Archive for the 'Human Factors Engineering' Category

When building a better car is building a [not so good] one

Remember this  image from the Simpsons episode where Homer finds his long-lost brother?

Homer thought he was building the ideal car by adding as many features and tools as he could. Sometimes adding too many features to tools and applications or even websites can leave you with a end product that isn’t so usable after all. Just a thought.


Interaction Designer? Sounds like a Fun Job

So you want to be an interaction designer.

I thought this was a great article on what interaction design is and the philosophy and approach to good interaction design.  If we think about it web technology is really in it’s infancy or perhaps maybe it’s toddlerhood.  We’re still really in the beginnning of developing a science around interaction on the web. Who knows by the next half generation we may be using internet tech that differs from the media and forms we use today. Some how my gut tells me that it’s best to leave your options somewhat open when it comes to technology. The best place to start in designing tools is with the people, their tasks, their needs, their culture and behavior. More, it’s good to be somewhat open about how to best suit their needs, and give them as many options as possible.

The interaction designer who focuses on developing web-based environments for large populations has their work cut out for them. Developing a way to standardize organization of content and how to retrieve this content from the structure is probably one of the biggest hair-pulling task anyone must face.

I read from Chris Hoskin’s blog that some UX (User Experience) folks are aiming at developing interactions and User interfaces that help the different MBTI types.  This may make some system analysts and developers heads spin to think of so many different possibility for design, but that’s the point, you should be designing your tools for a wider range of user types.  Perhaps starting with Kolb’s 4 learning styles ( Concrete Experiencer, Active Experimenter, Reflective Observer, and Abstract Conceptualizer) might be an easier goal to shoot for for starters.


Companies are like bad marriages

From Creating Passionate Users: Too Many Companies are like Bad Marriages.

I really needed a good laugh. Thank you Kathy Sierra.

That’s true if you ever purchase software and then have to swim through help files to find what you need the help files are not organized or written in a way that’s easy for a user to search for the pieces of information that they need.  But this brings me to a point that’s been bugging me for the past three years: Designing great help and educational materials takes time and early and active participation from the training group!!!

I might also point out as well that products should be designed so that little or no training is necessary, and this is where the Human Factors Engineers or (HFEs) come in.  It may sound strange that a training developer is openly advocating a practice that could literally put herself out of a job, but I do so understanding that there will always be a need for good training and good documentation. At least if we’re designing better products my work will be directed to areas where it’s much needed.

Kathy Sierra points out that “World Class Training Materials” have three characteristics:

  1. User-friendly
    Easy to use when, where, and how you need it.
  2. Based on sound learning principles
    i.e. users actually learn from it, not just refer to it.
  3. Motivational
    Keeps users willing to push forward to higher “levels”

All three characteristics take time to build and design. Though if a training organization starts building usability practices and training it’s folks to identify when training interventions are not user-friendly and correcting them accordingly then you’ve probably got #1 nailed down.  #2 requires careful analysis and definition of the performance goals of the project or product. This requires more than just content experts throwing their design over a cubicle wall.   The project developers and designers must tie the design directly to the initial requirements (including user performance requirements), and training and the Human Factors Engineer should have direct exposure to the design as it’s being built.  The training developer can provide insight to the designers when it appears that the process or tasks will be difficult to learn. The HFE can let them know when the interface is a real pain in the butt for the user (and help them correct the design so IT IS NOT).

However, when you work for a company where engineering and design take the front seat…the Training and HFE roles are seen as an ancillary parts of the product development process. Consequently, it’s often hard to integrate Training and HFE activities into the process.  It gets even worse if you have to develop tools or products on a short time cycle.  The HFE has no time to provide input to the design of the tool or interface and the training developer must crank out sub-standard training materials because they don’t have enough time.

I believe that true incorporation of Training and Human Factors Engineering is a big change in behavior for some engineering companies.  It takes both a cultural change in understanding the value and how to apply both functions and areas of expertise correctly. It also takes leaders at the top who get the value and actively champion the best utilization of both groups instead of just paying them lip service.  I’ve seen our activities treated as ‘support’ functions and take a backseat to the others.  I’ve also seen HFE expertise and function as a whole being misunderstood and under-utilized. Yes, it’s true that you can’t have a product without a design, but how can you make it work if you haven’t assessed how the users are going to adopt it or have a plan for making it possible for them to do so?  There’s an ugly answer to this question and it sounds like this: “It doesn’t matter because the users don’t have a choice. They have to learn how to use the tool no matter how hard it is to use or learn.” But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the price that we must pay if we want to develop products quickly and without good usability practices and standards in place. The users will be frustrated, but tough termites, they simply have to deal with it. 

