Tuesday, 12 August 2014

What's the value of human factors?

I was recently in a meeting where a technologist was reporting on a situation where a team had developed a new technology to support work in a clinical setting, but when they tried to deploy it they discovered that people didn't work in the way they had expected. From a user-centred design perspective, this is Rookie Error Number 1: so basic that it is amazing that it still happens so frequently.

It was the next statement that caught me slightly off-guard: that they should have consulted the clinicians ahead of time. Yes, of course they should. But actually, that's probably not enough either. Because clinicians (like all of us) have limited understanding of, or ability to articulate, their own work. The speaker's implicit assumption was clearly that we are all fully capable of describing our work to others in the detail that they would need to be able to design to support that work. That leaves me, as a Human Factors specialist without a job!

Which of course led me to reflect on what my role in such a situation is. What is it that I, or any other HCI / Human Factors specialist brings to the situation that the clinician or the technologist doesn't? In the case of the technologist (or at least, of the technologists who feature in this story), it's a limited understanding of what we're able to articulate, or even know, about our own activities: an assumption that if you ask someone a direct question they will give you a full, frank and accurate answer. In the case of the clinician, like anyone, it's a partial understanding of their own work practices and of how to describe them to a third party.

Many moons ago, Gordon Rugg and I wrote about this in the context of eliciting people's implicit knowledge of their own work, and I'm going to paraphrase some of our own writing:
In terms of understanding what people can articulate about their work, there are three main kinds of knowledge:
  • explicit knowledge (knowledge which is readily available to introspection, and that people can readily articulate);
  • semi-tacit knowledge (knowledge that can be accessed by some techniques but not by others); and
  • tacit knowledge (knowledge which is not accessible to introspection via any elicitation technique). 
There are various types of semi-tacit knowledge, including taken-for-granted knowledge (that is so familiar to the speaker that they will not think to mention it); front and back versions (the official version of what should happen and a more realistic account of what actually happens); and knowledge that depends on recognition rather than recall
Tacit knowledge is subdivided into compiled skills (which have become so habitualised as to be inaccessible to introspection) and implicit learning (knowledge that is tacit throughout, never having been articulated).
So there I have at least a partial answer to my existential angst: that as a Human Factors specialist, I have knowledge of how to elicit semi-tacit knowledge about people's work – and specifically about that work for the purposes of designing technology to support it. So both the technologist and the clinician have a reason to get me involved. Whew!

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