Profiles in Human Factors: Dr. Ron Shapiro

This post is from our series of human factors career profiles. Check them all out if you’re curious about what kinds of careers you can have in this field!

Dr. Ron Shapiro received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University. He has had a long career in human factors, including being a visiting Assistant Professor at Denison University, consulting for three years with Dunlap and Associates, and then spending 23 years at IBM in their Large Systems Group, Software Group, and in Corporate Learning and Human Resources. He has taught as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Conneticut, Dutchess Community College, and at Marist College. He is currently an independent consultant in Human Factors and Human Resources.

Anne: Hi Ron, would you briefly describe your job and what you enjoy most about it?

Ron: Right now, my favorite activities are introducing Human Factors/Ergonomics to students, faculty and to organizations and helping to grow our profession. This includes consulting on career planning for students and offering recommendations on how to solve problems.  An advantage of being on my own is that I get to do work that I want to do.

Anne: That’s a nice advantage. So, how did you get interested in Human Factors as a career?

Ron: As an undergraduate I was interested in people (psychology) and computers/information processing.  A graduate associate recommended that I look into Cognitive Psychology, which I did.

While I wanted an academic appointment when I graduated, they were few and far between for Cognitive Psychology.  A number of the graduate students at Ohio State were taking applied jobs in Human Factors, so I decided to learn more about HF. One very valuable discussion which I had, that actually became a turning point in my career, was with Tom Eggemeier at the University of Dayton.  As I learned more about HF from Tom and others, I found that I was very much in demand in the applied world (after a year of getting mostly academic rejections I received numerous job offers without even filling out applications!!!) Indeed, I was not prepared for this level of success, and as I think back about it I probably could have managed the success better.

Anne: It sounds like you have gotten to do a number of different things in your career.  What skills do you need the most for your current job?

Ron: Listening to people and drawing on the human factors literature, experiences which colleagues, many of whom I have met through HFES and APA Division 21, have shared with me as well as my own personal experiences to propose solutions to problems.

Anne: Could you share an example of how you’ve seen HF make a difference in the world?

Ron: Actually, the example I’ll give is of something I have not seen.   Neither has anyone else, but I can certainly imagine it: The number of accidents/injuries/deaths which have been prevented through HF Design.  I think about it whenever I’m going to do something significant like ride in an airplane.

Anne: If you could tell an undergraduate psychology major about opportunities in human factors, what would you say?

Ron: Actually, I do this very frequently both formally and informally. My next formal address on this will be at the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA) Conference in Boston in March.

First, I highly recommend the career for individuals interested in both people and technology. The advantages are that it is interesting work, there are very good opportunities for internships and jobs, and they are high paying. Now, the disadvantages are that you will need to live where the jobs are and you won’t necessarily know whose life you saved.

Anne: Good summary! Undergraduates frequently tell me that they want to help people, but they imagine that as a 1 on 1 job, rather than creating systems and products that help a large number of people, as you describe. I saw from the HFES site that you have been on a number of panels on that very topic.

Ron: Yes. I agree with you. I have also found that students do not think of careers in prevention as a means of helping people — probably more people than they could ever help in a treatment role, but anonymously. I began to work in the career development area for HF students and professionals years ago when I observed that students needed guidance from professionals with experience working in government and industry. In 1996 Tony Andre, who was also doing significant work in this area, and I decided to work together on HFES Career panels. We traditionally offered these on Tuesday afternoon at the HFES meeting immediately before the student reception, but last year we decided to team with Sandra Garrett and move these to Student Career Monday. By coincidence, this year Tony is the President of HFES and I’m the Secretary-Treasurer, so Tony and I have the opportunity to work together in a new capacity. Tony is currently on a two-year leave from the Career panel organization to serve as HFES President.

I also participate in the Student-Professional lunches at HFES which are organized by Haydee Cuevas. I would encourage blog readers to attend the career panels and to participate in the lunches. I would also like to acknowledge Bill Moroney’s work in providing analysis and interpretation of data on “where the jobs are” to help shape educational programs and to help students prepare for their careers. (Since you are in North Carolina I might add parenthetically that my career development work expanded beyond the HF profession. One of my management jobs at IBM was managing Career Services for IBM North Carolina Employees.)

Anne: I know you are heavily involved in organizations like APA, especially Division 21, and HFES. Can you tell me why that is a priority for you?

