Ergonomics/Human Factors: Art, Craft or Science? (or, the day Peter Hancock was a banana)

On Tuesday Peter Buckle, Jon Berman and I held a workshop on the topic of Ergonomics/Human Factors: Art, Craft or Science? When we submitted the topic we had originally conceived of a debate, where we took polar positions, but when preparing we quickly realised that in fact, this was not a question of either/or, but a question of how, when and why?

We began by explaining that some of the motivation for the topic came from our much-missed colleague John Wilson. He had two quotes from his paper in 2000, which stated:

“We can see ergonomics as comprising elements of craft, science and engineering; it has aims to implement and evaluate (craft), to explain and predict (science), and to design for improved performance (engineering)”

“It is proposed that [E/HF] is one of the modern sciences, drawing as much from the field as from the laboratory, and including elements of an art and a craft as well.”

Peter and I then spoke about our personal contexts – mine from being based within the Faculty of Engineering, and his from within the Royal College of Art.

Peter then introduced the notion of a ‘provocation’ – something intended to provoke discussion and debate. We presented the following table:

Pete and Sarah presentation

Debate ensued!

We asked people to focus their thoughts around three products that had recently been under discussion as examples of human centred design – the Fender Stratocaster (which I unfortunately ended up referring to as the fenderblaster stradocaster), prosthetic limbs, and the UK motorway signage. We asked colleagues to consider the role of art, craft and science in developments such as these.

(I used one of my workshop techniques to divide people into groups of apple, pears and bananas; the day will henceforth be remembered as ‘the day Peter Hancock was a banana’)

Several points and questions emerged, many of which I’m still thinking through, but included:

Does science = experimentation?

How does engineering fit into the framework – is it another philosophy or epistemology, or is it an application of a combination of art, craft and science?

Are we currently problem driven, and should we focus more on developing proactive principles (Peter Hancock was a key proponent of this)?

Which comes first, art, craft or science?

We’re going to think over the points over the future weeks and months, and hope to write this up more fully – in the meantime, any thoughts welcome!

Ergonomics/Human Factors: Art, Craft or Science? (or, the day Peter Hancock was a banana)

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