Sunday, June 5, 2011

Computer (Then) Human Interaction: The Aerospace Industry Approach

I thought I'd give a personal perspective on usability in the aerospace industry for my first blog post and how I hope to personally grow and influence it through Mike's course on emerging practices in HCI. I currently work in the aerospace industry--specifically in unmanned systems. It's a field filled with amazingly talented and brilliant engineers who throughout history have designed some of the most amazing systems, technologies, and aircraft.

Often times just getting the aircraft to fly or the system to run is the largest technical feat of them all. Sadly as a result of the complicated nature of these systems, little thought is ever given to how the they should be flown or how the systems should be controlled. We've all seen pictures of jet cockpits with hundreds of buttons, switches, and small displays. Especially now in the unmanned systems world where human factors plays a smaller role and HCI should be taking the lead. With all the quantitative minded engineers designing these systems, it seems that the qualitative approaches to design of the frontend usability of these systems is lost. Instead computers are being designed by engineers according to contractual requirements, military standards, and system restrictions (all quantitative measures in nature). It is a computer "then" human design. In the end, the humans are forced to interact with these systems no matter how complicated or ridiculous the interface. Many times, human cognitive architectures are overlooked and extensive training is required to train the users on the complicated nature of the systems and redesigns are later required at significant cost. With millions and millions of dollars going into the creation of systems, it is often the case that the usability of the end product is overlooked. Add to this the long term investment in what eventually becomes aging computer operating systems and what was once considered "cutting edge" appears outdated and becomes bulky, slow to modernization, and buggy.

I will say, however, I am happy to see that the industry is slowly realizing the importance of usability due to the strides being made in the private industry. In addition, with the prevalence of unmanned systems being interfaced through computer interfaces, users are desiring efficient and more modern services. The United States Army is looking to implement smartphones for combat claiming that smartphones, in addition to being smaller and lightweight, are "easier to use" than currently implemented devices. It's true, the aerospace industry has been very slow to adopt usability concepts in design. It is no small task--designing hardware that can perform in extreme environments while allowing ease of use by the warfighter in its interface. My hope is that by taking this course, I can help influence the usability aspect of military products in the unmanned systems industry. It seems strange that the end product, what the user will interact with and see, after all the system design is completed is always overlooked. It is the most important thing in the end. The qualitative nature of HCI must be accounted for in contractual requirements to system design and allow for modern UX practices. These will drive costs down in the long run and most importantly, keep the warfighter's perspective and needs in the forefront!

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