Things Unseen: Researchers Look at Human-Computer Interactions

Posted: November 13, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

David Cades and Deborah Boehm-Davis
Doctoral student Carl Smith and Professor Deborah Boehm-Davis use a flight simulator to study routinized behavior and interruptions in work tasks.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Interruptions at work are annoying, but for some professionals – like pilots – they can be dangerous. That is why psychologist Deborah Boehm-Davis and her research team are looking at the problem in a variety of ways.

Boehm-Davis’s area of expertise is cognitive psychology. Her field is called human factors and applied cognition, but the term ergonomics is more familiar to the general public.

“The physical stuff is easier for people to understand,” she says. Most people can see visually how that applies to work situations or cars, for example. But Boehm-Davis and her colleagues are more often looking at the unseen, the cognitive component of how users react to things and process information.

Working on a grant from NASA, doctoral student Melanie Diez LeGoullon is investigating interruptions in the cockpit and sequential errors. For her part of the Arch Lab projects, she boarded planes for an observational study and developed a computational cognitive model of a pilot executing a checklist to help make predictions about task resumption after interruptions.

Deborah Boehm-Davis
“I’m more interested in the human-computer interaction,” says Boehm-Davis.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Boehm-Davis is quick to point out that the research isn’t just about pilots and aviation. This research can apply to many more situations, such as people using GPS systems in cars. “I’m more interested in the human-computer interaction,” says Boehm-Davis.

Interruptions: Timing Is Everything

Doctoral student David Cades is also looking at interruptions, but from a different point of view. He is trying to better understand how people deal with interruptions in general and is working from theories on interruptions developed by Greg Trafton of the Naval Research Laboratory, who spends one day a week at Mason as part of an agreement between the labs.

“Interruptions are inevitable in a work environment,” Cades says. “But if we can understand how people deal with interruptions and what it takes for them to resume the task, then we can look at how we can better train you to deal with those interruptions.” For his research, Cades has worked with human subjects from a pool of undergraduate and graduate students.

“Here we are looking at routinized behavior, and the time it takes to fundamentally get back on task,” Boehm-Davis says. “Timing is everything” – especially if that person is flying an airplane or operating a vehicle.

The lab already has a flight simulator. A driving simulator is expected to arrive in the spring.

“It will be great to look at some of these things in an applied setting,” says Cades. “People still have a significant number of accidents a year because they are changing the channel on the radio or manipulating the heat.”

Design Can Help or Hinder

Boehm-Davis sees bad design everywhere she looks. Just get the Psychology Department chair talking about ergonomics and she will whip out her cell phone to give you a few examples. She can also point to countless examples in everyday life.

“The design should lead you to do the right thing,” she explains. “Designers need to understand people and their limitations – how the design helps or hinders performance.”

She has been one of the principal investigators at Mason’s Arch Lab for more than 20 years. Her current research falls into three categories that she identifies as transportation, the influence of interruptions on performance and cognitive workload.

Before joining Mason in 1984, Boehm-Davis worked in applied cognitive research at General Electric, NASA Ames and Bell Laboratories. Over the years, she has worked on projects funded by the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. A large portion of her research has also been supported by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) and NASA and has focused on pilots and their performance.

Boehm-Davis’ relationship with the FAA has been a long and happy one, encompassing all kinds of projects from evaluating the effectiveness of programs to developing training for them. “They love it when we are able to give them tools.”

On a personal note, Boehm-Davis reflects, “Yes, publishing papers is great, but when you redesign something and it is safer – well, that’s something you don’t often get in academia. That’s what really attracts me to this part of psychology.”

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