Wiener’s Laws

The article “The Human Factor” in Vanity Fair is two years old, but since I can’t believe I missed posting it — here it is! It’s a riveting read with details of the Air France Flight 447 accident and intelligent discussion of the impact automation has on human performance. Dr. Nadine Sarter is interviewed and I learned of a list of flight-specific “laws” developed by Dr. Earl Wiener, a past-president of HFES.

“Wiener’s Laws,” from the article and from Aviation Week:

  • Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.
  • Exotic devices create exotic problems.
  • Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.
  • Invention is the mother of necessity.
  • Some problems have no solution.
  • It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
  • Whenever you solve a problem, you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.
  • You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful about what you put into a digital flight-guidance system (Wiener).
  • Complacency? Don’t worry about it.
  • In aviation, there is no problem so great or so complex that it cannot be blamed on the pilot.
  • There is no simple solution out there waiting to be discovered, so don’t waste your time searching for it.
  • If at first you don’t succeed… try a new system or a different approach.
  • In God we trust. Everything else must be brought into your scan.
  • It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
  • Any pilot who can be replaced by a computer should be.
  • Today’s nifty, voluntary system is tomorrow’s F.A.R.

Kudos to the author, William Langewiesche, for a well researched and well written piece.

So you want to go to school for Human Factors: The Approach Email

This is Post 3 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1 & Post 2)

Your initial email communication is your first impression and should be managed carefully. Address all communications formally and you may want someone to proof-read before you send it. That means:

1. Address everyone by their proper title

  • Bad: “Hi Rich…” or, “Hey” or just launching into the message
  • Good: “Dr. McLaughlin,” or “Professor McLaughlin,”

2. Be specific.

  • Bad: “I am very interested in your research on X. It is very interesting. The more I read about it, the more I am interested in it. It seems very interesting and important.”
  • Good: “I recently read a collection of your papers on X. It was very interesting to me as I saw connections with the topics I have been studying, such as Y.”

3. Be succinct! Omit needless words.

4. Stay on topic/avoid excessive personal anecdotes:

  • Bad: “After my house burned down and I lost everything, I sat back and thought about what I really wanted in life and discovered it was to work in your lab.”
  • Bad: writing a wall of text (e.g., one giant paragraph with no line breaks)
  • Good: “I was fortunate to learn about the field of human factors when we had a special topics course in Ergonomics at my university. For that class, I did [describe project] which lead me to your work on X.”

5. Avoid inadvertently selfish language

  • Bad: “Your lab would help me in my interests and my career. It would be the best thing for me.”
  • Good: “I have experience in multiple statistical programs, including SPSS and MATlab. As a research assistant in Dr. X’s lab, I have experience with data entry, cleaning data, and analysis. Although I have not yet gotten to run participants through a study protocol, I have been allowed to observe the graduate students in that task.”

6. Proofread for grammar and typos

  • Bad: your vs you’re, any misspelled words, and so on.

7. Avoid carelessness: Sending an email to Dr. A but writing your emails addressed to Dr. B.

Below is a sample “approach email” to the professor you are considering as an advisor. Yours will differ, but this is an example of the level of formality and what to include.

Dear Dr. FutureAdvisor,

I am a senior psychology major at My University and interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology after graduation. I came across your research when I was collecting articles for a literature review on user trust in automated systems and am interested in applying to your lab to work on similar topics.

In the past two years, I have worked as a research assistant in a lab here at My University and spent a summer in an NSF REU program at Bigger University. In the MU1 lab, I worked with Dr. So Andso on research into motivation changes across the lifespan. I learned to enter and clean data for analysis with SPSS and SAS, follow a research protocol to run participants, and write SPSS syntax. One specific project I worked on was investigating whether people over 65 reported different motivations for performance and whether they responded differently than younger adults to reinforcement schedules on an implicit learning task. This gave me an interest in aging but more generally an interest in individual differences.

I am excited by the prospect of continuing in a research program after graduation and believe I would be a good fit for your lab. Please let me know if you will be accepting applications this year.

Thank you for your time,
YourName

The optimal time for sending this email is the fall semester of your senior year. This gives you time to communicate, perhaps plan a visit, and let the faculty member know you’ll be applying to their program.

Discussion of Human Factors on “Big Picture Science” podcast

You all know I love podcasts. One of my favorites, Big Picture Science, held an interview with Nicholas Carr (a journalist) on over-reliance in automation. The entire podcast, What the Hack, also covers computer security. To skip to the HF portion, click here.

  • +points for mentioning human factors by name
  • +points for clearly having read much of the trust in automation literature
  • -points for falling back on the “we automate because we’re lazy” claim, rather than acknowledging that the complexity of many modern systems requires automation for a human to be able to succeed. Do you want to have that flight to NY on the day you want it? Then we have to have automation to help that happen – the task has moved beyond human ability to accomplish it alone.
  • -points for the tired argument that things are different now. Google is making us dumber. Essentially the same argument that happens with every introduction of technology, including the printing press. We aren’t any different than the humans that painted caves 17,300 years ago.

For more podcasts on humans and automation, check out this recent Planet Money: The Big Red Button. You’ll never look at an elevator the same way.

*While looking up support for the claim that people have always thought their era was worse than the previous, I found this blog post. Looks like I’m not the first to have this exact thought.

So you want to go to school for Human Factors: General Sequence of Events

This is Post 2 in our ongoing series about graduate school in Human Factors. (Post 1)

In this post, we discuss a general to-do list for those considering graduate school in Human Factors. Comments from other faculty welcome!

1. Get Involved in Research as Early as Possible

  • This can be through a senior project, a class at your university where students do a research project, or (optimally) by working as a research assistant in a lab.
  • If your university does not have these opportunities, look around (nearby universities). Many professors will take volunteer research assistants, including in the summer, and train you in their lab. This gives you both experience and a potential reference letter.

2. Start Looking for Departments/Mentors and Evaluate Fit

  • Many programs or labs have information on their alumni. Do they have the kinds of jobs you want? Do their alumni work at places you would like to work?
  • You will work mainly with a single advisor in an apprenticeship model. However, it’s a good idea to consider programs where you match more than one professor.
  • Check out the research interests of potential advisors by reading some of their recent publications or look at their curriculum vitae (the academic term for resume; often found online). We often have an area of expertise but work in other areas as well. You don’t want to choose an advisor based on work from 20 years ago that isn’t being continued today.
  • It is highly unlikely that a potential advisor will initiate a new research area to fit your interests–be flexible in your interests.
  • Create a spreadsheet listing department, contact information/web address to apply, potential faculty (and their major research areas), application fee, deadline, required materials, and your rating of fit.

3. Contact Prospective Mentors

  • When you have identified some potential programs, check their website to see which faculty are affiliated with the program and taking students.
  • Not all faculty take students every year. Some faculty list on their website whether they are taking students. If unsure, a short, formal email to the professor asking if they are accepting new students is appropriate.
  • Just because they are on a departmental website does not mean that they are affiliated with the HF program (that department may have other graduate programs) or that they are taking students that year. If it is unclear, email and ask. It isn’t helpful if, for example, you are applying to a psychology program but list an industrial engineering professor as your preferred mentor.
  • If you would like to evaluate potential fit between you and your potential mentor, you can ask if they are willing to meet with you in-person. Opinions vary, but Skype/video conference meetings may work.

Our next post will give an example of the kind of formality expected in contacting a prospective advisor.