopping mind control. Do engineers (human factors or otherwise) have any ethical responsibility not to develop technology that could be used to further death destruction and suffering?
I think engineering ethics is an extremely important topic that deserves more attention than it gets. It's very complex though because you may be working on something with very good intentions, and only later will someone else use your creations for moral purposes that you abhor. But students and professionals need to think more about the interaction between technology and moral values, particularly in today's world where there are so many pressures to put economic concerns ahead of everything else.

What are some of your other passions in life?
Soccer is one. My father was a semi-professional soccer player in Portugal, so the sport is in my blood. Music is another, especially blues and rock, which is why I play guitar -- or better, try to play. And I love socializing with very bright people who care deeply about the state of the world. I'm very fortunate to have many friends and family members who fall in that category. I also love going to the beach to catch some sun, read a book, and just relax.

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