Research projects

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The research activities of the Cognitive Ergonomics are currently supported by four research grants obtained from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF):

  • Increasing the effectiveness of usability testing: the role of testing method, cultural background and system features beyond usability (No: 100014/140359)
  • Effectiveness of explicit and implicit adaptive automation under different work stressors (No: 100014/134566)
  • Human-centred design and evaluation (NCCR-IM2: Interactive multimodal information management)
  • Designing automation for visual ipection tasks: influence of support system properities and work design factors (No: 100019_149184/1)

The following SNSF research projects were already completed:

  • The utility of usability tests: An examination of factors that influence test outcomes (No: 100014/122490)
  • Adaptive automation and operator state in complex work environments (No: 10014/116012)

Increasing the effectiveness of usability testing: the role of testing method, cultural background and system features beyond usability

Project description

Extending the work of a preceding SNSF-project, the project focuses on the question of how the utility of usability tests can be improved further. While there is little doubt that usability testing is an effective product evaluation method, there are a number of factors, which may have an undesirable impact on test outcomes and hence may reduce the effectiveness of usability tests. Therefore, these factors are to be empirically examined and the degree of their influence is to be determined. The factors are related to three main areas. The first area is concerned with methodological issues of usability testing. This includes the question of whether lab-based testing and single-session testing is of equivalent value as the more realistic testing conditions of field-based testing and multiple-session testing. The second area addresses the influence of cultural background on the outcomes of usability tests. For example, it is unclear how difference between cultures in voicing criticism affects data in usability testing that are based on subjective user feedback. The third area is concerned with the influence of product characteristics such as brand and visual as well as non-visual aesthetic features. In addition to the scientific implications of the work, the results of the project are also expected to provide designers and practitioners with recommendations about important issues to be considered during usability testing.

Principal investigator

Prof. Juergen Sauer

Project staff

M.Sc. Sven Schmutz

Dr Andreas Sonderegger

Duration of project

July 2012 - June 2015

Effectiveness of explicit and implicit adaptive automation under different work stressors

Project description

Building on the work of a preceding SNSF-project, this project is concerned with the human-centred design of highly automated technology. Such automated technical systems may be found in industry (e.g. chemical plants) but also in non-work systems (e.g. parking assist system in car, central heating system). With a view to matching workload levels to the needs of the human operator, new forms of automation design are evaluated in a series of lab-based experiments, using a computer-based simulation of a highly automated process control system that was modelled on a spacecraft's life support system. The work involves examining different ways of assigning tasks between the human operator and the technical system, which focuses on the question whether the ultimate decision authority should be given to the operator or to the machine. For example, the decision when a task is given to or taken away from the operator may be based on current performance levels of the operator rather than the operator's preference. The advantages and disadvantages of the different forms of automation design are empirically evaluated under routine conditions but also under higher levels of operator stress (e.g., exposure to noise, sleep deprivation).

Principal investigator

Prof. Juergen Sauer

Project staff

Dr Alain Chavaillaz

Duration of project

October 2011 - September 2014

Human-centred design and evaluation (NCCR-IM2: Interactive Multimodal Information Management)

Project description

The project is concerned with the evaluation of multi-modal technologies that have been developed in the IM2-NCCR (e.g., Communication board). This is achieved by conducting usability tests with prospective product users. The usability tests are carried out under highly controlled conditions in the laboratory but also in the field to take into account the wider usage context of the product user. The effects of usability testing are measured at multiple levels: user performance, user satisfaction, psychophysiology, and emotion. Furthermore, the project addresses several methodological questions, such as the appropriateness of employing reduced fidelity prototypes to model multi-modal technologies (e.g., paper prototypes, mock-ups). The use of reduced fidelity simulations is widespread in product development but little is known about the suitability of these methods in this context. The influence of product aesthetics on user reactions and behaviour is also examined. Finally, the outcomes of a usability test may also be influenced by user characteristics (e.g., self-efficacy), of which the impact on test outcomes is also determined.

