PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo JANUARY 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 5
A MIND FOR DESIGN - By Pierre Home-Douglas - Photo-Illustration by Polly Becker
By Pierre Home-Douglas

Engineering and psychology? Not subjects that seem to belong side by side, much less as part of the same program at a university. But engineering psychology—understanding the mental and physical capabilities of humans and using that knowledge to improve the design of products and systems—has garnered enough attention in academic circles that universities including Georgia Tech and West Point now offer majors in the field.

One of the best-known programs is the one offered at Tufts University in Boston. It was developed in the late 1960s and early ’70s by John Kreifeldt, an engineer who had studied at UCLA, MIT and Case Western Reserve University, and psychology professor Phil Sampson. At the time, the only programs offered in engineering psychology were at the graduate level, and Kreifeldt and Sampson figured that an undergraduate program was perfectly adequate to equip someone with the knowledge to practice in the field. The two designed new courses, used ones that already existed and opened the program with a focus on product design. Students could enter the program through the College of Engineering, where it now falls under the umbrella of the mechanical engineering department, or through the psychology department in liberal arts.

The program opened to its first group of students in 1972. Today, the program includes 15 core courses that cover material ranging from the way the brain processes stimuli from the sensory organs to how human behavior affects design criteria and specifications for everything from a voting booth to a jet fighter cockpit.

The field of engineering psychology was a fortuitous byproduct of research done during World War II. Engineers at the time were creating faster and faster aircraft and psychologists were supplying the pilots, but the combination of the two created unforeseen problems. Planes were crashing, and pilots were having trouble landing aircraft. “People began to realize that engineers had to learn something about human capabilities,” Kreifeldt says. “People have limitations just like materials have limitations. Those have to be learned and designed into the system.”

When the war ended, the interest in engineering psychology was gradually channeled into the consumer area. The focus was on designing new products as well as improving the vast array of products already available in an effort to make them as user-friendly and commercially successful as possible. The Tufts program was the first to direct this concentration toward consumer products, and co-founder Kreifeldt practiced what he preached. While teaching at Tufts in the early ’70s, he and colleague Percy Hills developed the angled Reach toothbrush, a hugely successful product that used engineering psychology principles to create a more effective ergonomic design.

The applications of engineering psychology are endless. “Think about the number of times you go into a new hotel and you can’t figure out how to use the shower,” engineering psychology professor Michael Matthews points out. “You turn on what you think is hot water, and you get cold water instead. It shouldn’t be that way.” He adds, “When you’re an engineering psychologist, you can’t walk out the door without seeing something wrong in almost everything you look at.”

Matthews is in charge of the engineering psychology program at West Point, one of five majors in the department of behavioral sciences and leadership. The goal of the program, like all others at West Point, is a little different than ones offered at places like Tufts and Georgia Tech: West Point’s goal is to help produce good leaders of soldiers. That can come, Matthews says, not only by knowing something about military history and strategy and tactics but also by learning about human factors and how they relate to a “technologically rich organization”—the U.S. Army.

Matthews uses the example of how designing digital technology for the military requires understanding the limitations of the humans who will use it in terms of factors like the nervous-sensory system and working memory capacity. “Computer engineers can develop a display on a flat-panel screen with an unbelievable array of information,” Matthews explains. “For the army, that could include location of the enemy, his strength, how much ammunition you have left, how much fuel is available, the state of your troops—I could go on and on.” The trouble, he says, is that usually, a human can only successfully manage a limited amount of information. How can the information be presented so it doesn’t overwhelm the commander’s cognitive capacity? The answer brings in an array of principles taught in Matthews’ courses that will affect the design and use of the device, including the number of icons on the screen, their placement and the specific information they convey.

One of the courses that West Point offers is Engineering Psychology in Design. Students are asked to take an existing system and redesign it based on research they gather and then test what they have improved. One project involved redesigning a pump used in hospitals to drain fluids from a patient’s knee. The improved device the cadets created followed extensive behavioral observation, watching and speaking to the nurses and doctors who used it and figuring out what worked well and what didn’t. “You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Matthews says. “You want to retain the good aspects and fix the things that don’t work well.”

