An Ecological Approach to Interface Design

John M. Flach, Fumiya Tanabe, Kazuo Monta, Kim J. Vicente, Jens Rasmussen
1998 Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting  
Four approaches to interface design are considered: technology centered, user centered, control centered, and use centered (ecological). Each perspective provides unique insights into pieces of the interface design problem. However, it is argued that the ecological or use centered approach provides a more comprehensive framework within which the other three perspectives can play important supporting roles. This approach goes beyond issues of information requirements to address meaning as an
more » ... gent property of a dynamic work ecology. A fundamental goal of cognitive systems engineering is to design the information support needed to couple human operators and technologies into collaborative, adaptive control systems that are able to function reliably in complex work environments. In Hollnagel's words (1988), the objective is to "provide the right information at the right time and in the right way" (p. 221). Of course, this statement is meaningless until you can specify what "right" means in the context of a specific work environment. This paper reviews four approaches to the design of human-machine systems and the implications for what "right" means. These approaches will be reviewed and a case will be made that an ecological or use centered approach provides the most comprehensive perspective to the interface design problem. THE TECHNOLOGY-CENTERED APPROACH The first perspective is a technology centered approach. This perspective focuses on the capabilities (and limitations) of technologies. The emphasis is on what can the new technology do? How high, fast, far can the new vehicle fly or can products be produced? At what expense? How "smart" are its automatic systems? How flexible are the display surfaces? The emphasis on technology is a natural consequence of the significant role that technology plays in shaping the human experience. The development of advanced technological systems has greatly expanded the envelop of our experiences and developments in sensing, computing, and controls have had enormous implications for the efficiency and reliability of operating these systems. The emphasis of the technological centered approach is on fully utilizing the functionality offered by new technologies. In the technology centered approach the interface typically is designed in a way that reflects the technological capabilities. There is a display for every sensor and a control axis for every control surface. This approach to display design is sometimes referred to as a single-sensor-single-indicator approach. Stokes and Wickens (1988) note that this approach can lead to a proliferation of displays that operators must process. For example in aviation this includes various warning indicators, status displays, air traffic control data links, meteorological information, navigational information, and communications data. It seems that with each new innovation in sensor or automation technology a new display is added. Stokes and Wickens (1988) express concern that this proliferation of data may exceed the information processing capacities of the operator. These potential problems in the domain of aviation may be even greater in other high technology work domains such as nuclear process control, medicine, and manufacturing where the number of state variables and the amount of uncertainty associated with these variables can be much greater. THE USER-CENTERED APPROACH The concerns of Stokes and Wickens (1988) lead naturally to a second perspective on human-machine systems ---a user centered approach. Fitts and Jones' (1947) analyses of human errors in reading instruments and operating aircraft controls illustrated the importance of the "human factor" for the proper functioning of aircraft systems. The user centered approach has tended to focus on the limitations (and capabilities) of human operators and the implication of these limitations for how systems ought to be designed. This approach has emphasized questions about how much will the humans have to perceive, do,
doi:10.1177/154193129804200324 fatcat:ox4gq5lbdjggdbu2yorewjaolm