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The New Point of View PUBLIC ACCESS

From the User's Perspective, Elements that Once Were Afterthoughts Have Become the Essentials That Can Make or Break a Product.

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Mechanical Engineering 130(02), 22-27 (Feb 01, 2008) (6 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2008-FEB-1

This paper emphasizes on various aspects of human factors engineering. Researchers believe that superior design creates demand for new products. According to a human factor engineer, a design succeeds because it improves the user’s experience, defined in this case as time to complete a procedure. Metaphase Design’s new paintbrush for Shur-Line looks cool and uses human factors research to improve control and reduce forearm stress. Studies show that a parent’s voice wakes children better than an alarm during a fire. Hospitals and clinicians will pay a premium so they can work faster and more efficiently. Today, a growing number of designers have embraced human factors techniques, while extending those techniques to include emotion and cognition to shape the experience of the user. There is a need for a powerful user experience along with good looks for a product to be successful. The paper concludes that despite all the emphasis on human factors, personality and product profiling, and collaboration, the thinking behind it remains a very human and very personal vision.

The iPod redefined portable music players. Since 2001, Apple Inc. has sold more than 120 million iPods and more than 3 billion songs. Despite vigorous competition and outright knockoffs, as many as eight out of every 10 portable music players sold remain iPods. It’s easy to argue that the iPod transformed both the music industry and Apple. In its own way, the iPod is an enigma. Industrial designers offer different reasons for its success. Some point to its slim, futuristic design. Many praise the simplicity of its intuitive interface and reduced feature set. Others note that the iPod is part of a system that makes it easy for any computer user to buy, store, and manage music.

To Donald Norman, an Apple Fellow in the mid- 1990s, the iPod’s success is no surprise. "When I was there, they were creating things that were so beautiful, our first reaction was, 'Wow, that's cool. I want it.' Our next response was, 'What is it?' Then we would ask, 'How much does it cost?' "

Even then, Apple's products went beyond good design, said N orman, who knows about good design. Although he began his career with an MIT engineering degree, Norman taught cognitive science for 27 years before jOfning Apple. He is a founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, consultants in human-centered design. In 1990, his seminal book, The Design of Everyday Things, showed how good design takes advantage of human perception to make tasks obvious. Anyone who has ever wired a home computer with color-coded cables or assembled a product that can fit together only one way can thank Norman.

Yet the iPod and now the iPhone clearly go beyond mere function . They are more than the sum of their parts. They seem to promise something more intimate than mere utility. They almost whisper that they want us. We want them.

At Apple, N orman wondered why some products evoked such emotional responses. In his 2004 book, Emotional Design, he argued that products evoke emotions when they speak to our instinctive, behavioral, and intellectual selves. People across all cultures respond to beauty, and believe that attractive products perform better.

This book was not exactly a watershed event. Many designers had spent years trying to answer the same question. Yet, as Kay Stanney, a design professor at the U niversity of Central Florida and president of Design Interactive of Ovedo, Fla., noted, "If you get Don N orman talking about emotions, it gets things going in the field."

If anything, Norman's book underscores changes sweeping the design world. Elements of design that were once an afterthought to engineering have emerged as essential contributions to a product's success. While the field still honors the vision of individual designers, it has grown more collaborative, more scientific, and more focused on end users. More than ever, successful companies incorporate human factors engineering, psychology, and cognitive theory in designs. Their goal is nothing less than to create a user experience that makes us love the product.

Apple's iPod combines futuristic looks with intuitive operation to make it easy for anyone to buy, play, and manage thousands of songs

Grahic Jump LocationApple's iPod combines futuristic looks with intuitive operation to make it easy for anyone to buy, play, and manage thousands of songs

THE GROWING IMPORTANCE OF HUMAN FACTORS IN DESIGN IS VISIBLE IN CORPORATIONS AND ACADEMIA.

Norman, for example, teaches design at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business. MIT, Stanford University, N orthwestern, and other schools have made industrial design part of their mechanical engineering curricula. Technology companies, on the other hand, often appoint vice presidents of design or user experience.