Ron: First, our success as individuals and as a profession is in part highly dependent upon our developing a market for our services and developing future as well as current members of the profession is critical to our growth and survival. I believe that in order to be a profession we need to communicate with each other both personally and technically… transcending corporate boundaries for our entire career… not just until we graduate from school. Professional societies are critical to doing all of the above.  While the internet is useful, without an organized structure its utility is limited.

Anne: Many of us have heard about your Games to Explain Human Factors: Come, Participate, Learn & Have Fun!!! Outreach Program. How can we learn more about it?

Ron: You might check out the Games website. The 168 page program is available free to HFES and APA Division 21 members and teachers upon request.

Anne: And finally, how can one arrange to have you speak or consult?

Ron: Just send me an email: DrRonShapiro1981 at SigmaXi.Net or call. I’d be pleased to work with you.

Profiles in Human Factors: Dr. Julian Sanchez, Medtronic

This post is the first in our new series of human factors career profiles. Dr. Julian Sanchez  was kind enough to answer my questions about his job and the journey he took to get there. Dr. Sanchez received his Ph.D. in psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and has worked in a variety of settings, from agricultural technology at Deere & Co. to aviation at the MITRE Corporation and is currently with Medtronic in Minneapolis.

Anne: Hi Julian, let’s start with “Would you briefly describe your job and what you enjoy most about it?”

Julian: I work for a medical device company called Medtronic, within their Cardiac Disease Management division. I am part of the R&D group so I work alongside scientists of all disciplines on product ideas that are at least 5 years from making it to market. I help ensure that Human Factors and UX issues are considered early in the design process.

Implanted pacemakers and defibrillators have the capability of wireless communication with a receiver that then transmits all of the data from the patient’s heart to the doctor’s office. I mean, how can anyone think that working in this field is not the coolest thing?

Anne: Sounds like you like it!  How did you get interested in Human Factors as a career path?

Julian: To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I was really going to love HF as a career path until I did an internship at John Deere. This was only two years before getting my PhD, so thank god for that! I guess the internship really hit home that all of the theoretical principles that I had learned in grad school could be applied, AND there was a real thirst for it.

Anne: So, what skills from graduate school have you used the most?

Julian: During grad school I taught myself Flash, a prototyping tool. Besides HF knowledge, this has been the skill that has best served me. Being able to mock up a prototype gives you the ability to pitch ideas to other engineers and designers.

Anne: Neat. Ok, if you could tell your first-year graduate student self a single sentence, what would it be?

Julian: Great question. “Don’t rush”

New Series: Profiles in Human Factors

An upcoming series of posts will cover interviews with human factors professionals and academics. I would like to put faces on the career and share the multitude of options an HF degree can offer.

If you have a question you’d like me to consider putting in my interviews (or a person you would like to see interviewed), please post a comment or send me a message.

Stay tuned!

Designing Displays for Older Adults: Chapter 4 Cognition (excerpt)

Below is an excerpt of Chapter 4 from our book.  The book is available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.  Until January 31, 2011, you can get 20% off the cover price when you purchase directly from CRC Press using this link and this code: 810DE.

Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398

Chapter Contents (excerpt is bolded below)

4. Cognition
4.1 How Cognition Changes With Age
4.1.1 Fluid Abilities Perceptual Speed Working Memory Capacity Environmental Support Attention Reasoning Ability Spatial Ability Interim Summary of Fluid Abilities
4.1.2 Crystallized Knowledge Verbal Ability Knowledge and Experience Mental Models Interim Summary of Crystallized Intelligence
4.2 In Practice: Organization of Information
4.4.1 Page Navigation vs. Browser Navigation
4.4.2 Previous Knowledge and Browsing/Searching for Information
4.3 General Design Guidelines
4.4 Suggested Readings Reasoning Ability

Reasoning ability is the ability to tackle and understand novel situations. It is the ability that one uses when faced with a new television remote control, visits an unfamiliar website, or tries out a new computer application without reading the manual. Psychologists measure reasoning ability using abstract tests that require test takers to determine logical sequences in patterns. Figure 4.7 illustrates a sample item from such test. The task is to examine the figures on the test to discover the rule that governs the sequence of shapes and then select the correct shape in the sequence. The abstractness of the test is deliberate so that factors such as cultural background or language skill will not interfere with the results.

Figure 4.8 Reasoning ability

The link between performance on such tests and performance in a novel interface may seem distant, but they do share a common mental ability. When users pick up a new mobile phone or try to use a ticket kiosk in a foreign train station they are carrying out mental processing similar to answering the reasoning test: examining the options on the screen and then trying out different options to discover the next logical step. Unfortunately pure reasoning ability (as best as psychologists can measure it) also shows decline with aging with declines starting as early as age twenty (Figure 4.8).

