Aviation, Human Factors, Automation and Modes

As a design community, we tend to forget how User Centred Design is not only employed in building customer-facing experiences. UCD and Human Factors are also used to design plane cockpits, submarine and nuclear power plant C&C rooms. The latest episode of 99pi does a great job of explaining why designing for automation can mean the difference between life and death.
Human Factors have a long history in Aviation. The first Human Factor studies were carried out during WWII, and focused on incidents related to human error and such. With the advent of automation, one of the key roles of Human Factors has always been to design automation in such a way that human lives would not be in danger, or at least reducing the risk of that happening.

I was lucky enough to work tangentially to Human Factor design professionals for a few years at Thales, and look at decision support system, naturalistic decision making, Abstraction hierarchies and all that sort of things.

With automation playing an increasing role in a number of areas, think of self driving cars, what can history teach us in designing such interactive systems? Automation can be a double-edged scimitar; when it works it’s great, but when it fails it leaves the pilot with a serious lack of hands-on experience in flying the plane.

Automation can prevent mistakes caused by inattention, fatigue, and other human shortcomings, and free people to think about big-picture issues and, therefore, make better strategic decisions. Yet, as automation has increased, human error has not gone away: it remains the leading cause of aviation accidents.

From a New Yorker article: The Hazards of Going on Autopilot

The more a procedure is automated, and the more comfortable we become with it, the less conscious attention we feel we need to pay it. In Schooler’s work on insight and attention, he uses rote, automated tasks to induce the best mind-wandering state in his subjects. If anyone needs to remain vigilant, it’s an airline pilot. Instead, the cockpit is becoming the experimental ideal of the environment most likely to cause you to drift off.

In the cockpit, as automated systems have become more reliable, and as pilots have grown accustomed to their reliability—this is particularly the case for younger pilots, who have not only trained with those systems from the outset of their careers but grown up in a world filled with computers and automation—they have almost inevitably begun to abdicate responsibility on some deeper level.”

Enjoy the 99pi podcast, ‘Children of the Magenta

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