Other challenges led to a patent for a new camouflage pattern for military gear and personnel—work that involved, according to collaborator Tim O’Neill, “principles derived from Blumian geometry for description of biological form, event perception work from the Scandinavian neo-Gestalt school and even from a 1952 paper by Alan Turing on chemical morphogenesis of animal coloration. This is about as eclectic as it gets.” A patent for a computer monitor that ground controllers will use as they “fly” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that cadets worked on is also in the offing.

Case Study

Dan Hannon, adjunct professor in Tufts’ engineering psychology program, employs a similar hands-on approach in his methodology course, where he teaches students how to gather information from people in surveys, questionnaires and focus groups that would then go into modifying or improving a design. Hannon divides the class into groups of four or five students, who then become a design team. “Basically, they work as a company responding to a request for a proposal,” Hannon explains. One recent assignment was to design an element of a national healthcare record system based on President Bush’s 2004 national directive for such a database within the next decade. Such a large undertaking, as Hannon points out, involves many human factor implications: which type of display would be best for different users, such as doctors, nurses and patients; how to control who has access to what information; and whether patients should be able to access information over the Internet through special terminals in doctor’s offices.

Every design team had to take a piece of that problem and use the techniques they learned in class to gather information, generate a prototype, test it out and report on it. Some students even explored the use of embedding chips in a person’s skin to record patient information in the event of an emergency. “I’m not the professor but the sponsor of the research,” Hannon says. “When you’re out working, you don’t have a professor standing there saying what is right or wrong. Sometimes the students ask me questions and I put on my other hat and say ‘I don’t know—that’s why I hired you.’”

Students who study engineering psychology appear to be drawn to the field by its mixture of people and technology. Allison Yale, who graduated from the engineering psychology program at Tufts in May 2005, said it took just one course in the field to convince her that was what she wanted to study: “I knew I wanted to be an engineer because I was good in math and science,” the 22-year-old says. “I took an introduction class in second semester of freshman year, an introduction to engineering psychology. It talked about people, it talked about design. It seemed like a kind of people person’s engineering. After that class I couldn’t stop looking at things that way—why is this like that, why is that designed in that way.” Amy Rodriguez, a senior in engineering psychology at West Point, says, “I love studying humans—how they are wired, how they behave, how they function, and I thought that seeing this in conjunction with the systems they use would be both useful and insightful.” She says the broad nature of the field of engineering psychology is also one of its appeals.

More than 30 years after Tufts opened the first engineering psychology major, there are still only a handful of universities that provide the option. Part of the reason may be that the field is not well-understood by outsiders. There is no simple, agreed-upon definition that delineates how engineering psychology differs, if at all, from the field of human factors engineering. Some in academia and industry use the two terms interchangeably. Others state that human factors engineering is actually a much broader field that also includes such areas as biomechanics and anthropometry, the study of the measurement of bone, muscle and fat in the human body.

Kreifeldt figures the reason is more the result of three simple realities: dedication, money and acceptance. “Granting degrees or even transcripts in a field outside the established ones is difficult for most institutions. It takes a completely dedicated person to head the effort, which also includes establishing new courses—and finding and hiring faculty to teach them. The money aspect alone is enough to stop it.” In addition, he says, engineering psychology is often seen as “too soft” for engineering schools and “too applied” for psychology departments. “It is often more tolerated than encouraged.”

Still, despite its low profile, Kreifeldt believes the need for engineering psychologists will continue to grow. “A lot of companies are realizing that we can basically all do the same technology. What is going to separate one company from the next is how well people can use those products.” His words are echoed by Arthur Dan Fisk, professor and coordinator of engineering psychology at Georgia Tech: “With the complexity of technology, it becomes more and more important to answer not only what can we do with technology but, from a user’s perspective, what should we do? That’s what engineering psychology is all about.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.


A NEW ERA - By Corinna Wu
A POWERFUL FORCE - By Alice Daniel
A MIND FOR DESIGN - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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REFRACTIONS: Celebrating Bicentennials - By Henry Petroski
A BROADER PERSPECTIVE - Some engineering students manage to squeeze study abroad into their tight schedules. - By Margaret Loftus
TEACHING: A Push for Participation - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
BOOK REVIEW: The Engine That Soared - By Robin Tatu
ON CAMPUS: Fuel for Thought - By Lynne Shallcross
LAST WORD: In Search of a Sputnik Moment - By Daniel Mark Fogel


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