Maybe not with people, but certainly your interactions with computers, cameras, cars, software, cell phones, websites, wrappers, games, guns, power tools, pants, chairs, stairs, screens, shows, sports equipment and so on were designed. Because technologies affect society, it is worthwhile to be aware of how they are designed to work with—or in failures, against—people. People may one day include posthumans.
To avoid confusion I will define “posthuman” as it applies to this article. First, a quote from the IEET definition:
Posthumans could be a symbiosis of human and artificial intelligence, or uploaded consciousnesses, or the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound technological augmentations to a biological human, i.e. a cyborg. Some examples of the latter are redesigning the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, life extension therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, cognitive enhancement drugs, wearable or implanted computers, and cognitive techniques.
Another point of view would describe a posthuman as somebody who is outside of the normal ranges of human capacities. The “post” qualification may be due to small out-of-bounds differences in many capacities or a huge difference in only one capacity. This is the point of view that is particularly relevant to the discipline of human factors.
“Human factors” is a term that covers both the science of human properties (cognitive and physical) and applying this science for design and development. HCI (human-computer interaction), HRI (human-robot interaction), and human-automation interaction are all interaction design disciplines which could be considered as specializations of human factors engineering.
Even before considering how posthumans might affect these disciplines, you should already care about human factors and interaction design. Here are a few reasons why:
Only a small segment of society has a chance (or is trained) to use a technology that provides unusable interfaces and/or bad user experiences.
Ignorance of human factors, poor interface design, etc. can cause major accidents; likewise good use of human factors can prevent major accidents.
Good interfaces and user experiences can help a product or type of product become mega-popular, which causes more sociocultural impact than a product nobody buys.
Human factors uses knowledge of human cognitive psychology, which can be used to design interfaces that influence human minds.
Human Factors Meets Posthumans
The amount of change in the usability guidelines is much less than the change in Web technology during the same period. The reason usability changes more slowly is that it mainly derives from the characteristics of human behavior, which is remarkably constant. After all, we don’t get bigger brains as the years go by.
This sound statement from the king of usability, Jakob Nielson (see “Usability makes business sense”), will no longer be true when users no longer have human behavior.
Historically, two of the most influential technologies to human factors were aviation and computing. As impressive and world-changing as those were, posthuman technology will have even more impact. Since posthuman technology will create new cognitive and physical capacities, it will break the limits of human factors so much that the discipline will have to change significantly—possibly mutating into what one might call “posthuman factors.”
Some Existing Problems
Not only will human factors and related disciplines have to change or spawn new disciplines to handle the new and/or altered abilities of enhanced persons, but they also have to deal with various problems already existing today. Here are three current human factors and interaction design problems to consider:
1. The first issue is accounting for changes due to adoption of the technology being introduced . Technologies often change the systems they are introduced in to—and often in surprising ways. System changes include: new ways to work, new tempos of work, more complexities, new adaptations of users to the technology, new types of failures, etc. We live in a time of rapid technological change. Thus it is also a time of rapid system change.
Posthumans will amplify this problem by adding whole new dimensions of different types and ranges of mental and physical capacities.
One counterargument against the increasing difficulty of predicting technology change—with posthumans in the mix—is that we might have more knowledge of how the posthuman minds work. One of the limitations of modeling or observing an interaction is that the internal mechanisms of the human behavior are largely unknown . But, we will know most of the internal mechanisms of cognitive enhancements and completely-artificial cognitive architectures. Also, human psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, etc. will presumable keep marching forward so we should know more about human minds in the future as well.
(Post)human factors, however, will need to be equipped with sufficiently advanced tools for modeling and predicting behavior in a particular system even if the designs of the cognitive enhancements and architectures are known. And as anybody who has observed emergent behavior should suspect, there will probably still be severe limits in practical situations of trying to predict the outcome of a technology introduction.
2. The second issue is the “dialectic between tradition and transcendence” (a phrase attributed to Pelle Ehn) . Designers can fix small problems, but designing a product that will significantly change how a user conducts an activity is much more difficult. It is just as difficult for the user to know what major change would help them out. And then even if the new technology exists, a lot of people won’t comprehend how it can improve anything beyond the traditional methods.
Would posthumans inherently solve this problem by having wider adaptive potential? I can’t answer that, but it would certainly depend on the particular posthuman user. The inclinations for tradition vs. transcendence could have more variation in a posthuman group of users. Designers may have to increase the amount of customization and/or automatic adjustments in products—or shrink the target group for each product to specific bandwidths of mental and physical capacities in the posthuman spectrum. A groundbreaking new tool for human users could be irrelevant to a lot of posthuman users.
3. There is a point of view that technology drives innovations as opposed to needs (see a rebuttal here), and therefore design only works for incremental changes. Basically these innovations would be cases of extremely open-ended problem spaces, i.e. the technologists have no clue how the users will use it. This has been the case, for example, with many kinds of general purpose robots.
This applies to posthumans because both the posthuman technology, such as cognitive enhancements, and the products for posthumans to interact with might be major innovations. These technology-based innovations will have many hurdles to become not only products, but useful products, and many will fail or disappear along the way.
Of course, if this technology-first view is incorrect, then posthuman-related needs and opportunities can drive research and technology, and posthuman factors and interaction design can create major innovations.
 Woods, David, and Dekker, Sidney, “Anticipating the effects of technological change: a new era of dynamics for human factors,” Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, vol. 1, no. 3, pp.272-282, 2000.
 Rouse, William B., Systems Engineering Models of Human-Machine Interaction. New York: Elsevier North Holland, 1980, pp.129-132.
 Preece, Jennifer, “Interview with Terry Winograd” in Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction. New York: Wiley, 2002, p.71.
Samuel H. Kenyon is a lead software engineer at iRobot Corp. in Massachusetts, where he develops mobile robots and human-robot interfaces. In addition, he researches interfaces and cognitive architectures, especially involving emotions, learning, common sense, and collaboration. He has a B.S. from Northeastern University.
(3) Comments •
(7478) Hits •