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Cognitive Ergonomics 101: Improving Mental Performance

Wednesday, January 07, 2009
By Anne Kramer

There are three domains of ergonomics: physical, cognitive, and organizational. Although the former is the most widely known, cognitive ergonomics is a burgeoning field whose relevance is rapidly growing.

Cognitive ergonomics is essentially ergonomics of mental processes. The focus is creating a balance between human cognitive abilities and limitations, and the machine, task, and environment. Thus cognitive ergonomics addresses issues like perception, reasoning, memory, and motor response, as they relate to interacting with a given system. The cognitive ergonomist analyzes the work environment in the following domains:

  • Mental workload
  • Skilled performance
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Human reliability
  • Work stress
  • Training
In modern industries, the relevance of cognitive ergonomics is rapidly increasing, because human performance must now be sustained in work environments where employees work under time constraints, events are difficult to predict, and multiple simultaneous goals might conflict.

The ultimate goal of cognitive ergonomics is better performance and a reduction in human error. As automation grows more common in the workplace, the user friendliness of these systems gains importance. Emphasis is therefore placed on safety and quality, since automation increases operator decision making along with monitoring requirements, so errors and accidents are more likely. Practical applications of cognitive ergonomics are varied:

  • User-centered design of software interfaces and automated systems

  • Design of signs to ensure comprehension and compliance

  • Work redesign to manage cognitive workload and increase human reliability

  • Layout of environments like cockpits and nuclear power plant control rooms, so it is exceedingly difficult to make catastrophic errors
Adaptations depend on the specific work environment. In the case of nuclear power plant control stations, for instance, every possible aspect of the workstation must function to promote usability and clarity, which are critical to safety. The instrument displays are particularly important, and cognitive ergonomics dictates several modifications.

  • Appropriate lighting and glare reduction decreases the risk of reading errors.

  • Making controls consistent in every situation makes it easier for employees to react appropriately in an emergency.

  • A system for suppressing unimportant alarms if more important ones are sounding, allows employees to respond first to the most critical situations.
A secondary application of cognitive ergonomics is product design. Although a poorly designed product may not directly cause accident or injury, it may lead to pain. The resulting dissatisfaction with the product could cause business failure if it is sufficiently widespread. Therefore many designers and engineers keep these principals in mind when designing new products. This is an offshoot of cognitive ergonomics known as neuroergonomics or engineering psychology.

As the workplace evolves to rely more heavily upon automated systems, cognitive ergonomics will take on an increasingly more significant role in the design of both workplaces and products.

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