There have been many debates in human factors about its status as science or art or both, and the scientific literature has recorded some of the issues spanning back over 50 years (e.g., de Moraes, 2000; Moray, 1994; Wilson, 2000; Sharples and Buckle, 2015; Spielrein, 1968). Human factors (or ergonomics) is formally defined by the International Ergonomics Association as a “scientific discipline“, and we use scientific communication to try to get our message across, even in practitioner reports and outputs: Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, Conclusion. This has become the de facto method of communication, though other mediums, such as natural storytelling, can be found in some talks (e.g. TED and TEDx), and a number of books (such as Stephen Casey’s Set Phasers on Stun).
There are several problems with our default approach to communication in human factors and other disciplines. These problems apply especially to disciplines that are not just the preserve of a small number of scientists, but that concern a wide range of stakeholders: citizens, front-line or shop-floor workers, specialists of many kinds (designers, HR, occupational health, safety, etc), managers, CEOs, regulators and policy makers… A first problem is this: More evidence, more proof, more detail, does not necessarily convince or trigger a change in thinking. In fact, it can backfire. Deeply held convictions can be strengthened further by contradictory evidence: the so-called backfire effect (observers of the Brexit debate may have noted the group polarisation that ramped up as the campaigns progressed, leading some – rather politically – to invent phrases such as “war on truth” and “post-truth politics”). A second problem, for which I have only the evidence of my own and others’ reported experiences, is that people in industry just don’t like reading reports, let alone scientific journal articles (which are almost completely ignored in some sectors outside of a minuscule number of stakeholders, i.e., researchers). Too many articles, too much contradiction, too technical, too boring, too time-consuming, too overwhelming. I remember a comment made by a UX practitioner in a survey about scientific journal articles that I conducted with Amy Chung: “I think over time I’ve just learned to ignore them” (the work was reported in a scientific journal article [Chung and Shorrock, 2011]). The comment struck me. A third problem is that scientific communication, and its variants, tend not to connect with, for want of a better word, ‘feeling’. By this I mean an emotional connection, an internal reaction, a realisation or change of opinion, insight. Scientific communication uses a story approach, but a formal, stilted, exclusionary story format that pushes most people away. We should really be drawing people in, especially those who make decisions about work, products and services, and those who are affected by their decisions.
Art may not bring ‘scientific evidence’ and ‘proof’, but it does tend to connect with feeling. It can bring about an instant insight or dawning realisation that is hard to put into words. I experience this every summer at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. I’ve found that theatre – in particular – gives me insights into work and life that I don’t get from scientific articles. The productions I have seen have had no input from human factors specialists, and most have have no direct input from any scientific discipline (with some exceptions, e.g. The Happiness Project, which featured scientists from a variety of disciplines). And yet I have found that one theatrical production can be worth far more to me than a day (or a week) at a conference. The message from a play can stick with us for years, even if we did not think much of it at the time.
Perhaps theatre, and other art forms, present an opportunity for conveying and discussing themes in human factors (and related disciplines). Imagine an industry conference that included a powerful play on the themes of just culture and ethics, or hindsight and local rationality, or automation and technological solutionism. Or imagine more involvement from researchers and practitioners to help bring about new productions. In 2016, Edinburgh Fringe featured over 50,000 productions of over 3,000 shows in nearly 300 venues. What an audience. In the posts that follow I’ll reflect on five productions from Edinburgh Fringe 2016 that somehow relate to human relationships with technology and with others, and that connected with me. Perhaps by paying more attention to the fringe, we can move out of the fringe as a discipline.
Casey, S.M. 1998. Set phasers on stun. And other true tales of design, technology and human error (2 ed). Aegean Publishing Company.
Chung, A.Z.Q., and Shorrock, S.T. 2011. The research-practice relationship in ergonomics and human factors – surveying and bridging the gap. Ergonomics. 54(5), 413-429.
de Moraes, A. 2000. Theoretical aspects of ergonomics: art, science or technology – substantive or operative. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. July 2000, 44 (33), 264-267.
Moray, N. 1994. ‘De maximis non curat lex’ or how context reduces science to art in the practice of human factors. In: Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 38th annual meeting, 24–28 October 1994, Stouffer Nashville, Nashville, Tennessee. Santa Monica, CA: HFES, 526–530.
Sharples, S. and Buckle P. 2015. Ergonomics/human factors – art, craft or science? A workshop and debate inspired by the thinking of Professor John Wilson. In: Sharples, S., Shorrock, S. and P. Waterson, P. eds. Contemporary ergonomics and human factors 2015. London: Taylor & Francis, 132–132.
Spielrein, R.E. 1968. Ergonomics: an art or a science. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal. 15(2), 19-21.
Wilson, J.R. 2000. Fundamentals of ergonomics in theory and practice. Applied Ergonomics. 31(6), 557-567.
Image: Steven Shorrock CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/D5kqFQ