UW News

April 27, 2011

Rethinking work environments through ‘interaction design

If you think of the flight deck of a typical airplane, you might picture the pilot and copilot in their seats, looking forward, hands on the thrust lever. But these days, pilots spend most of their time monitoring computerized instruments that fly the plane on a path determined by air traffic controllers. Its what Assistant Professor of Art Axel Roesler calls information management in a high stakes work environment — exactly the kind of place he and his students can make a difference.

Graduate students Nate Landes, left, and Sergei Larionov prepare to photograph the flight deck mock-up they are working on with Axel Roesler.

Graduate students Nate Landes, left, and Sergei Larionov prepare to photograph the flight deck mock-up they are working on with Axel Roesler.Dan Ostrowski

You might not think of art students in connection with modern, high tech aircraft, especially since theyre not there to make the plane beautiful. Roeslers field is interaction design, meaning he and his students design the interfaces between people and the technology they work with.

And thats what theyre doing with the flight deck. Roesler has a grant from Boeing to help generate design concepts for the flight deck to make it easier for pilots to do their job.

“Technology really has changed the flight deck, and the technology that has been put into flight decks is technology centric,” Roesler said. “It was designed in an engineering mindset, putting the technology first and training the pilot around it. Flight operations follow automation modes and procedures, but when something goes wrong, the pilots take over and fly the plane manually, and its usually the pilots who save lives.”

Its therefore crucial, Roesler believes, that pilots understand and be able to interact easily with the systems they are monitoring. Yet, the flight deck is so full of data that poor design can lead to information overload, and the systems themselves can be misleading. Roesler cited an Airbus accident where  pilots were looking at a display that they thought was their descent angle but actually showed their vertical speed. It was a foggy night and they flew the plane right into the ground.

Axel Roesler

Axel Roesler

“They were looking at the instruments and thought they were doing the right thing,” Roesler said. “But it was just the design of these numbers and how the numbers were presented in the context of the entire plane that led to the accident.”

To find a better way, Roesler and his students constructed a mockup of a flight deck out of cardboard to develop scenarios of operations with new interface design concepts. Mounted on the wall is a large photo of a present-day flight deck. Working with Barbara Holder and Mark Nikolic, researchers at the Boeing Flight Deck Concept Center who have spent thousands of hours observing pilots during flights, theyve tried to reimagine a work environment that would help the pilots make the best decisions.

The students arent designing the technology itself. The Boeing research team gives them scenarios to work with and they design what the displays should look like for those situations. Design concepts are shared with Boeings Flight Deck Concept Center, which is responsible for designing the flight deck of the future.

“This is absolutely unique because it is the first time that designers are designing the front panel display,” Roesler said. “Companies here in town have worked for 40 years for Boeing, but their industrial designers were mostly involved in the design of the passenger cabin. The front displays have traditionally been off limits for designers because they were considered the domain of human factors engineering.

The designers involvement is, in his view, the way it should be, because designers “put the folks who use these devices in the center of the design idea.” Hes one of the founding members of the UWs DUB group (Human-Computer Interaction and Design Coalition), a collaborative effort involving Computer Science & Engineering, Human Centered Design & Engineering and the Information School, along with the School of Arts Design Division. The group meets regularly to exchange ideas.

“Were talking about creating a new masters degree that takes the DUB spirit one step further,” Roesler said. “It would unite design thinking with engineering thinking. We would be one of the first programs like this in the nation.”

Another project he and his students are working on now involves recording emergency response during Code Blue events. Code Blue occurs in a hospital when a patient needs to be resuscitated. It may last anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and involves a Code Blue response team of five to eight people. Medications may be administered, shocks may be given, compressions delivered, and through it all a designated recorder is writing it all down on a paper form to create a permanent record of what was done.

Kris Martin, who is now employed at Microsoft, worked with Roesler on a project to redesign Code Blue recording. Here he appears at last years MFA exhibit at the Henry Gallery.

Kris Martin, who is now employed at Microsoft, worked with Roesler on a project to redesign Code Blue recording. Here he appears at last years MFA exhibit at the Henry Gallery.Mary Levin

The problem is, the paper form is proving inadequate for getting a good record and doesnt reflect the timeline of what happened. Roesler and his graduate student Kris Martin worked with a team at the UW School of Medicine to study the recording of Code Blue events. They observed mock codes and worked with Alan Au, a Biomedical Informatics doctoral student who had conducted a study of the existing recording form.

From this they designed an iPad version of the paper form that includes all the possible interventions that might be done. The recorder has only to touch, for example, the medications block on the iPad to receive a list of typical medications, then typical doses. When that record is complete, the screen goes to background, prompting the recorder to look up at what is happening so the next step can be recorded. When the Code Blue comes to an end, all the actions taken are there, in the order in which they were done. The recorder signs off and the record is instantly sent to the server.

That project is being done in conjunction with Dr. Brian Ross and Dr. Bala Nair at the UWs Institute for Simulation and Interprofessional Studies at the UW Medical Center. When it is completed, the institute will share what it has learned with other hospitals.

The flight deck and Code Blue projects are the kind of things that Roesler seeks out so that his graduate students can have real world experience working on important projects — the kind of projects he longed for as a young designer. After earning his masters in design, he worked for a small firm and found himself designing objects such as the handles on cabinets. He felt unsatisfied and left to get his doctorate in cognitive systems engineering.

always wanted to get to a place where I could work in an interdisciplinary way,” he said. “My goal is to introduce our design students to a whole new area of work so that they can go to research labs and work with researchers and engineers on real designs.”