Prof explores

by David Hyland

University researcher Peter Hancock spends his days examining how a driver responds to road signs or a pilot handles a new cockpit.
Hancock, a kinesiology professor and director of the Human Factors Research Lab, is receiving increasing attention for his study of how humans deal with technology.
In addition to being selected as president of the human factors society, Hancock recently published a book, “Essays on the Future of Human-Machine Systems,” dealing with the philosophical and theoretical advancements gained from human factors studies.
Human factors studies analyze how people work and react with various technologies. Hancock said researchers examine what potential mistakes are made through working with technologies, why they occur and their performance impact.
Robert Serfass, division head of the kinesiology department, said Hancock’s work is important to improving human’s reactions to technology.
Serfass said around the same time Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in a Paris tunnel, Hancock was working on the changes in perception that individuals experience when entering tunnels.
Depending on factors like the structure of the tunnel and the markings inside it, individuals’ perceptions change drastically and the potential for incidents occurs.
“This is important to the everyday life of people, to how they respond to things in the real world,” Serfass said.
The human factors field began in the U.S. during World War II when researchers were looking for ways to quickly and effectively train pilots for flying.
At Hancock’s lab, researchers focus primarily on how humans interact with ground transportation and aviation.
“The idea of human factors is to give people a little bit of control over the technology in their lives,” Hancock said.
He added that by better understanding how people react to technologies like computers, vehicles or even tools, scientists can improve designs and efficiency.
“Anybody who’s interested in the future better be thinking about technology, which is the most powerful thing affecting their future,” Hancock said. “You better know how to control it.”
Another example Hancock discussed is how television and the Internet impacted how journalism is conducted. As new mediums emerge, they inevitably impact current structures of social and economic consciousness, affecting people’s lives and jobs.
Hancock said it was the combination of psychology and engineering classes that led him to be interested in the study of human factors.
“It was important to do things in relation to applications, but … engineering and design can’t be atheoretical,” he said. “I looked for something that merged the two together.”
Two years ago, Hancock began working on his book. A larger and more theoretical piece, he said the book deals more with exploring the philosophy of human factors.
“You want to put your thoughts down on paper sometimes, and reach a benchmark and say this is important,” Hancock said.
He said he believes technology in the future will play a divisive role in society. Like economic or physical power before, access to technology will bolster some people while disenfranchising others, Hancock said.
By examining past examples of how humans tried to adapt to technology, Hancock said he hopes people will learn how to adjust to the technology that will shape every aspect of life.
“People need to know whether technology is going to be their friend or technology is going to be the biggest sort of constraint in their life,” Hancock said.
And writing is something with which Hancock is familiar.
Tom Smith, senior research associate in the Human Factors Research Lab, said Hancock has always been more interested in writing about human factors than in performing conventional experiments.
“He’s a very interesting man to be around,” Smith said.
He added that Hancock and his work have garnered admiration from his colleagues.
Smith points out that Hancock was just named president-elect for Human Factors and Ergonomics Society for the year 2000. With a membership of 6,000 to 7,000 members, the organization is the main professional society for human factors in the country.