What makes a good paper?

Again the Ergonomics and Human Factors conference has raised many great debates and questions.

I’ll try to put more thoughts down about other sessions soon, but wanted to quickly record our discussion this morning which was titled “Desert Island Papers: A retrospective view of classic E/HF papers”. We started off by considering four papers that the presenters (me, Pat Waterson from Loughborough, Steve Shorrock from Eurocontrol and Claire Williams from Human Applications) had noted had influenced them in their careers, and then as a group we identified some characteristics of ‘good papers’.

The papers we initially identified as influential were:

Bainbridge, L. “Ironies of automation.” Automatica 19.6 (1983): 775-779.

Wilson, John R. “Whose attitudes to which aspects of work? or Cool media for high participation.” Work & Stress 1.4 (1987): 385-395.

Wilson, John R. “Fundamentals of ergonomics in theory and practice.” Applied ergonomics 31.6 (2000): 557-567.

Dempsey, P.G. “Effectiveness of ergonomics interventions to prevent musculoskeletal disorders: Beware of what you ask”. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 37 (2007) 169–173

We then had a discussion around why these papers had influenced us so much, and what we could take as guidance in producing our own written work, whether for journal papers, blogs or external publications.

Points that made a paper ‘good’ included:

  • Good writing – we didn’t quite manage to define what good writing was, but good and clear use of language and argument came through as themes
  • Makes you think – you don’t necessarily have to agree with what is written in a good paper, but moving ‘beyond the obvious’ can be valuable
  • Clear message – have a clear point to make, and probably not too many points. Probably the paper that had the best example of this was the ‘Ironies of Automation’ paper, which, in a nutshell, says, automation has some ironies, this is what they are, this is how they might be fixed. 
  • Have confidence (but not arrogance) in the points you are making, and don’t feel the need to over-reference
  • Have an opinion – we felt all four of the papers we discussed had a clear opinion, and made an argument around it – we didn’t have to agree with everything that was said, but that was OK
  • Define your end point – papers can occasionally ramble and not actually lead to the final point(s) that is/are being made
  • Think about where and how to use data to back up your point – we noted that none of the papers we chose were particularly data-heavy, but were also aware of the need to publish, and the expectation of data when publishing. 
  • Set the research in a disciplinary context – the example of this was the Wilson 2007 paper which referred to other thinking around ‘cool media’, but also demonstrated how work in the discipline of E/HF referred to other areas
  • Make papers accessible – both in their writing, but also practically using open access wherever possible
  • Take advantage of impact/contribution statements – this can really help the reader, especially if they are not an E/HF specialist
  • Make people do things/act – this could be specific design guidance, it could be a method that we then go and use
  • Be part of a series of ‘stepping stones’ of evidence – understand how different bits of work fit together, and what the contribution of each is
  • And finally, have a good title. Keep it clear and simple, and ensure the title states what is in the content of the paper – seems obvious but isn’t always the case!

This is by no means a definitive, or even an agreed list, but hopefully can provide some help or guidance to us as we reflect on our writing and our communications. 

What makes a good paper?

The Future of Work

It’s time to blog again. Apologies for the very long hiatus. Various reasons, but back again now.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post some things that have built up over the last few months, but I was inspired by today’s Observer ‘New Review’ section https://t.co/Y7PufrEky6 which provides an excellent insight into some changes that we might encounter in the workplaces of the future. 

As Ergonomists and Human Factors specialists it is our job to anticipate these changes, understand their impact and make sure that we and our colleagues have the tools and understanding to make sure that we are able to continue with our mission to design and evaluate workplaces and technologies that will support productivity and health.

E/HF is a changing discipline, but are we changing rapidly enough? Are our methods and our knowledge keeping up with change. The Observer piece (Sunday 29th November, New Review section) highlights five trends which I doubt will be news to any of us, but which require careful thought for E/HF theory and practice.

