The Other Father of Human Factors: John E. Karlin

Paul M. Fitts is widely regarded as the father of human factors.  He gets mentioned a lot in HF texts because of his (still influential) law.  In more modern times, Donald Norman gets a lot of recognition as the author of the Design of Everyday Things (mentioned in my post below) which introduced the idea of psychology and human factors to a more mainstream audience.  However, someone who never gets mentioned (in my 12 years of education i’ve seen him mentioned once) was John E. Karlin who recently passed away.

By all accounts a modest man despite his variegated accomplishments (he had a doctorate in mathematical psychology, was trained in electrical engineering and had been a professional violinist), Mr. Karlin, who died on Jan. 28, at 94, was virtually unknown to the general public.

He is still relatively unknown to HF only because he rarely published his results; instead, he worked to solve problems in industry using the scientific method that all psychologists use.

“He was the one who introduced the notion that behavioral sciences could answer some questions about telephone design,” Ed Israelski, an engineer who worked under Mr. Karlin at Bell Labs in the 1970s, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

The NYT recently posted an obit detailing his contributions including such fundamental ones such as the telephone numeric layout (different from calculator layout):

Putting “1-2-3” on the pad’s top row instead of the bottom (the configuration used, then as now, on adding machines and calculators) was also born of Mr. Karlin’s group: they found it made for more accurate dialing.

The piece is very well written and I’m a little surprised that the author actually seems to understand HF and how it’s unique from other things (emphasis added):

It is not so much that Mr. Karlin trained midcentury Americans how to use the telephone. It is, rather, that by studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, he trained the telephone, then a rapidly proliferating but still fairly novel technology, to assume optimal form for use by midcentury Americans.

(NYT: great article but you hyphenated human factors in the 10th paragraph)

Go read it!

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About Richard Pak

Associate Professor at Clemson University/Department of Psychology
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