Principal investigator

Prof. Juergen Sauer

Project staff

Dr Andreas Sonderegger

Duration of project

January 2010 - December 2013

Designing automation for visual inspection tasks

Project description

The project is concerned with the design of automation to support operators in visual inspection tasks (e.g., quality control in manufacturing, medical diagnoses, and airport security). While these issues have attracted increasing interest in psychological research, the potential benefits of automation in visual inspection have not been fully reaped. The project aims to examine whether modern concepts of automation design (e.g., adaptable automation) can also be introduced to a domain requiring high levels of vivilance such as luggage screening. Furthermore, it aims to examine the implications of introducing higher levels of automation for rest breaks and training design. A purpose-built simulation will be developed to model the work environment of luggage screening officers. This simulation environment will be able to model different automation modes (e.g. no automatic support, system informs about presence of target, system indicates location of target) and will be suitable for use in lab-based work as well as in field research. A series of experiments are envisaged to examine the effects of providing different forms of automatic support to the operator, in combination with pertinent work design issues surrounding visual inspection tasks (e.g. rest break, training). While a central outcome variable of the reserch refers to operator performance (notably accuracy and speed in target detection), the measurement of eye movements will provide data about the operators' visual search behavior as an important complementary measure. Further measures include automation reliance, trust in automation, and subjective workload. The findings are expected to contribute to the design of suppert systems in the context of airport security and other visual inspection tasks.

Principal investigator

Prof. Juergen Sauer

Project staff

Dr Alain Chavaillaz

Duration of project

March 2014 - Februrary 2017

Completed SNSF research projects

 The utility of usability tests: An examination of factors that influence test outcomes

 Project description

This project is concerned with the utility of usability tests and how their effectiveness can be improved. While usability tests are undoubtedly helpful in identifying weaknesses in product design, there is little systematic research work examining factors that influence test outcomes. A better understanding of the influence of these factors would allow us to increase the effectiveness of usability tests. There are a number of factors that may impair the reliability and validity of usability tests, ranging from the presence of test observers to the kind of prototype being used. We have developed a model, termed the Four-Factor Framework of Contextual Fidelity, to determine the extent to which the outcomes of usability tests are influenced by various elements of the testing situation.This Four-Factor Framework of Contextual Fidelity guides the research programme, which comprises a series of studies that evaluate the influence of the four general factors (user, environment, task, technical system). Of particular interest are the elements prototype fidelity, product aesthetics and observer presence for the outcome of usability tests. The research is carried out with typical interactive consumer products (e.g., mobile phone, digital camera), including replications of test scenarios with a product to determine the generalisability of the findings. Furthermore, we plan to compare the pattern of effects for summative and formative evaluation. Finally, we will examine the transferability of the findings from the domain of consumer products to a work context. The findings of the research project will provide guidance to designers and usability practitioners about issues to be considered when conducting usability tests.

Principal investigator

Prof.  Juergen Sauer

Project staff

Lic.phil. Andreas Uebelbacher

Duration of project

January 2009 - February 2012 

Adaptive automation and operator state in complex work environments

Project description

The project examines different ways of supporting humans working with complex technical systems (e.g., process control in chemical industry). Adaptive automation can be used as a means to reduce workload levels of the human operator during periods of overload by allocating tasks currently under the control of the operator to the machine. An important question refers to what is the best method to determine when a task should be allocated from the human to the machine, and vice versa. Several methods have been discussed in the research literature. For example, the human operator decides when to change the allocation of a task (i.e. explicit task allocation). Alternatively, the machine decides when to reallocate a task on the basis of operator performance or other criteria (i.e. implicit task allocation). The project investigates the advantages and disadvantages of each method in a series of empirical studies under different working conditions (e.g., exposure to stressors such as noise, routine work activities). A computer-simulated process control environment is employed in the empirical research programme. It is expected that the findings of this work will provide some guidance to system designers of which task allocation method should be implemented in real work environments under different working conditions (e.g., stress).

Principal investigator

Prof. Juergen Sauer

Project staff

Dr Chung-Shan Kao

Dr Peter Nickel

Duration of project

January 2008 - June 2011

Departement für Psychologie - R. Faucigny 2 - 1700 Freiburg - Tel +41 26 / 300 7620 - psychologie [at] unifr.ch   -   Swiss University