The first change highlighted is Artificial Intelligence. We have long considered how to design for automation (Lisanne Bainbridge’s 1983 ‘Ironies of Automation’ is still my favourite E/HF paper of all time) but we now have the real scenario of collaboration between technology and humans, where those technologies do not just execute actions programmed and anticipated by people, but which learn and evolve. The potential impacts of some of these change were articulated finely by Bainbridge, but perhaps we should now move our focus from worrying about these changes to developing methods (perhaps extending methods such as Cognitive Work Analysis) that can truly capture human-technology hybrid working.

The article also notes changing workplace structures – that a career path will become less about ‘moving up a ladder’ and more likely to support ‘individual entrepreneurs’ within a company environment. This could work well for E/HF– we know that we often sit within and interact with many different parts of an organisation, and I can think of several CIEHF members who did not necessarily get employed to have the wide ranging and influential role that they now have, but, because of their individual expertise and the broad value of E/HF, are able to influence many different parts of their organisation.

Coupled with this are two aspects that I have covered in some of the talks I’ve given this year about the future of E/HF – the ‘Human Cloud’ and monitoring at work. Both of these present risks and opportunities. The Human Cloud, where individuals are used to complete short micros tasks and paid on a piecemeal basis is something that Rob Houghton and I have considered as part of our work with our Horizon Digital Economy hub, and clearly presents risks in terms of employee status, pay and working conditions. Monitoring at work could also present us with a rich mine of data recording human performance at work (as also discussed by Colin Drury at this year’s EHF conference) but presents significant ethical challenges.

The final change noted in the article is one very familiar to us as a community – the end of retirement. Ensuring that the needs of an ageing population are accommodated and that we design work pathways, setting and pay structures to acknowledge this.

We need to be at the forefront of this debate as a discipline, and ensure that, when organisations encounter these changes, we are able to provide them with solutions.

The Future of Work

What’s in a name?

Within both academic and industrial contexts we often find ourselves describing our own jobs, the teams with whom we work, or even our disciplines. When you are a Assistant, Associate or Full Professor in most UK universities you are expected to become a Professor ‘of’ something.
Names of groups, organisations and jobs can be incredibly important in how our expertise or coverage is perceived by our peers, current and future employers, and funders or collaborators. Our research group at Nottingham is currently discussing whether we should or should not modify our group name, and we are also going through a University-wide process of identifying Research Priority Areas to map on to more wide-reaching Global Research Themes.
So what’s in a name? Why do names matter, and why do people like me care so much about how our work is described?
Sometimes a title can act as a ‘stake in the ground’. I think my late colleague and mentor Professor John Wilson achieved this twice – once when he and others founded the Virtual Reality Applications Research Team (VIRART) which was one of the first groups to look at VR from a user-led perspective, and provided the foundation for many long-standing partnerships as part of EU consortia in particular. The team identity probably ended up being more important than the specific words – Virtual Reality as a phrase has a habit of going in and out of fashion – but the reputation of the teams who worked within VIRART became respected.
The second time was through the establishment of the Centre for Rail Human Factors, which John, with me and others, established in 1998. This represented a critical mass of research at the time and formed the basis of many other activities, including the International Conference on Rail Human Factors (the 5th such conference is running this September http://www.rssb.co.uk/railhf2015site).
Sometimes individuals have the opportunity to be the ‘first professor in’ something. A quick search reveals announcements of ‘first professors’ in International Studies, Poetry, User Led research, or networking. Being the ‘first’ something can be something to be proud of (see my #notjustforboys blog which mentions my mum’s ‘female first’ https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/researchexchange/2015/03/06/engineering-not-just-for-boys/). One risk with having a title or group that is ‘first’ is that it might also be quite specific and perhaps not quite so future proof as something more general which maps onto standard disciplinary terms.
Of course, my own tautological discipline of ergonomics/human factors has a particular challenge. Pat Waterson has written a couple of nice papers on the history of the ergonomics society (Ergonomics. 2009 Nov;52(11):1323-41. doi: 10.1080/00140130903229561; and Ergonomics. 2006 Jun 22;49(8):743-99.) and we also discuss some of the issues around the distinction (or not) between ergonomics and human factors in the first chapter of Evaluation of Human Work (https://www.crcpress.com/product/isbn/9781466559615). However, we can probably all agree that the term ‘ergonomics and human factors’ is a mouthful. Also, both terms are prone to misinterpretation. Ergonomics as a discipline encompasses the physical, social, environmental, cognitive, organisational and systems aspects of work, technology and systems design, but the term is still associated with chairs and physical workplace equipment. This aspect of work is of course extremely important, but is only a part of the discipline. The image below, a screenshot of a Google images search for the word ergonomics, demonstrates the prevalence of this interpretation.  

