IST researchers' book teaches how to build better complex systems interfaces

March 24, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Last month, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars to complete a semiautonomous mission seeking evidence of past life. With its Earth-based operators implementing action plans and monitoring the system for issues, how can the rover’s designers be sure it can be successfully navigated by humans from nearly 150 million miles away?

A similar but fictitious scenario is explored in a new book by researchers at the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology. “Building Better Interfaces for Remote Autonomous Systems: An Introduction for Systems Engineers” is a guide that provides foundational knowledge for designing the interfaces of complex systems operated by humans.

The open access book, released in February, was co-authored by Jacob Oury, doctoral student of information sciences and technology, and Frank Ritter, professor of information sciences and technology.

The authors present a broad review of important design frameworks and concepts of human-computer interaction so that systems engineers can make better decisions and better interfaces. They use, among other examples, a fictitious case study of a manned trip to Mars. In the hypothetical mission, astronauts deploy a semiautonomous system to search for water on the planet. Then, once activated, humans on Earth take over operations for 10 years. The authors outline scenarios in which crucial components of the system design could be flawed if the engineer does not account for how human operators will interact with it.

“The massive, complex systems we are building today can do incredible things; one such system is currently roaming around Mars nearly 20 light-minutes away,” said Oury. “However, it doesn’t matter how many times you test the software, ensure the alarms work and confirm the fail-safes if the operator fails to receive and understand the signals conveying critical information.”

The same concept applies to real-world critical systems in which failure could lead to destruction or loss of life — for example, air traffic control, 911 emergency call centers and nuclear power plants.

“When an operator accidentally double-clicks and sends out a statewide alert of an imminent nuclear attack, that’s a failure of user-centered design,” said Oury. “Failing to realize that the human operator will make mistakes is just as bad as failing to account for a component’s safe operating temperature. Both cause system failure, and this book aims to show engineers how and why this is the case.”

Drawing on their expertise in cognitive psychology and human-computer interaction, the authors hope that the book will help reiterate to engineers that the people who operate systems may think and interact with systems differently than engineers do. 

“It’s not about making the user enjoy using the system per se; it is about creating systems that are reliable at every single level and that’s something that every engineer should aspire to,” said Oury.

He concluded, “We know that this book could never replace an experienced usability engineer; instead, this book helps highly-specialized programmers, team managers and systems engineers begin to understand how to build systems that are compatible with the humans that use them. This book teaches experts in other subjects how to think about complex systems with the user in mind.”

Oury and Ritter’s work was funded by L3Harris Technologies.

The open access book was published as a SpringerBrief in Human-Computer Interaction, which present concise research within the fast growing, multidisciplinary field of HCI. A copy of the book can be downloaded here.

Last Updated March 31, 2021