Some people may argue with me and say spending too much time on usability design and training will cost too much time and money.  On the training side, I believe that if at least three conditions are met this becomes easier:

  • Acceptance of Training: Leadership from the top down accepts, understands and champions the value of training and knows what it means if training is being involved correctly. Training partners design engineers, project team, etc. also understand and accept the role of training.
  • Business Process in Place: Training has a standard business process and practice in place (note business process is flexible – not a rigid procedure as for manufacturing) for developing training and have them incorporated the overall product design and development cycle.
  • Organized use of Learning Assets: Training organization has a well organized series of adaptable re-usable learning objects designed (there’s a great deal of efficiency gained). 

We are a product of the GUIs that shaped us

This weekend a friend of mine called me and declared that he’d finally figured out why it took him so long to learn how to use his iPod.  Bear in mind he’s normally pretty tech savvy.  He wasn’t aware that the main way of navigating was by tracing a circle around the circumfrence  of the touch pad or “Apple Click Wheel.”

“I’ve been trained to understand things linear,” he said woefully. “Up, down means scrolling through a list. Right, left means moving forward and back.  IT’S NOT LIKE THAT WITH THE iPOD!!!!”

Then he paused and I’m sure we both thought…. “It’s brilliant.”

Apparently both of us when first using the iPod used it the way we’d use a normal web-based GUI and we assumed the buttons and controls worked that way. WRONG! Boy, did I feel like a regular orangutan, but I walked away from the experience feeling like I was walking a little more upright that day.

Image of the older model but the navigation features still follow the same concept

My Notes: Web 2.0 – Innovation and the new rules

Image from

I was doing a scan over the O’Reilly Radar site when I found yet another good visualization of some of the important concepts around envisioning the web as a platform. The ideas from this image map which stood out most to me were:

  • Trust your users
  • Perpetual beta
  • Rich User Experience
  • Software that gets better the more people use it
  • An Attitude, not a technology

I’m a little slow, but I’m slowly getting the idea that in this new world the experience of the end user is key. Companies that truly understand this and employ enlightened design practices will be the dogs that rise to the top of the hierarchy. More, companies which employ these practices internally and develop a more collaborative model for creating products will continue to bring to market wonderful products that blow the competition out of the water.

I look at some of the tan-colored ovals in the image above, and I realize that these are concepts that may not take hold in ‘traditional’ corporations. More, these concepts don’t read well in the ideal corporation formed from a Welchian model. There is a pretty good article from last year from Money Magazine that lists Jack Welch’s rules of the game for companies, and provides a contrasting set of new rules. I believe that the movement around 2.0 the 2.0 tech or business model embodies the newer set of rules.

New rule # 2 echoes the need for agility described in New rule #1. How can you truly “create something new” (new products, new services) and get them out into the market (sometimes in new ways or via non-traditional vehicles), if you are not agile enough to change how your company generates products or does business? Should you continue to rest your bets (with a whole lot of faith) that being the “big dog” or dominating the market will allow you to maintain your market share? Also, how can you truly be agile if you continue to look internally for solutions, rather than make connections with what is going on in the outside world? How can you develop visionary products with people who’s view of success is merely to rise through the ranks or with leaders who do not have vision and or remain incapable of communicating it to their employees?

I started to create a mind map of a fictional company that might have some of the traits described in the “New Rules.” I’m fully aware that this is of course an “Ideal State.” However, you can’t really aspire to Be the One unless you’ve at least sketched out a summary of what that means.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of talk in the corporate ether about being ‘innovative.’ Having units with innovative teams is a good start to achieving this ideal state. In the child node of the mind-map branch “Have innovative teams” I referenced Phil McKinney’s list of innovative team players. I also divided the Parent into two roles/qualities (the people person/bridge and the process oriented person/task master). Also, I would like to note that the “Leader’s” primary job, with the help of the parent figure who acts as a bridge, is to hold this heterogeneous team together. The personalities on such a team are so diverse that conflicts are bound to arise. The book The Ten Faces of Innovation also provides a great profile of the players in an innovative group. I am planning to buy this book, and am very excited to read it.

Another way to improve your organization’s ability to be more innovative, or develop innovative products is to Foster collaboration or collaborative behavior within your org. Having a Knowledge Management system that taps into your collaboration enabled “Network IT” can boost your organization’s collaborative activities. Collaboration is a big part of what the Web 2.0 movement is all about.

Click the image to view the expanded mind-map.

Resources or Nuggets:

Money article on Old vs. New Rules of Business:

Innovative Teams – Audio MP3 (Phil McKinney’s Podcast in which he describes the typical players in innovative teams):

O’Reilly Radar article on “Web 2.0: Real Time Platforms” –

10 Faces of Innnovation (Website for the Book) – The 10 faces of innovation listed and briefly described:

The world’s most innovative companies:


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