Human factors as a term is also imperfect. The same Google images search reveals that this term maps onto a much broader set of topics and activities. However, often the term ‘human factors’ is victim of a common curse of E/HF terms, in that it has a colloquial meaning that is subtly different from its specific meaning in the context of the discipline. Specifically, it can be interpreted as meaning ‘the human contribution’ in a system, rather than its wider meaning of designing a system taking a range of factors related to and influencing human and system behaviour, state and performance. 


A final option when naming a group, team, job role or activity is to ‘follow a trend’. This can be strategically astute. In the UK, our former Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, proposed ‘eight great technologies’ and prioritised investment in research and innovation in these areas (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eight-great-technologies). Perhaps it is therefore sensible to have titles that map onto these priority areas, but such politically influenced priorities are susceptible to change.
So, when naming a role, group, activity, entity or team, we should consider what our goal is. Is it to place a stake in the ground? Do we want to represent a broad range of areas, to avoid restricting our future activities? How permanent is a name (it is possible, but unusual, to change a professorial title, but university and industry team names can change quite frequently). Who cares about a name – the people in a team or taking on a role, those who are reading about a team or group, the organisation in which the team sits, the team’s sponsors or funders? And how closely should team names map on to traditional disciplinary terms? 

What’s in a name?

Tweets of the Day: EHF days 3 and 4.

I’ve done a quick count, and I think that in 2012, when a few, valiant, individuals started tweeting about our time in Blackpool, we amassed around 160 tweets for the entire conference.

(A quick note, it is very hard to analyse tweets from EHF as there seems to be a handball tournament that occasionally uses the same hashtag! Surely an idea for a future conference quiz..)

I *think* this year it was closer to 600, not yet quite at the level of TED, but enough to maintain some lively debate both amongst those attending the sessions, and those not able to attend.

Obviously I wasn’t able to attend all the sessions, and in fact often found that my duties as President meant I couldn’t attend many of the parallel sessions, so it was great to get some views of these sessions through twitter. Some highlights are below:

There was a very popular workshop led by Claire Williams (@claire_dr) on multidisciplinary teams:

And lively discussion around E/HF in healthcare

Our events chair Pat talked on patient safety culture

And Paul Wittington presented on powered wheelchairs

The secretariat did a great job throughout the conference, and deserved to get out of those t-shirts into their smart clothes for the annual dinner

A series of papers covered E/HF and manufacturing

And the hotel continued to have the most extensive E/HF analysis it has ever experienced

And, all too quickly, it was over…

On second thoughts, maybe that last one was about handball….

Tweets of the Day: EHF days 3 and 4.

EHF 2015 – final thoughts

As those who were attending were aware, as the newly appointed President of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, it was my pleasure to deliver the closing speech of the conference.

(I never voluntarily post photos of myself talking, as I normally look slightly possessed, but this one I can just about live with)

As I noted, I was, in fact, the first ever President of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors to deliver the conference closing speech, and, in my long list of thank yous, top of the list were the presidents that have preceded me, and given me, and Ian Randle, the newly elected President-Elect, a real opportunity to move beyond the vast amounts of work that have been completed over the past few years in re-organising the Institute and its operations, and delivering Chartered status.

It really is a massive undertaking to deliver a conference of the quality and atmosphere that we all enjoyed last week – James Walton and Tina Worthy in the IEHF office, along with Pat Waterson who chairs the Events Committee, have done a tremendous amount of work over the past year to make this happen, and I know are already thinking about next year and beyond. Steve Shorrock and Pat also worked with me to edit the proceedings which we hope will provide a useful and lasting record of the conference (although, I doubt we will get a mention in Nature, as our colleagues did in 1950 and 1951 – see below)

Slide1 Slide2


I’ve already mentioned our keynote speakers, who really were outstanding this year; our secretariat also did a great job. As I said to them last Thursday, 20 years ago I attended my first conference. I hope that when I attend the EHF conference in 20 years time (assuming of course that we still have conferences in those days, rather than instead meeting in a holographic form or having virtual events throughout the year perhaps), one of them is standing and delivering the closing speech as President of the Institute.

