controls of plane
December 5th, 2017

How Cognitive Ergonomics Transforms Product Experience

It was an emergency. The aircraft cockpit was a cacophony of flashing lights and alarms vying for the pilot’s attention. The plane was losing altitude, the clues as to why were likely among the strobing grids of the instrument panel. The complex avionics system, designed to provide critical feedback, was a threatening and overloaded sensory assault at a moment that demanded focus and decisive action.

A lone female voice cut through the noise and calmly repeated: “Pull up – pull up – pull up.” The pilot knew the voice and complied. The plane rose, narrowly missing a jagged mountain ridge, unseen in the darkness.

The woman’s voice was a recording associated with the Terrain Avoidance Warning System / Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System. The TAWS / EGPWS is commonly known among combat pilots as “Bitchin’ Betty.” Betty is the last line of defense to keep a pilot engaged when other systems have failed. It’s also an excellent example of the power and importance of cognitive ergonomics.

A common misconception is that the field of ergonomics is isolated to making products that better fit a human’s biomechanics. In reality, a majority of ergonomic work deals with psychology. In addition to making products that may be comfortable to hold, sit on, or manipulate, cognitive ergonomics deals with the nuanced challenges of designing systems that cater to the way people’s minds naturally respond to stimuli. This means that cultural and evolutionary factors must be considered as well.

In the example of Bitchin’ Betty, human factor researchers involved in the design of the McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet during the 1970s determined that in critical combat scenarios, a pilot’s reaction time to lights or alarms was insufficient when a crash was eminent. They discovered that the predominately male pilots of the time responded with the lowest latency to a stern female voice, over numerous alternatives. It was hypothesized that the psychological association to a pilot’s own mother was one that could convey immediacy and importance of compliance. Additionally, the higher tone of the voice used was in a range that could be heard better over the lower sounds of radio communications. The research and understanding that led to the simple change of trading a flashing alarm with a human voice saved lives.

In today’s world, where UI/UX design collides with product design regularly, having designers well versed in the basics of cognitive ergonomics is a great way to build a better product. The deliberate use of any designed element that interacts with our senses is an opportunity to leverage an understanding of how our minds respond to the natural and the artificial. Great designers know that form and function is not enough. If you’re looking to offer a more satisfying or more effective experience, look to the experts who can help craft your product’s Bitchin’ Betty.

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