The new emphasis in design is not an accident. "Competition is greater than ever, and many companies can make comparable products at comparable costs," said Rob Tannen, director of research at Bresslergroup Inc., a product design and development firm in Philadelphia. "Any functional differentiation eXists for only a short time and then competitors catch up. But the right design creates a user experience that can differentiate a product."

Designers hope to break that logjam with products that call out to us from re tail shelves and- in creasingly-from industr ial settin gs. In the pas t, designers relied on gut instin ct and aesth etic sensibility. Such soft, unquantifiable concepts drive engineering teams crazy. Yet some designers work their magic repea tedly. Apple's Jonathan Ivy, for example, led the design of the candy-colored translucent iMac as well as the iPod and iPhone. Seventy years ago, Henry Dreyfu ss put his stamp on everything from the Big Ben alarm clock and Twentieth Century Limited locomotive to the circ ular wall thermostat and Princess phone.

Yet Dreyfuss used more than artistic vision to shape the industrial world. Hepi oneered human fac tors engln eenng, often called ergo no mics. The field quantIfies the ability of human beings to reach, apply force, and manipulate objects. Drey fuss meticulously cataloged human dimensions and capabilities, and published his research in The Measure of Man.

"Designers used to look at ergonomics, and as long as you accounted for the fifth and 95th percentile of arm or leg length, you could say you did your due diligence," said Bryce Rutter, founder and CEO of Metaphase Design Group Inc. in St. Louis. "But we never just sit or stand. We're always dynamic, so ergonomics began to look at tasks as well as objects."

Rutter, however, stretches those human factors to go beyond the body to include the mind and the senses.

"We look at design from a sensory standpoint, as a dialogue between produ ct and person on multiple levels. When you walk up to a product, that dialogue should be intuitive and obvious. A product's shape, color, and texture should communicate how to turn it on, how to use it, and how to interact with it. Put an iPod in your hand and in five minutes you know what to do without opening a manual."

Rutter said that people respond to the combination of fun ction and bea uty. Like N orman , he believes love of beauty is innate. He said that studies show that people in many cultures seem to prefer rectangles with 5:8 ra ti os. This is the Golden R atio. It is visible in nature and in such iconic designs a the Parthenon.

According to Rutter, designs too often fa il to reflect some of the values observable in nature: "Often, companies say they don't have the time or money for design," Rutter said. "They'll say, ' It's only a 60-cent throwaway pen. We don't need any of that ergonomic stu ff, it doesn't matter.' But I can guarantee that th e cheap pen that sells best has the best balance, the nicest rubber grip, and a clip th at slides over your pocket without catching. Good design is seamless. There are no friction points with the consumer. It just works, and consumers get it."

Designing a product th at consumers ge t takes intense attention to detail. Apple CEO Steve Jobs is legendary for his pursuit of perfection. In stead of getting caught up in technology, Jobs focuses on usability. German automaker BMW shows that kind of obsessive behavior. Its designers ran test after test on the acoustic properties of the 7 Series glovebox door to make sure it sounded as luxurious as the vehicle's aspirations.

"Today's Products Promise Something More Intimate Than Mere Utility."

Clearly, beautiful, functional products built with attention to detail tend to work well. But some designers are looking far beyond sensory input to trigger emotions and sell products.

NEARLY 20 YEARS AGO, TOM WHITE LEARNED HOW AN EMOTIONAL STORY COULD HELP SELL DEFENSE PRODUCTS.

At the time, he was at Lockheed Martin Corp., working on the Advan ced Tac ti cal Fighter (the ATF, which became the F-22 Raptor). T he story he told did not change the design, but it did alter the customer's experience so that decision makers saw the aircraft through different eyes.

Lockheed and The Boeing Co. were competing for the contract. Lockheed decided to build the best possible fighter, even if it meant ignoring some Air Force specifications. It was a risky strategy. It would have to shift the Defense Department's thinking to sell its design. In 1988, it had pitched its design at the Air Force Association's annual meeting. Its short movie, which fo cused on technology, had fallen flat. "The military brass thought we were telling them their business," White recalled.

