Lighting the fires of curiosity

Ian Florance meets Rob Hutton, who is involved in the British Psychological Society’s Psychological Government Programme. They also discuss, among other things, the overlapping applications of human factors/ergonomics and psychology.

Rob is clearly fascinated by ideas; he talks about them with obvious relish. Our first topic was the Psychological Government Programme. ‘Its aim is to look at how psychology can inform government decision-making; to identify the key overlap between the knowledge we have about human behaviour and the responsibilities of government to develop effective national policies. It will address the psychology and behaviours of the people affected by these policies, as well as the psychology and behavioural aspects which influence how those policies are made and how effectively they address national concerns.’

On a personal level, Rob is ‘not a particularly political person’, but he is ‘very interested in good decision-making. The work I do for the MOD with soldiers, sailors, airmen and senior military personnel involves looking at how issues like metacognition and critical thinking influence strategic thinking; that seems to have relevance and application when looking at thinking and decision-making in a national government context.’

People first
The day after interviewing him, Rob sent me a description of the initiative sent out by Saskia Perriard-Abdoh who is the British Psychological Society’s programme lead. An excerpt reads: ‘Policies fail and governments don’t get elected if they don’t connect with the people they are meant to serve. Addressing questions such as what policies can lead to rebuilding trust, tackling isolation and fostering strong relationships are the first steps towards building a good society. These are thorny subjects without easy answers, but thankfully psychology has been thinking about them for decades.’

The Programme, it goes on to say, looks to identify, develop and deliver ‘an approach to policy-making which understands our psychology and the psychology of those we serve so that we can deliver effective policy-solutions which put people first.’

‘I got involved because I think I bring a unique perspective from the interface of theory and practice. I work with clients to understand how to unpack what their key work challenges are: examples include human and technology system interaction as well as how key decisions are made. We then figure out what interventions will improve these areas and support better performance. Good decision-making in the context of political policy is a particular challenge. You can’t develop hard and fast rules; it’s a question of managing complexity.’

Which brings us to what Rob feels is his contribution to the programme. This will draw on a degree in psychology, a postgraduate degree in Human Factors and I/O psychology, then work in both human factors and psychology roles. He’s taught – and still teaches – in universities and has worked in well-known organisations such as BAE Systems. He is presently director of Trimetis Ltd ( which was five years old on the day Rob and I talked) based in Bristol. What does the company do?

Accurate, intuitive decision-making
‘There are four of us (five in July) undertaking research and consultancy. We work in sectors such as defence and security as well as getting involved in other government and non-government organisations: healthcare incident investigation is an example. We describe ourselves as combining human factors, ergonomics and psychology, supporting designers who develop user interfaces, and managers responsible for developing less-technology-based interventions to improve cognitive work. Our work includes putting work systems together, designing processes and in the training and education of users. We try to understand the cognitive demands of a task.’

‘The classic way of looking at human decision-making is that it’s based on a choice between options. But where you’re in a complex situation, requiring a large number of decisions in a rapidly changing situation, the issue is one of developing and maintaining an up-to-the-minute, accurate understanding of what’s going on in the environment. Decisions are then often based on pattern recognition and experience, rather than on weighing up different options and choosing between them: there is sometimes not enough time or information available to conduct rigorous analysis. In complex, pressured situations you need information representations and displays which offer accurate, intuitive, up-to-the-minute information. Our job is to help designers create work systems which meet those requirements.’

The fundamental aim, Rob says, is to design technology and ways of working to help human beings achieve their goals by reflecting the way they work in order to cope with the complexities of their job. ‘The gold standard for human factors engineering is to end up with a system which doesn’t require a long manual but only minimal training. For instance, there was a real need during WWII to get new pilots into the air very quickly, with little training and the ability to operate increasingly complex aircraft. The original Ergonomics Society was founded in 1949. Usability didn’t get talked about until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s but now it’s a key term, given how easy it is for almost anyone to create their own technology interfaces (websites, dashboards and apps, for instance). In this situation is an urgent job to get the principles  of usability to a far wider range of people.’

