Human Factors Lab

April 18,2019



Never have psychologists work for you. Take my word for it, they are impossible to work with. You ask them how they are today – clearly you have a personality defect. You tell them to do something – you are a megalomaniac. As for annual appraisals – forget it. I inherited a team of four psychologists, plus some technicians. We ran a small laboratory to research the way human beings use computers to help do their normal jobs. Most people interacted with them with monochrome screens and keyboards, and the computers themselves had shrunk from the 1960’s mainframe behemoths to departmental machines the size of a grand-piano.

The software too, had evolved, and the usual interfaces were in the form of forms to fill in on the screen. People who operated computers had to be trained to use the specific application program. But things were about to change.

For one thing, colour had arrived. And colour has a lot of influence on perception, and mood, and hence productivity. We looked at the best ways to use colour. And then there was the imminent Desktop-computer revolution just about to hit us – we looked at how a manager might use a computer on her desk to do things like manage the telephone and store business data charts.

To do this we created an ordinary office with lots of cameras and then instrumented the computers themselves so that we could record reaction to using the computer. What actually happens, not what people say in surveys! (Hence the psychologists.)

We rediscovered red-green colour-blindness, the effect of colour on mood, the annoyance of keyboards where the keys were too small, or in the wrong places, all sorts of interesting stuff. And then this was fed back to the development teams, who ignored it as it put the costs up. It wasn’t until Xerox invented the mouse and ‘windows’ later that decade (using the same research results by a different lab) that man-machine interfaces got properly sorted out.

Redundancy from the other side

In the end there was little point in continuing and I had the unenviable job, for the first time in my career, of making people redundant. It’s worse from this side. There is nothing wrong with the people you are firing, there just isn’t a job for them any more. I have to say though, that making four psychologists redundant probably was the most difficult human-factors job I ever did.


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