Last week I attended the Ergonomics Society’s 60th anniversary conference. I’m aware that a lot of people don’t understand what the term ergonomics means so here’s a definition I’ve found for you:
“Ergonomics and human factors use knowledge of human abilities and limitations to design systems, organizations, jobs, machines, tools, and consumer products for safe, efficient, and comfortable human use.”
So I hope you can see that having a good knowledge of ergonomics enables a person to design and evaluate something which is easy to use.
Anyway, back to the conference. This year was my third visit to the Ergonomics conference. My first two were in 2004 and 2006 when I was a student. Basically, in order to attend the event for free I volunteered to help run the event as a member of the secretariat. We set up the rooms, signage, general background stuff that helps the conference to run smoothly and we also time the sessions so the speakers don’t overrun. The days are really long but it is fun to do and the networking opportunities are brilliant. I saw an article in the Ergonomist magazine asking for help from past secretariat to run the 60th anniversary conference this year, so I thought ‘hell why not I always enjoy it’ then I was made redundant so it all fitted together rather nicely in the end!
I made it down to London on Tuesday afternoon, checked into the Premier Inn (who btw lost my business cards so unfortunately I had none to hand out at the conference…) and made my way to the conference venue to help set up, which I have to say was very impressive this year. That evening all the delegates arrived at the venue for the welcome reception and drinks. I thought it went really well and I met some very interesting people. It finished pretty late so I headed back to the hotel afterwards though the more hardcore stayed up. They suffered the next day though! We all had an 8am start on the registration desk and it was BUSY!
This year differed to previous years in that sessions were over a shorter number of days and were condensed into 15 minute presentations with 5 minutes of questions. This proved quite tricky for a lot of presenters but we were there with our warning cards to keep them to time!
At the end of the first day we were all pretty tired as it is always the most hectic. But everything thankfully ran smoothly and we headed back to the hotel to get changed for the gala dinner. The food this year was amazing. My only complaint would be the minute size of the yorkshire pudding they served with the beef. It must have only been about 2cm in diameter! I wouldn’t have thought it was physically possible to make them that small…
The following day I had a hard choice to make… do I attend the road transport session and learn all about motorcycle ergonomics (sounds exciting doesn’t it?) or seeing as nuclear is a massive area for ergonomics do I attend the Human Factors Integration session? I decided to learn more about the nuclear side, especially as Neville Stanton was presenting and I’ve not seen him present before. I’ll admit some of this went completely over my head, but it was really interesting to learn how missions are planned and how ergonomics effects the soldiers involved.
I also enjoyed Ian Hamilton’s quite controversial talk on human factors where he highlighted the differences between those in industry and those in research and how the society and university courses cater (or rather don’t) for these differences. He made the interesting point that if you are going to work in industry, university courses don’t always teach you all the knowledge/skills you need. To some extent I agree with this. I knew I would be joining industry after university so in hindsight there was no need for me to suffer all those hellish hours of SPSS because in industry most people use excel to record their data. I would have been better doing a module such as ‘how to sell usability to business’ or a design module to apply some of the principles and see things from another angle. I would actually like to see a course which is more focussed towards those not wanting to do academic research afterwards, but as ergonomics is still such a small area I don’t think we can expect to see this happening for some time yet.
It is quite telling that my favourite module at university was ergonomics and it was taught by someone who worked in that profession day-to-day when he wasn’t teaching us. I thrived on his ability to tell us of practical applications rather than present abstract theories. He also had a passion and quickness about him that was missing from some of our other lecturers who were used to the slower academic lifestyle 😉
Overall, the conference went extremely well. I hope in the future we receive more visitors from industry and that people who aren’t necessarily trained in ergonomics can come and appreciate the conference just as much as those who are specialists in the field.