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HFES 2017, Austin – Retrospective

I’m fresh back from a long week at the 2017 Human Factors & Ergonomics Society annual meeting.

This was my 6th HFES, and I’m glad to say one of the best ones yet. I enjoyed it much more than last year, largely because I actually saw the conference instead of spending 48 hours competing in the UX Day Guerilla Usability Challenge. As always, I loved every minute visiting Austin, though I saw little of it due to the usual breakneck conference pace.

On a personal level, it did my heart good to see the number of Texas Aggies representing the study chapter and to see us claim our first gold status (Whoop!).

What follows is not an attempt to summarize my entire experience. Instead, I’m providing a snapshot of the most noticeable points and my questions involved. If I have any notable asides, I will make sure to indicate them with blue text. I also want to avoid trying to write entire summary essays, so the format will consist of a loose bullet-point arrangement.

If you’re interested in hearing more from another perspective, please check out the Human Factors Cast bonus episodes for HFES ’17.

Plenary Panels

The President’s Address

Speaker: Nancy Cooke, HFES President, Arizona State University

Complexity, the Grand Challenges, and Focusing on the HSI Problems. [Predator Control Panels]

  • The National Academies of Engineering’s (NAE) grand challenges address the largest societal needs and are complex challenges
  • If you think that HSI doesn’t have a role in the challenge, you need to look closer
    • Case in point: Last year, when Don Norman was presented the President’s Service award, then-president Bill Marras discussed the Grand Challenges he felt the society could best contribute to. Norman immediately dedicated his speech to areas which he felt Dr. Marras had overlooked, such as cancer research. 
  • If it involves the complex interaction with people, we can contribute
  • We need to be “Problem Focused”, not “Solution Focused”. It’s too easy to be fixated on the individual approaches and technologies.
  • Example: Predator drone control station
    • Contains no decision support systems
    • 21 button presses to engage auto-pilot
  • Example: Medellin, Colombia, former “murder capital of the world”, a “Tale of Two Cities”
    • Built along a mountain, the established, thriving component is in the center, with new generations building in successively expanding outskirts. To move from one area to another took 2 hours.
    • Revitalization effort:
      • Built schools, museums, and art projects
      • Coordinated with local communities, including gangs, to develop community pride and investment
      • Even built a series of escalators to improve transportation, dropping a 2 hour commute to 15 minutes, literally connecting the community
    • Personal Note: if you look up Medellin in Wikipedia, there’s significant space dedicated to chronicling the years of violence, but the rapid improvement of the city is a single sentence, with no explanation as to why. It’s easier to direct public focus and outrage to problems, but significant improvements, especially the long processes behind them, frequently miss attention.

Human Systems Integration & Policing


  • Ronald L. Davis, Principle, 21st Century Policing,  former Executive Director of the President’s Task force on 21st Century Policing
  • Susan Ballou, Program Manager, Forensic Science in the Law Enforcement Standards Office, National Institue of Standards & Technology (NIST)

For brevity’s sake, I’m combining Tuesday morning’s invited address and Wednesday morning’s plenary panel, as Ronald Davis was the speaker for the former.

Highlights from Susan Ballou:

  • Interesting: NIST has the distinction of being the nation’s first crime lab
  • In the case of forensics, or the legal evaluation of evidence, NIST helps set the basis of what is or isn’t reliable for evidence standards.
  • No-one has really established how juries evaluate the veracity of information provided. Additionally, we don’t know whether their assessment of the relative authority of experts is at all consistent.
  • With this uncertainty, it is difficult to train forensic scientists to be both reliable and legally persuasive

Highlights from Ronald L. Davis:

  • Community policing is a human systems integration problem
  • We need policing reform, not police reform. As Deming observed, 85% of errors are system related, while only 15% are worker related.
    • The “bad apple” concept doesn’t work and only hardens individual police commitment to their culture. (This should be expected, in line with the science on persuasion and how unreliable direct confrontation is, especially when there is a concern for legal liability)
  • 16,000+ independent law enforcement agencies, the majority of which have less than 50 police officers
    • No centralized way to establish change. Individual police departments must persuasively demonstrate improvements. (There may be value in creating a voluntary police standards organization, if the largest police departments can agree on a set of best practices)
  • Is policing a profession or a vocation? A profession has reliable standards of practice.
  • “We say that the system is broken, but the truth is harder: the system is doing what it was designed to”. So much of policing is a hold-over from policies developed in the 30’s and 40’s to ensure compliance to intentionally unequal laws, such as Jim Crow.
  • What is the set goal of our justice system? Is it a law enforcement focus, driven to put the most criminals in jail as possible? Is it the expansion of justice to ensure safety in our community?
    • The 90’s era of policing policy is easy to sell, as it focuses on looking tough, but we have proven that what it results in is a full jail system and widespread inequality.
  • What ways can we possibly contribute to the solution?:
    • We need a human systems analysis of what an ideal community policing department would look like if we built it from the ground up.
    • Civilianizing policing is potentially helpful. Police spend significant time just taking reports and handling basic compliance and fines. These roles aren’t high risk or particularly engaging for police and may be better handled by clerks, freeing police to handle more of the jobs they actually joined the force to perform.
    • HFE needs an effective taxonomy policing-related problems. We’re not domain experts and clearly defined challenges drive research initiatives.

What do you think? What roles can HSI take in ensuring a more just and effective society?

Did you also get to see the panels and feel like I distinctly left something out? Feel free to add to the discussion in the comments!

Photo Credit: Nan Palmero; Artist: Bradford Maxfield. License CC BY 2.0.

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