The keynote speaker at the 2007 NECHFES Student Conference was Dr. Richard Pew, who is a Principal Scientist at BBN. The speech touched on highlights from Dr. Pew’s fascinating career, including for example his work on the user interface of the Kurzweil 250, the first synthesizer to produce lifelike imitations the sounds of real instruments. Here’s a picture of Dr. Pew with a slide showing him testing out a device for directional amplification of sound which basically tried to super-size your ears! I don’t think he liked it much.
However, in this post I wanted to discuss the concluding remarks from Dr. Pew’s keynote speech. These addressed the question of what the future holds for human factors engineering. First, Dr. Pew expects that the advent of ubiquitous computing will mean that human-computer interaction problems will turn into human-system interaction problems. This prediction is very relevant to the work going on at UNH’s Project54, since we are in essence building ubiquitous systems for law enforcement. I also think that this expectation meshes well with the seamless interaction idea favored by most ubicomp researchers. (Some argue that “seams” are a good thing and are needed to either remind us of the fact that Big Brother may be watching, or to just keep us actively involved in our world.)
Second, Dr. Pew feels that Web 2.0 and mashups will allow human factors engineers to extend the design process into the period of actual usage of a new system. With the new face of the web, engineers can build user (system?) interfaces, deploy them, let users interact with them, and then change the design based on feedback from users. This makes it easier to design good systems than say relying primarily on lab experiments, or even ethnographic studies, which still must be limited in scope.
Third, Dr. Pew expects that blogs, podcasts, and the like will provide a plethora of ethnographic data to support design. So, when studying someone’s work environment, you may not need to go out and join them for a day or week, you may be able to look for data on the web, since the data are already reported in multiple formats. It’s worth mentioning that people certainly do this sort of work with historical data, see for examlpe my post on work going on at Tilburg University.
Finally, fourth, Dr. Pew expects human systems engineering to become a mainstream element of systems engineering. The idea here is that you don’t want to design a system without taking into account the fact that humans will have to use the system! The US military for example is very keen on making sure humans are taken into account when designing its systems. Thus, the Naval Postgraduate School has a program in human systems integration.
For me, Dr. Pew’s keynote was certainly the highlight of the conference, and these four predictions were the highlight of his talk. They point to the exciting opportunities, in both science and technology, that lie ahead for all of us.