‘Not having a career plan takes you to places…’
I could see how Rob’s interests inform both the Psychological Government programme and a huge range of human activities. How did he get into this area and what sorts of experiences has he had?

‘I grew up in Loughborough in the 70s and 80s where Loughborough University was involved in consumer ergonomics. I was originally interested in going to university to do languages and business studies but a teacher talked to me about the psychology of language, which fascinated me. During my degree in Swansea I took two modules on ergonomics (one entitled “behavioural computing”, a term which never really caught on!) and I realised that there were some interesting applications of psychology to engineered systems. I also realised that I was interested in cutting edge, applied solutions rather than pure research or academic activity. That led me to pursue a career in ergonomics.’

Master's degrees in the area were fairly rare in the UK at the time so that, coupled with my interest in travelling, led Rob to the USA. ‘I used the Human Factors Society (now Human Factors & Ergonomics Society) in the States to find and apply to a few Masters degrees – a lot were to do with engineering and physical ergonomics which didn’t interest me that much – but there were a few that met my interests and I ended up at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. I didn’t really know where Dayton was: I flew over and had to stay in a hotel for two weeks with no real plan other than a place on a course called ‘Applied Behavioural Science’ (later to become the human factors and industrial/organisational psychology programme). But it proved to be a very good choice and I ended up staying there for 17 years. The Wright Patterson Air Force Base was next to the university and housed a centre of applied psychological research. I took a couple of courses in flight control and aerospace issues and was helped by a basic understanding of flight and aircrew as my father was a military and later commercial pilot. A lot of my early work was therefore focused on aviation examples.’

Rob found the course quite theoretical but the turning point was ‘Gary Klein’s work in cognitive task analysis which gave me methods, models and examples I could apply. Cognitive task analysis factors in the context within which decisions are made, not just what goes on in people’s heads. Ecological validity describes how far behaviours observed and recorded in the research lab, leading to a solution, will actually be representative of what will go on in the real world that is being examined. This puts constraints on research: you nearly always have to trade off experimental rigour against ecological validity. A related interest is the application of ecological theories in perception to the design of visual displays to support operators (an area of human factors referred to as ‘Ecological Interface Design’): there are relatively few people, to my knowledge, who are doing research or practice in this area.’

‘In addition to working on aviation problems I did projects in fire fighting, military command and control and keyhole surgery. The latter – looking at the cognitive demands on a surgeon making intra-operation critical decisions – was especially fascinating. I spent 14 years working at Gary Klein’s company, Klein Associates.’ I asked Rob if his work here on over 50 projects reflected his preference for practice over theory. He described a slightly more complex dynamic to the sort of work he and other Human Factors specialists undertake. ‘My career is with people who build stuff. I make recommendations but someone else will build it. The enjoyable thing is doing the research then helping to ensure that the models of the human-technology interactions, particularly with respect to the cognitive work, are robust and correspond to how the work is best achieved given the context. In my view there’s no point in developing theory unless it supports the development of practical solutions.’

Helping to ask better questions
On his return to the UK Rob got a job at BAE systems doing a lot of work for the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Labs (Dstl). Trimetis now undertakes some  defence- and security-related work for these sponsors.

There seem no signs that demand Rob’s expertise will diminish. What does he look for in the future? ‘I’m fundamentally motivated by doing fun, interesting and challenging work. As I said at the beginning, I never had a career plan and I’m not ambitious in the classic sense. But I enjoy passing on what I know to students, lighting the fires of their curiosity, helping them ask better questions, and hopefully exposing them to some alternative areas of psychology which provide challenging, interesting career options, and can lead to significant impacts on society. So, my work as a lecturer in cognitive psychology at Nottingham Trent University is very important. And in the same way I hope my work with the Psychological Government programme will provide me with an opportunity to share what I’ve learnt.’

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