Baseball, Hot Dogs and HMI

Like Controls Engineering, America’s National Pastime Is a Barometer for Social Change

Mike BacidoreBy Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor

Major League Baseball is a barometer of social change. What was once a sports confederacy devoid of all participants except white American males has survived decade after decade, lowering one barrier after another.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the big leagues. And Tsuyoshi Shinjo, an outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, became the first Japanese player to take part in the World Series in 2002. With race and nationality no longer issues, the only group still conspicuously absent from the major-league ranks is women.

But that might change soon enough. A 16-year-old girl could become the first woman to play professional baseball in Japan. Eri Yoshida, drafted by the Kobe 9 Cruise, is a side-arm knuckleball pitcher who has modeled herself after Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield. In her tryout, she threw an inning of hitless baseball. The closest a woman has come to playing in a Major League Baseball game was when Babe Didrikson pitched in some exhibition games back in the 1930s—more publicity stunt than legitimate athletic endeavor—but throughout her life Didrikson proved that a woman could more than hold her own in a sporting event.

The controls engineering profession is a lot like baseball. Did you ever think you’d read those words? Let me repeat that. Controls engineering is like baseball. Now, before you make a mad dash to the batting cages to get ready for spring training, let me explain.

Like baseball, controls engineering has all but eradicated race and nationality as barriers to participation. However, women are still the overwhelming minority. Notably, in our 2008 Salary and State-of-Mind Survey (www.ControlDesign.com/2008salarysurvey), 7% of the respondents said they were female, which was a remarkable increase over previous years. It’s time for the profession to recognize the growing number of women in controls engineering who design machine controls, as well as their end users’ female machine operators.

Specifically, operator interface or HMI can be designed to accommodate women’s needs, but does that compromise design features that address issues that are exclusive to men?

“We call this type of approach the transparent approach,” says Whitney Hopkins, design engineer at Smart Design, an industrial design consulting group based in New York. “It’s a highly successful strategy because it appears that women are much pickier than men and often lack the patience to deal with electronic or similar products. Because of this, if you solve the issues that frustrate women, you also solve the issues that frustrate many male users, too. Home Depot used this approach to redesign its stores. They asked many women about their issues with shopping in Home Depot and, as a result, added wider aisles, more product displays and better lighting. This improved the overall shopping experience for both men and women.”

So, if solving women’s issues also solves men’s, then both sexes’ HMI needs actually are the same, except women are pickier, right?

“The way people navigate through menus and understand instructions is dependent on the way their brain is structured and processes information,” explains Hopkins. “Brains differ based on gender in complex and inherent ways.  For example, men have larger brains and more gray matter, the type of brain cells that process information. When men think, they tend to use very localized centers of their brain. Women, on the other hand, have much more tightly packed brains with more white matter, the brain cells that transfer information. When women think, they use more distributed parts of their brain across both hemispheres.”

Scientists are only beginning to understand the complexity of gender differences in the brain, but it does seem clear that it has a dramatic effect on the way men and women interface with machines, says Hopkins. “A study out of Yale asked students to program a VCR with the same set of instructions, and 68% of the male students succeeded on their first try, whereas only 16% of female students succeeded on their first attempt,” she says. “On the other hand, the BBC did a multi-tasking test with eight male and eight female volunteers. Everyone was asked to complete the same eight tasks in 4 minutes. All of the female volunteers easily completed the task in the allotted time, whereas none of the men finished all the tasks and the average completion was 4/8 tasks.” A product or interface that seems easy to use for one gender might not be intuitive and easy for the other gender, concludes Hopkins.

“Most industries don’t intend to design gender-biased products,” says Hopkins. “Rather, it results from a lack of understanding and oversight. Almost all of these industries are dominated by males, so the female perspective is largely missed in the research and design phases.” She explains that features added to meet women’s needs are typically added on after the design phase, and often a shrink-it-and-pink-it approach, in which either the product is made smaller or the color is changed, is used in an attempt to solve the problem.

“Most of our initial ideas relate to making machines more user-friendly and ergonomic for women,” explains Hopkins. “Making them more user friendly will often depend on the menus and related programs. Operators don’t want to go through 12 menus to get to and then select a desired option. Technology needs to support the user, but remain hidden in its support role, not taking the spotlight. In terms of ergonomics, men and women have different bodies, and it is not as simple as believing that women are smaller and weaker versions of men. Machines must be designed to allow people of both genders with different strengths, builds, heights and flexibilities to operate them without causing injury or problems.”

Overall, says Hopkins, her company’s extensive research indicates a woman is concerned about how a product fits into her life and supports her goals, whereas a man is interested in technology and tempted by the promise of a product.

“Like any other field, machine design needs to consider a female perspective to make more inclusive products,” explains Hopkins. “In order to help designers achieve this, we have five general points. Give her benefits, not features. Consider the whole experience. Understand her body. Look at her lifecycle. And consider how it makes her feel.”

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