Generally, making displays easier to use involve reducing the level of uncertainty about what to do next in the task so that reasoning ability is less of a factor in success. This could mean being more specific about the purpose of each task step and the consequences of actions as well as informing the user of their overall progress (for example, making explicit the number of steps remaining). Using icons that are less abstract and more representative of their function or task can also reduce the level of uncertainty.

However, it is rare to encounter everyday situations where one has no prior knowledge or experience and pure abstract reasoning is required. Instead, users usually always bring some amount of information or experience to these situations and use their prior knowledge to gauge expectations and guide behavior. This “mental set” is a particular way in which people approach and solve problems that is informed by prior experience or knowledge (everyday intelligence or cognition). This is why creating displays that act in ways users expect will reduce the need for reasoning ability. Spatial Ability

Spatial ability helps a person mentally manipulate location-based representations of the world.  This ability is important for reading a map of an unfamiliar city or trying to orient oneself by using the navigation system in a vehicle car.  In these kinds of tasks, users transform, rotate, and manipulate the physical environment in their head.  People also need spatial ability when they create or manipulate mental models.  A mental model is a mental representation of a physical system—a map of sorts.  For example, some people have mental maps of the layout of their childhood home or neighborhood.  The mental map allows them to navigate the area quickly and may even facilitate the discovery and usage of “shortcuts” that speed navigation.  In one test for spatial ability, the cube comparison test, the respondent has to decide whether the two cubes shown represent the same cube, but sitting on another face, or a completely different cube.  Arriving at an answer quickly depends on the respondent’s spatial abilities.

Researchers have found that spatial ability is critical in the use of some kinds of computerized interfaces and tasks such as browsing the Web.  For example, imagine the situation where a user browses a deep hierarchy (e.g., the online store).  At a certain point, the user needs a mental model or map of the system so they know where they have been.  The presence of the map allows users to more easily navigate the information hierarchy because it precludes the need for the user to create their own mental versions, but such a map is harder to create for older users.

Usability vs. Providing an Experience

Some humor for 2011: a “Things people have never said about a restaurant” website.

My favorite excerpts:

“I really like the way their cheesy elevator jazz interacts with the music I was listening to in iTunes.”

“I hope the phone number and address are actually images so I can’t copy and paste them!”

“I go to restaurant websites for the ambiance.”

“Who needs the phone number of a restaurant when you could be enjoying stock photos of food?”

A quick search turned up a few more rants about restaurant sites. Looks like an epidemic!

  • Restaurant websites: the great and the terrible
  • “A couple of days ago, a friend was asking me for a restaurant recommendation. Easy task, I thought. I had some restaurants in mind and just needed to check and see if they were open and send her the websites. What should have been a 5-minute email turned into a half-hour nightmare as I slogged through websites that are more intent on impressing me with movies, music, and other annoyances than on giving me direct information.”
  • Why ARE restaurant sites so bad?
  • “Who thinks it’s good idea to blast annoying music at people going to your site? Why do they so often rely on Flash, which doesn’t really add anything to the experience, when half the time people are looking up the site on mobile devices to get basic information? Why this bizarre preference for menus in PDF format?”
  • Restaurant websites: casting the net
  • “… has a notoriously ludicrous website which – granted – may well appeal to the sort of ‘zany’ people who eat there. As for everyone else, it will probably just make you want to smash your fist through your monitor.”

Perhaps I’m still unhappy about spending an hour looking for a place to eat in Little Rock last weekend. Flash websites and PDF menus on a 2007 Sprint Treo is not for the faint of heart.

Kitchen Taskonomy Part 1: A Guest Post by Kim Wolfinbarger

January magazines arrived a month ago, full of the annual list of ideas for organizing your house, life, office, even your car. I’ve been thinking lately about how we organize our workspaces. As Pottery Barn and Ikea entrance us with their coordinated sweater bins and modern snap-together wall-mounted organizers, how often do we ask this most important question: Do our workspaces support the way we work?

A few years ago, Don Norman wrote an excellent article for ACM Interactions titled “Logic Versus Usage: The Case for Activity-Centered Design.” He discussed two different approaches to organization: taxonomy, in which items are ordered by category or name, and taskonomy, in which items are organized by the way they are used. Norman argued that while a taxonomic organization makes sense for libraries and grocery stores, it makes little sense for organizing workspaces.

