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The professor with an eye on the human factor

Anders Jansson (to the left) is professor at the Department of Information Technology and presently working on a project to improve the management and control of future railway traffic.

The challenge faced by Anders Jansson is to design technical systems so that they suit their users. His method for improving working environments has helped everybody from nurses to office workers. His next task is to improve future railway traffic control.

Our everyday lives are flooded with advanced technology these days and most of us have been puzzled by difficult-to-use appliances and systems from time to time. How to design technology to best fulfil our needs is at the core of research into human-machine interaction. One of the challenges is to get engineers to design more reliable and more usable technology. This is the opinion of professor Anders Jansson who leads the new research team Technology in Human Reasoning at the Department of Information Technology.

“People often produce new digital technology and then think that they just have to start up the systems and other people will understand how they should use them. But it’s not so; research is also required into humans in technical environments. This is because we don’t know how people will experience environments they’ve never been in before and we especially don’t know how they will perform or behave in them.”

As a previous cognitive psychologist, Anders Jansson has considerable experience of studying how people make assessments, solve problems and take decisions. But our flexibility is limited and, according to Anders Jansson, this makes it necessary to analyse our abilities and experiences in order that the new technology will be of benefit. To do this, he uses so-called collegial verbalisation, a method he developed himself.

“The procedure is to film people while they’re working on, for example, solving a track allocation problem caused when a train is late. We then show the film not only to those involved but also to their close colleagues who didn’t take an active part but have experience of the same kind of work duties and systems. We can then compare their descriptions and collect data which is less subjective than if only the active participants had told us their version.”

After collecting data, the researchers analyse the need for work support and outline possible working methods. The results are converted into design proposals which are then applied to digital interfaces with tailored menus for various work functions. Occupational groups Anders Jansson has worked with include office workers as well as people in the medical sector, processing and nuclear power industries and drivers and pilots of vehicles and boats.

Now a new project awaits with its focus upon future railway traffic control in Sweden. It is a collaborative research project in which, among others, the Swedish Transport Administration, the Royal Institute of Technology, Blekinge Institute of Technology and Linköping University are participating. The project name is Capacity in Railway Traffic. The task of the Uppsala researchers is to produce usable and well-designed technical support systems for railway traffic planners. Anders Jansson’s colleagues Arne Andersson, Bengt Sandblad and Simon Tschirner have already made important progress in designing an electronic graph system for train control now being used in Boden and Norrköping.

Anders Jansson shows a picture of what the system looks like. Several curves of various colours fight for space on the same graph.

“Once upon a time staff sat with paper graphs and drew with a ruler and pencil to plan how trains should be directed,” he explains.

“Then they tried to keep all the information they read off the various screens in their heads. Today, a dynamic graph curve is produced which in a single display shows changes in real time. But in places around the country where traffic planners don’t have this system, they still try to create for themselves an overall picture of the traffic situation based on a number of partial pictures.”

Anders Jansson’s focus is upon traffic control working methods and efficiency. Along with doctoral students Anton Axelsson and Rebecca Andreasson, he is going to examine why traffic controllers’ evaluations and decisions have improved and how they can be made even better. One important task is to reduce the considerable individual differences in how to best solve traffic situations. One reason for delays and for early departures is the lack of co-ordination between the various people and organisations involved such as train drivers, traffic controllers and railway operators.

What are you main challenges?

“To design the interfaces and decision support systems so that they all become part of what is actually happening. We’re the first country in Europe to use this railway traffic control method. It is so advanced and complex that nobody else has managed to create anything like it before.”

He has called himself a ‘human factor specialist’ since hearing somebody talking about him as the professor of the human factor.

“The term ‘human factor’ is often used as a reason for accidents and unfortunately also when it’s a question of intentional atrocities. But this is to use the term wrongly. The definition of the human factor expresses the inability of humans to live and work faultlessly.”

“It could be that that people commit errors, but technology can also be constructed in ways which encourage errors,” he says.

“It all comes down to designing technology keeping in mind how people use information and communicate with the world around them.”

23 June 2016