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