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Who needs Cognitive Systems Engineering?

September 7, 2007

Every month or two I host an informal brown bag lunch about cognitive systems engineering – a design approach aimed at improving cognitive work by guiding the system features by the cognitive processes they need to support.

Yesterday (Weds., September 5) we met to talk about what might go into a workshop on CSE. Janet Miller and Bonnie Wilkinson from the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory came over, along with Marv Dainoff, the past President of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Steve Deal, a systems engineer who has his own small company, Gavan Lintern from General Dynamics, Mike Mueller from the Air Force Institute of Technology. We were joined by my Klein Associates colleagues Sterling Wiggins and Cindy Dominguez.

One topic that dominated our discussion was why would people such as systems engineers and program managers be interested in a CSE workshop? Dainoff cited one study that showed that only 15% of software development efforts are successful. The primary reasons for failures are a failure to specify the requirements correctly, and a failure to adequately include the human in the considerations. This seems like a sufficient reason to want to learn how to incorporate CSE into design.

Steve Deal offered another reason. From his experience in system design, cognition is the only piece that gets us to the next level of performance.

Another comment was that you need CSE to understand the cognitive requirements of the work. As Bonnie put it, you have to see the cognition that is embedded in the work activities.

Sterling suggested that CSE is really needed to help the system designers perform tradeoffs.

Mike noted that in many cases you can avoid expensive system features just by clarifying the cognitive requirements of the job.

And I argued that if you are designing a system, particularly a type of information technology, you are doing it to help people make better decisions and to do a better job of making sense of events. How do you understand what kinds of decisions, what kinds of sensemaking challenges, what kinds of strategies people use, what kinds of errors they make, except by doing some form of CSE?

So we succeeded in convincing ourselves that what we are doing is important. We’ll see if this has any impact on others

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