Making Stuff User Friendly

Making Stuff User Friendly

Gaming the System

I was recently turning my coworkers into holograms to populate a simulation of a laboratory with interactive “people” when I began thinking about all the disciplines that form a really good human-machine interface. I joined the Engility team at the FAA’s Research & Development Human Factors Laboratory (RDHFL) with a background in game development, but on any given day, I interact with research psychologists, software developers, human factors engineers and hardware engineers. The RDHFL exists to ensure that FAA systems and procedures are efficient, accurate, safe, and easy to use – important qualities for running the nation’s airspace.

Game development is heavy with human factors - not a lot of people realize that. I work in the RDHFL’s Virtual Reality Lab, where I model, virtualize and evaluate proposed designs. When you design complex systems, like those used by the FAA, it helps to understand peoples’ strengths and limitations. Will a new system be too complex for an Air Traffic Controller to use efficiently? Will controllers have access to the information they need when they need it? Users usually respond poorly to a sudden change in their workflow, and, to an Air Traffic Controller, a change to their interface could be disastrous. It’s easy for designers to forget that even though we may intuitively understand how something works, it might not initially be obvious to the end user. Developers, myself included, can make the worst testers because we know what to click, how to click and why something functions the way it does. We need to convey to people how things should work without them ever needing an instruction manual.

Game development is heavy with human factors - not a lot of people realize that.
One of the single biggest factors in any user interface experience is trying to find an interface everyone can agree on. Some people enjoy complexity, where they can go and change settings or configurations and modify this and that, but others want to just skip all that and jump right in. As a developer, I find myself in situations where I need to explain a complex system or problem to someone who has absolutely no time for (or interest in) that. I start using metaphors and end up sounding like a bad Star Trek episode!

Factoring in Humans

That’s where we need to think outside of our discipline. I interact with psychologists directly, especially when we're trying to figure out what the customer is looking for and how they're going to use it. When we run experiments with the RDHFL’s Air Traffic Control simulator (DESIREE), the psychologists are the ones analyzing the data. They need to be as knowledgeable as we (the developers) are in knowing how the system works and what the air traffic controllers are seeing. And the stakes are high. DESIREE's interface is a major factor in aviation safety. Without it, air traffic controllers might feel stressed or confused by a new and/or non-ergonomic interface.

The Pay Off

Meeting users where they are and moving toward a solution is why my team exists. In the Virtual Reality Lab, we use 3D modeling, AI, CAD and anthropometric human-modeling software to allow designers to quickly work out modifications early in development. VR capability is a huge cost saver – errors detected through simulation are cheap to fix. Whether it’s a cockpit or a control tower, we can precisely replicate the functions and user interfaces of aviation systems, often before they are available in the field. We can even modify designs in near real time during user feedback sessions.

Connecting the technology to the people, and having the know-how to do that, makes or breaks systems.
VR is now feasible for the consumer market, and, in the field of aviation, could potentially bring aircraft safety, design, and implementation soaring to new heights. But puns aside, at the end of the day, connecting the technology to the people, and having the know-how to do that, makes or breaks systems. Make Stuff Better Blog

Share this Post:

Posted by Keith Maggio

I am a Computer Scientist working in the Research, Development & Human Factors Laboratory at the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center. My work involves development of the Air Traffic Control simulator, known as DESIREE, as well as the Virtual Reality Laboratory, developing interactive architectural simulations.

I've been a software developer for eight years. I received my Bachelors of Computer Science in Game Design and Development from Full Sail University. From there, I've worked on small independent video games, medical laboratory and billing systems, as well as data organization applications for financial markets. All these fields rely heavily on user interfaces and ergonomics and helped me build my skill base over time.