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

Reshaping the Future

October 24, 1988|CONNIE KOENENN | 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.

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