The conference gave me much food for thought, both as an individual E/HF researcher and practitioner, and also as President of the CIEHF. I consider it my responsibility to represent the views of our members in our strategic decisions and actions, so hope that the conference has enabled members to voice their views about the future directions of the CIEHF, and I encourage members to continue to keep in touch and involved in whichever way is most accessible to them, whether through writing for The Ergonomist, setting up blogs such as this (and I’m planning a post in a couple of weeks of other blogs relating to ergonomics that are an excellent resource), tweeting, volunteering to help with membership activities or initiatives such as Ergonomics in Schools or Healthcare, speaking at and leading events or coming along to symposia or conferences. We can’t promise to do everything that every member wants, but the more we know about our members’ wishes, the more confident we can be that we are making the best decisions on behalf of the CIEHF.

We have an aspiration to grow our membership; this makes it particularly important that we understand and ensure that being a member of the CIEHF is valuable to members in their professional careers. As CIEHF President, I’m looking forward to taking Sir Charles Haddon-Cave’s advice, by working to identify brief, coherent and resonant messages.

If we can get these messages clear, this will help us to work more effectively as E/HF practitioners and extol the value of E/HF to educational institutions, industry contexts, and society as a whole.

EHF 2015 – final thoughts

Final Plenary lecture: Sidney Dekker

We were delighted to have Sidney Dekker speak as our final plenary of the conference. Like Sir Charles Haddon-Cave, he is not a fan of powerpoint, as this tweet showing his single slide that remained on the screen throughout his talk:

clearly demonstrates! But, like Sir Charles, he was an engaging and entrancing speaker, with a completely different, animated style (and I say this as someone who has been described as an ‘enthusiastic’ presenter – I am sure that Sidney is one of the few people in the world who could out-talk me in a talking competition!), but a similarly liberal serving of wisdom and inspiration.

As many of his compatriots and co-authors, notably David Woods and Erik Hollnagel, Sidney is very keen that E/HF moves beyond a focus on failure, error and incidents. He presented the astonishing figure that stated that 1 in 10 Australian workers are engaged in compliance and bureaucracy as part of their work. He argued that we must move away from statistics around performance, and that “we [E/HF practitioners] are about the presence of positives, not the absence of negatives”. He argued strongly for a systems perspective, and a focus on the system conditions, not the actions of individuals.

He made a clear point about the relationship between performance statistics and blame – if you’re counting human error, you’re implying attribution. He also argued against the aspiration to have an ‘error-free’ environment, using the example of his house with a mum, dad, and three kids:

He said much, much, more, and encouraged us all to have the resolve to commit to move away from counting and analysis, and towards supporting positive capacities within work systems, and to intervene in the conditions of work.

A few things struck me about this talk.

1. This is all easier said than done. As we identified in our art, craft and science session, we work within organisations that have audits, expectations and processes. How do we get the balance between making sure we can demonstrate the value of E/HF, and thus encourage further investment, but move away from ‘counting’? Many of us have really achieved success when we have had a senior manager as our ‘champion’ who has seen the value of embedding someone with E/HF in a multidisciplinary team (such as has happened in rail, Air traffic control or healthcare settings for example) or where there have been clear demonstrations of success of E/HF intervention, such as previously poorly functioning team turning their performance around. But, also, many of us have been brought in after things have gone wrong, perhaps as a result of new research investment, or, worse, as a result of the need to ‘show’ that things are being done.

2. How do we get examples of situations that have the same resonance as incidents or disasters to make the point that E/HF matters? I’ve said this in discussions with Erik Hollnagel in the past – Safety II makes complete sense, but, unfortunately, incidents, and normally the bad publicity that goes with them, cause managers to sit up and pay attention. We need the same type of effect from positive intervention.