The next year, White produced a movie celebrating the 50th anniversary of Lockheed's famed P-38 Mustang. In the 12-minute film, World War II ace Dick Bong appears to a boy who dreams of being a fighter pilot. "The movie was not about the airplane. It was about the pilot," White said. "We wanted people to remember what it's like to be a fighter pilot."

Above: Metaphase Design's new paintbrush for Shur-Line looks cool and uses human factors research to improve control and reduce forearm stress. Far right: Studies show that a parent's voice wakes children better than an alarm during a fire. Bresslergroup Inc. designed SignalOne's vocal smoke detector to fit into a child's room.

An emotional appeal that reconnected Pentagon brass with how it felt to fly a jet fighter helped Lockheed Martin sell the F-22 Reptor.

Grahic Jump LocationAn emotional appeal that reconnected Pentagon brass with how it felt to fly a jet fighter helped Lockheed Martin sell the F-22 Reptor.

White showed the movie to some Lockheed managers and Air Force officers one week before the meeting. "We thought we had a real winner, but when it was over, there was absolute dead silence," said White. "The head of the ATF program said to me, 'We can't show this. I'd rather show a Bugs Bunny cartoon than show this.'"

With one week to go, though, Lockheed had no choice but to show the movie. Its small exhibition theater drew crowds all day. The real payoff, however, came after the evening's black-tie dinner, when the Secretary and Under Secretary of the Air Force, some top generals, and Lockheed executives and their wives visited Lockheed's theater.

"Twelve minutes later, the doors opened and the Secretary emerged with tears streaming down his cheeks," White recalled. "He walked through the crowd, not wiping away a tear, and went up our chairman, Dan Tellep, clasped his hands, and said, 'You've captured the spirit of this program.' "

White, now executive vice president at RKS Design Inc. in Thousand Oaks, Calif., believes the movie helped Lockheed win the ATF contract by getting decision makers to see Lockheed's design as more than a series of specifications.

White, now executive vice president at RKS Design Inc. in Thousand Oaks, Calif., believes the movie helped Lockheed win the ATF contract by getting decision makers to see Lockheed's design as more than a series of specifications.

The experience reaffirmed White's belief that emotion and reason easily trump reason alone. "People are not interested in products. They don't understand them," he said. "We all have our degrees and we spend our careers trying to understand these technologies. When two technologies are competitive, how do we convince someone? We connect with both their heart and their head."

White conn ects with the heart through story telling. Not just any story, either. RKS's model for product design is the hero's journey, described by scholar joseph Campbell as the basis for all the world's myths. In it, the hero se ts off on a quest, undergoes trials, and finally secures a treasure that he brings home to benefit the community. The myth runs thro ugh wo rld literature, from The Odyssey to Star Wars.

White admits engineers might have problems dealing with that kind of talk fj-om people who say they are involved in human factors. " Until now, industrial designers and engineers used to think more alike," he said. "Engineering at its best and worst is about understanding requirements, specs, and data. The hero's journey is fundamentally very spiritual, but it's also a core component of every human being on earth."

It's easy to ridicule a trip to the mall to buy a new phone as a heroic quest. Yet most of us know people (maybe ourselves?) who return with a new purchase seeking approval. According to White: "When your fri ends affirm your purchase (,You bought an iPhone. You're on the edge. You're such a visionary.') it cements a bonding relationship between consumer and product. The product has made the consumer the hero. In a sense, the product has become their mentor."

Most people know that feeling. For White, this is the moment of truth because it turns customers into emotional evangelists for his client's brand. As RKS's Web site proudly announces: " It's not how yo u feel about the design; it's how the design makes you feel about yourself.' "

THE CHALLENGE. OF COURSE. IS FINDING A WAY TO CREATE THAT BOND.

After all, how many people call their kitchen knives or hair dryers their mentor?

