Editor’s note: Barry Beith, president of HumanCentric Technologies, is the newest addition to Local Tech Wire’s growing number of regular Opinion contributors. ‘The Human Side’ will appear on Thursdays. Discussing a multitude of topics, issues, and perspectives related to “the human side of technology” is what this new column is all about.

The title is near and dear to our hearts as reflected by the fact that it also serves as the slogan of our company, HumanCentric Technologies, Inc., and we believe it reflects our training and focus as professionals dedicated to the improvement of the designed world to better accommodate and serve human beings.

I start with a few basic observations that may or may not be universally accepted.

First, that all design is intended to affect human behavior in some way. Whether we are talking about the emotional impact of art or the practical design of a toaster, the purpose of design is to facilitate, inhibit, stop, or modify human behavior.

This premise encompasses the whole spectrum of things we design and the gamut of human behaviors. The “things” we design include objects (and objects d’art), systems, subsystems, processes, procedures, and information (across the range of perceptual mechanisms including but not limited to visual and auditory). Human behaviors are influenced through many mechanisms influenced by design including the physical world, the perceptual world (human senses), human cognitive abilities, and affect (motivational and emotional mechanisms.)

As an outgrowth of this first observation, a second observation can be made that human beings and technology are inextricably linked together because technology serves no purpose that is not ultimately tied to human beings directly or indirectly. Even if human beings are not “users”, “purchasers”, or “beneficiaries” of technology, they are often installers, maintainers, or serve some other interactive role with the technology.

The human factor

The involvement of humans with technology is most often an important and good interaction. Human beings are at once the strongest and weakest links in any system. We are the strongest link because we are adaptive and are equipped with the most powerful and complex computer known. We are capable of learning “on the fly” and thinking in non-sequential patterns that allow us to reach conclusions in faster, more efficient ways.

Having said this, the sword as always has a double edge, because our adaptability and versatility also produces variability, or the inability to replicate our behaviors or thought processes the same way every time. The inability of a golfer to duplicate the perfect swing each time is what makes it a game that can be “played but never won” despite thousands of hours of practice and tens of thousands of swings.

The variability and inconsistency of the human is the underlying basis for human errors in the interactions between humans and technology. These errors are ubiquitous.

Errors are unavoidable

Our third observation then, is whenever human beings are involved there will be errors. Some errors are active, obvious, and simple, but many are latent, complex, and lay in waiting like a landmine upon which an unsuspecting person stumbles and, too late, discovers the error through the glaring light of 20/20 hindsight.

In most cases, such errors result in frustration and self-flagulation, but sometimes errors lead to major disasters such as Chernobyl, Challenger, and the downing of KAL007. We often relegate the aftermath to head-shaking and reduce the explanation to pilot or operator error.

This is not only a poor explanation of what happens, but leaves us with few options for solution other than “human solutions” and a vow to remain vigilant and never let it happen again. This of course never holds up because the next accident due to human error is inevitably a variation on the theme.

Clearly “the human side of technology” provides a vast territory for discussion within a column like this. Over the coming weeks and months, we will endeavor to bring to you columns that focus on broad questions and issues, timely topics related to human and technology interactions, and information related to designing with the human in mind in order to reduce and manage human error, improve the quality of life, and help us all to make the most out of the ever more rapidly advancing technologies that surround us, attract us, and beguile us.

Feedback and other contributions are welcome. Send comments to LTW Managing Editor Rick Smith (rsmith8@nc.rr.com).

Humancentric: www.humancentrictech.com