3. Sidney Dekker and Sir Charles Haddon-Cave agreed on a lot. They agreed on the limited value of powerpoint, were both dubious about reliance on MBAs. They were nervous about the perils of ‘paper safety’ – the reliance on paperwork that shows safety, rather than the action of behaving safely. They encouraged us to challenge, and advocated empowerment of individuals. When two such brilliant speakers, with such different personalities, with two such different perspective and expertise, agree on things, it really does suggest that they might well be talking an awful lot of sense.

Final Plenary lecture: Sidney Dekker

Day 3 Plenaries: Bryn Baxendale and Colin Drury

Wednesday began with a plenary lecture from Bryn Baxendale (@gaxmanbax). Bryn is a practising consultant anaesthetist, and leads the Trent Simulation and Clinical Skills Centre (@trentsimulation) at Nottingham University Hospitals.

Bryn has been working to understand E/HF and how to incorporate it into clinical training and practice over a number of years, and it was very valuable to see his perspective as a clinician. Although his inclusion of a depiction of the anaethetist’s and surgeon’s brain (see http://lifeinthefastlane.com/biological-basis-for-blood-brain-barrier/ for image and Lawrence Caldicott BMJ 2009 for full reference) was intended as a lighthearted acknowledgement that we need to consider the different characteristics that clinicians may display, and perhaps the implications of those characteristics for teamwork, he also highlighted an important point – many of the people that we as E/HF experts work with are also experts, and they bring vital tacit knowledge and expertise to the situation. We have known this for some time of course, but when considering how best to implement HF in context, it is worth remembering that ‘one size’ is unlikely to fit ‘all’. Making some effort to understand the context of work and past training of those who work in the settings we explore is critical to taking a systems perspective to E/HF. In addition, Bryn noted the value of simulation in supporting the path from competence to excellence. The very sad case involving Wayne Jowett at our local Nottingham hospital (see http://www.theguardian.com/society/2001/apr/19/health1) was noted, and Bryn emphasised that we should not simply just expect our clinicians to ‘try harder’:

and that, as is often the case, the causes of the incident were complex

Colin Drury’s Institute lecture focussed around the topic of ‘Big data analytics’ and considered its implications for Ergonomics and Human Factors. He was inspired by a book that I have also read:

This is a really well written book that I would certainly recommend – I didn’t agree with everything it proposed but it provided a really nice baseline example of the ways in which big data can be used, and the analytical challenges presented. The thing that really struck me when reading the book was how the approaches being taken to deal with data were often very simple correlational statistics.

Colin has outlined his Institute lecture in this paper:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25849898 and focussed on the importance of considering the goals of E/HF when handling big data, the implications of big data analytics for E/HF theory, and the ethical challenges of dealing with big data. I am looking at this area myself with colleagues as part of our work within the Horizon Digital Research Institute (www.horizon.ac.uk) so it was great to have Colin bring his perspective to the type of data that I believe more and more of us will be working with in the future.

Day 3 Plenaries: Bryn Baxendale and Colin Drury

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)

The Rt Hon Sir Charles Haddon-Cave

We were delighted to welcome Sir Charles to deliver our pre-lunch keynote speech. He chaired the RAFA Nimrod enquiry and acted as counsel at the Manchester air disaster, M1 Kegsorth, Marchioness and Herald of Free Enterprise investigations. He talked in detail about his findings from the Nimrod enquiry, as well as his wider reflections on systems and organisational cultures and their roles in accidents. His in-depth knowledge and engaging style of delivery (which used only a minimal number of PowerPoint slides, a fact he was very keen to point out!) provided one of the best talks we have ever seen at the EHF conference.

He made a number of key points about incidents that emerged from his work on the Nimrod enquiry:

The Rt Hon Sir Charles Haddon-Cave

Tweets of the Day:Day 2

In the morning sessions, topics included mobile working, James Bond and chickens, escalators and human performance. 






Dan Jenkins’ talk went down really well. 






The poster session was a great success



In the afternoon, topics included older adults co-design,  citizen science, and rail and ULDs.





The final session included our workshop on ergonomics, art, craft or science?



And the day ended with the quiz. 



Tweets of the Day:Day 2