I don’t particularly like routines, which is funny because I’m an industrial engineer and classical IE involves designing routines for other people to follow. Over the years, I’ve tried to follow various organizational systems, but they tended to fall apart. A carefully alphabetized spice cabinet became a mess when I purchased new spices, because inserting one new spice required moving several others. Kitchen cabinets were organized according to pan size, but I frequently had to move three small casserole dishes to get the big one I wanted. Bank statements and receipts stacked up because filing was easy to put off. Reading about taskonomy  help me identify the source of the problem: The organizational systems I had struggled to follow just didn’t match my use patterns.

When I first purchased this house, I organized the pantry by the common taxonomic approach. Baking soda, salt, and baking powder were grouped together, as were all the vinegars—white, red, balsamic, cider, and herbal. I alphabetized the spices and placed those that would fit in the pantry doors. The others I grouped on a shelf, between the vinegars and the salt. But the shelves are deep and wide, and with nothing to keep items in their assigned places, stuff tended to migrate. Common white vinegar was as hard to retrieve as its gourmet cousins. Spices floated behind the syrup, peanut butter was never in the same place, and the salt always managed to slip into some dark corner.

It was losing the salt—and the 60 seconds it took me each evening to find it—that finally motivated me to DO SOMETHING about the pantry. For my first attempt, I redesigned the shelves. I planned to replace the deep, flat plywood boards with a shallower but more closely spaced arrangement. The shelf heights would be changed so that frequently used items could be placed at or just below eye level. But without the time, skills, or tools needed for the carpentry project, the design ended up in the “someday” file and the salt kept disappearing. Reading about taskonomy showed me that I could achieve the same goals without changing the pantry’s structure at all.


For the taskonomic redesign, I arranged the spices and other dry goods by use. I sorted the spices into four groups: Italian (including basil, oregano, and bay leaves), Baking (e.g., cinnamon and nutmeg), Specialty Salts (Nature’s Seasons, seasoning salt, garlic salt), and Savory (e.g., thyme and rosemary) and labeled the shelves in the pantry doors. I was not too rigid about the sorting–garlic powder, for example, is next to garlic salt–and the divisions are not particularly fine. Because the door shelves hide the labels on the smaller spice jars, I also wrote names on the lids. Each shelf has enough space to add one or two more jars, and because I can see all the jars on one shelf at a glance, alphabetizing is no longer necessary.

Baking basket

I used shallow baskets to sort other ingredients by use. The baking basket contains salt, pepper, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon-sugar. I often use several of these items in a single recipe, such as pancakes or cinnamon biscuits, so it makes sense to group them together. The basket also prevents the salt from migrating, saving me time and frustration each evening. In another basket (out of reach of my young children) I placed spicy blends and specialty peppers, such as cayenne. A third basket, placed toward the back of the shelf, holds rarely used seasonings, such as poppy seeds and dill.

Bottled items

Bottled items were separated by frequency of use. Soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, cooking spray, a small bottle of white vinegar, and olive oil now stand on a lazy susan at the front of a shelf, while lime oil, Karo syrup, and Liquid Smoke occupy a back corner. Bulk-sized bottles are stored on the floor and are used to refill the smaller containers.


Next I tackled the kitchen cabinets. Bulky Items that I use infrequently–roasters, the Bundt muffin tin, my beautiful but heavy enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens–got their own shelf in the garage.

I kept a few toast pans and cookie sheets in the kitchen and sent the extras to the garage as well. Casserole dishes used multiple times a week were moved to front of the cabinet and stacked no more than three pieces high. Retrieving the 13-by-9-inch dish now requires only a slight bend, rather than a deep squat and a minute of moving and restacking smaller dishes. And my silicone baking-sheet liners, which are indispensable but awkward to store, were rolled up and slipped into paper-towel tubes.

I’m happy to report that the taskonomic kitchen organization system has been in place for two years. While occasionally straightening is needed, a pantry spruce-up no longer requires an afternoon. The cabinets won’t be featured in House Beautiful, but the things I use most often stay accessible, without much intervention from me.

Next time, I’ll talk about my simplified bill-paying system. Until then, as you organize your pantry and cabinets, don’t just sort and stack. Design a sustainable system by viewing your workspaces throughout the lens of taskonomy.

Kim Wolfinbarger is the recruitment coordinator and a PhD candidate in the School of Industrial Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. Her research interests include driver behavior, intelligent transportation systems, and design for aging. She is a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and the Institute of Industrial Engineers.