Why We Automate Failure
A recent post on the interface issues surrounding the use of side-stick controllers in current generation passenger aircraft led me to think more generally about the the current pre-eminence of software driven visual displays and why we persist in their use even though there may be a mismatch between what they can provide and what the operator needs.
Ideally (or idealistically) in interface design one would start with the needs of the user and work forward to a specific implementation, be it tactile, auditory, visual or a mix. However it seems to me that in most cases we’re starting with the end in mind, e.g. a visual and symbolic display of information then shoe horning the implementation to fit the predetermined solution. My question is why?
I think the answer is simply that this is the technology that has evolved as the ‘front end’ for software. Going back to the earliest days of the computer industry there has been a preoccupation with the visual display of symbolic information and certainly this remains the preccupation of industry and academe today.
Now for many tasks visual displays are suitable, but a problem arises when this becomes a knee jerk single solution to all interface problems regardless of whether this is appropriate. We see this in the migration of information from what were traditionally sensomotoric (tactile) modes of input, such as the traditional stick shaker in aircraft cockpits, to visual and auditory channels requiring higher levels of cognitive function. Another classic example is the re-representation in ‘glass’ cockpits of analog displayed information as textual, thereby imposing greater cognitve workload upon the operator.
Ideally a robust systems engineering and human factors process should challenge the ‘automatic’ assumption that a visual display is the only way in which information can and should be provided to an operator. Unfortunately it seems that this is one sacred cow to big to sacrifice.
I guess this really is a case of ‘if all you have is the hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail’…