Yet people fall in love with products all the time. They evangelize about their new phones, cameras, washing machines, and, yes, even their kitchen knives the way others talk about religion. There are many ways to explain that relationship other than the hero's journey, but no matter the explana tion, designers still need to create a user experience that evokes those emotions.

That means getting closer to the user. White, for example, said his firm, RKS, uses a "psychoaesthetic" toolkit of research tools to understand how prospective users think. The tools range from market research data and test results to direct observation. "We develop a picture of that person, the car they drive, their income, the place they live, what they wear, what food they like, and the places they like to go. It's an intimate profile of their personality traits, and then we work on the hero's journey," White said.

The result is a 4x8-foot collage of pictures and snippets of data that shows people in their surroundings. The goal is to transform research data into pictures that enable designers to see the visual texture of customers' lives. They then craft designs that fit into that world. The firm's most recent project: transforming Nissan's customer research into profiles that give potential buyers a face and personality.

Others, such as Stanney at Design Interactive, seek to quantify emotional responses. This isn't easy. People are not very good at describing their feelings, Stanney said. To coax out those muddied fee lings, she uses emoticons- not smiley faces made with punctuation marks, but short animations that portray specific emotions. People, invited to become test subjects, use a product and then choose the emoticons that best represent how they felt about its various features . Other researchers are working on more direct measurements, such as heart rate, eye movement, and facial recognition.

Stanney uses the data to develop profiles of products (rather than users). Her profiles include "delightable" features for which customers will pay extra.

Both Stanney and White sound like they are doing standard market research, not design. Yet they say there is one big difference. Where market researchers ask customers what they want, sophisticated designers focus on how customers use products.

ADAM SHAMES, WHO GRADUATED WITH A DEGREE IN MECHANICAL ENGINEERING AND NOW HEADS HUMAN FACTORS DESIGN AS A PARTNER IN PHILADELPHIA'S DESIGN SCIENCE CONSULTING INC. HAS BEEN OBSERVING CUSTOMERS FOR YEARS.

"What's really great about human factors research is that you can ignore what people say and focus on what they want but don't know they want," Shames said. " It's about understanding the nuances of human behavior to find something they didn't know they needed and now can't live without."

The most common way to do this is what the profession calls ethnographic, or field, research. Designers follow people around and see how they interact with products. "Let's say someone has a satellite radio glued to the steering wheel or the seat and not on the dashboard, where it's supposed to go," Shames said. "If you ask them if they have any problems reaching the radio, they say, 'N 0, it's fine.' But if you look at where it's positioned, they're telling you something without words.

"Human factors designers look for those artifacts. They look for Post-It Notes that say, 'Don't press this button,' or, 'Don't connect the tube to the tank.' I once saw nurses put gum over the top of an infusion pump to keep the unit's alarm from going off all the time," Shames said.

Shames focuses on simplifying designs to make them easier to use. He points to a recently developed catheterization kit. Doctors use these kits to run a ca theter through a vein and into the heart. Most kits consist of a heap of20 or more sterilized instruments on a tray. Clinicians typically dump the products onto the tray and line them up in order of use before starting the procedure.

Shames redesigned the packaging to hold the instruments in the right order and to let doctors grab them with just one hand. "When we finally tested it, clinicians just opened it up and used it," Shames said. "It was so intuitive, that they didn't even report any differences afterward. Yet we cut the time of the procedure by two-thirds."

SHAMES'S CLIENT PLANS TO MARKET THE CATHETERIZATION KIT BASED ON ITS ABILITY TO SAVE CLINICIANS' TIME.

"Time saved is money in the bank," he said. Physicians many not have noticed the new packaging, but they would undoubtedly howl if they had to switch back to the older, time-wasting design.

This is traditional human factors engineering. The design succeeds because it improves the user's experience, defined in this case as time to complete a pro cedure. Hospitals and clinicians will pay a premium so they can work faster and more efficiently.

