Monday, March 30, 2009

Usability - "Universal Design" Through Human Factors Science

During a recent lecture visit to Georgia Institute of Technology I had a chance to catch up on the ever growing group - The Center for Assistive Technology & Environmental Access (CATEA), see details here. Even though the mission of the center is driven to explore accessibility for disabled or handicapped individuals to consumer products and their ease of use - the center has employed "human factors" design and engineering approach that focuses on the interface between humans and machines. Products studied have included everything from photocopiers, mobile phones, and TVs to medicine bottles, printers and scanners.

An outcome of the efforts has been "universal design" intended to make a product accessible to as many different types of users as possible. For example, a mobile phone may have a specific function for people who are hard of hearing. Yet, this is useful for anyone trying to carry on a mobile phone conversation in a noisy environment. Another example is a mobile phone designed for the blind - it could be useful for individuals whose visual attention is focused elsewhere, such as while driving a car.

I learned and practiced the science of human factors with probably some of the best in the industry at the AT&T (then NCR) Human Interface Technology Center (HITC), folks such as Dr. Mark and Nong Tarlton, Dr. Richard Henneman and Dr. Tom MacTavish. Here is a short abstract on HITC:

"The NCR Human Interface Technology Center (HITC) exists to meet its customers' business needs through the application of new human-interface technologies. The HITC designs and develops these user-interface solutions through a user-centered design (UCD) process, in which user needs and expectations guide all design and development decisions. The HITC consists of about 90 engineers and scientists with expertise in such areas as cognitive engineering, graphic design, image understanding, artificial intelligence, intelligent tutoring, database mining, and new I/O technologies. Established in 1988, the HITC is funded by work performed for its customers."

Absolutely way ahead of its time, HITC was the place where research met or tried to meet the commercial world. I was engaged in a National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) project “Information Infrastructure for Healthcare” – details here.

I am reminded of Steve Jobs statement - "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." This was how we conducted our business at HITC!

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