Today, a growing number of designers have embraced human factors techniques-while extending those techniques to include emotion and cognition-to shape the experience of the user. Yes, they still want to design products whose look and feel make them jump off the shelves. But they increasingly understand that good looks alone will never develop a passionate following. They must also deliver a powerful user experience.

The evolution of the iPod shows how this can happen. When it was introduced in 2001, the iPod used a hard drive instead of memory chips. This let it hold thousands rather than dozens of songs, and Apple had exclusive rights to the small hard drives. The unit was also exceptionally simple to use. Yet the product was expensive, and people found it difficult to download thousands of songs onto their iPods.

Over the next few years, Apple made it easier to move songs onto the iPod. The company improved the product's computer and Internet connections. It also opened a music store that let users download any of hundreds of thousands of songs for 99 cents each. Everything fit together automatically and seamlessly. Only aft er Apple closed the circle, so that even the most casual computer user could download and manage hundreds or thousands of songs, did the iPod become ubiquitous.

Apple also did something else unusual. It kept the iPod controls simple. It included the commands necessary to play music, and it made them intuitive and obvious. (Later, it added equally intuitive commands to display photos and movies.)

This took enormous discipline, said Chris Hammond, design manager for the C incinnati - base d design shop Kaleidoscope. "Complex interfaces happen with consumer electronics all the time," he said. "You start with a sheet of features and you look at how many bullet points differentiate you from the competition, and try to include as many features as possible.

"But look at the iPod or the Blackberry personal digital assistant," Hammond said. " It's an integrated, rich experience that people become addicted to. Think about Apple 's iPhone.

You can access all those features and never use a single drop-down menu Now, think about the clunky intelfaces on your TV and VCR. They are among the most unintuitive products ever designed."

"The Best-Selling Cheap Pen Has The Best Balance. The Nicest Rubber Grip, and A Clip That Slides Without Catching."

Smart electronics offer designers many opportunities to shape user experience, yet some have confusing interfaces. Bill Mak believes the reason is that most hardware companies are simply not good at designing software. " It's not their core competency, and so any interactive stuff is an afterthought," he said. Mak recently was a top designer for Microsoft Corp. and is now a principal in a new design shop, IMI Studios, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

According to Mak, it takes years for hardware companies to learn to integrate software. It is even harder for companies that outsource product development. " It's really hard without a core competency to manage these contracted resources," Mak said. " Issues come up and you just run out of time and wind up doing what's expedient."

"Left: Good design creates demand for new products, like Kellogg's Drink'n Crunch cereal-in-hand. The inner container contains cereal , the outer container, milk. They mix in the mouth. Above: Paper Mate's natural fit contoured pens."

In the end, though, someone has to make a decision. According to Chris Arnold, an assistant professor of design at Auburn University, translating market research and human factors data into products is not like applying the rules of th ermodynamics. "Those rules are well known and you just drop this equation into that problem," he said. Design is still a craft, and some do it better than others.

Mak agrees. He said one of the influences that makes the iPod great is Apple's CEO, Steven Jobs. "Jobs is very detailed-oriented, and has strong feelings about whether something is right or not," Mak said. "He also has a corporate culture and management infrastructure that lets him di ctate the level of control he needs to achieve that vision.

"Other companies do more consensus building during product development. Every interest group in the company wants a little piece of that product. When they do that, the elegancegoes away," Mak said.

And that may be why the iPod remains an enigma. Because despite all the emphasis on human factors, personality and produ ct profiling, and collaboration, the thinking behind it still remains a very human and very personal vision.

human factors online

Human factors engineering was the subject of a panel discussion moderated by Don Norman during ASME's Think Tank Summit last June in Toronto. Videos of the complete program and of two related workshops can be seen on Mechanical Engineering Magazine Online, www.memagazine.org. Also, in Mechanical Engineering Online's exclusives, John D. Lee of the University of Iowa, Greg Jamieson of the University of Toronto, and others seek ways to manage the human factors in areas ranging from driver safety to industry.

Copyright © 2008 by ASME
Topics: Design , Human factors
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