Principle 8: Problem-Setting

Principle 8: Problem-Setting


Do a proper problem-setting in the first place whenever possible to understand your actual problem and the underlying mechanisms and needs.

Principle 8: Problem-Setting Icon: EUROCONTROL © (All rights reserved)

HF/E regularly acts as a problem-solver. In most cases, it also makes sense to draw a bigger picture and question the purpose of a given development.

HF/E should emancipate for strategic decisions and constantly refine the problem-setting: What problem are we going to solve from user perspective?

For sensible problem-solving, taking a step back and looking at the entire design space with its interdependencies is the way to go. This view is still quite narrow, as it is focused on that one specific problem. Whenever possible, one should ask: For what are we doing this? What is the underlying goal the system should achieve?

Therefore, HF/E in design should act on an additional level: problem-setting.

Problem-setting happens on a strategic level, as it does not define the achievable, but the desired goals of HF/E within a project or organisation (cf. Béguin, 2011). It draws the “big picture” and affects the overall design strategy. In problem-setting, HF/E actively manages the coherence of system requirements, instead of just coordinating several interdependencies to facilitate a feasible compromise as in problem-solving.

Characteristics of Problem-Setting & Problem-Solving

Characteristics of Problem-Setting & Problem-Solving (cf. Béguin, 2011) Icon: EUROCONTROL © (All rights reserved)

Today, the technical side of the work system is often designed first, whereas the human side is identified later and mitigated. However, solid and structured problemsolving requires a solid foundation in the first place as guidance. Relevant non-technical questions are:

  • Which (HF/E) problem are we going to solve?
  • What is our mechanism to achieve more capacity and efficiency?
  • What are the bottleneck in today’s work that we want to address?
  • Do we need to consider other aspects such as teamwork, procedures, current role models, training, or personnel selection?
  • What analysis and which methods do we need to carry out in order to answer these questions?

Icon: EUROCONTROL © (All rights reserved)

The development of a proper problem-setting inevitably leads to the involvement of the operators and the analysis of their primary task, performance goals and working environment. This, in turn, is crucial for design and technical decisions during the problem-solving process. Without problem-setting, problem-solving is lost in the woods and stuck in trial and error.

Often, however, HF/E is constrained in a way that problem-setting just doesn’t seem reasonable. Instead, it is worthwhile to pick the low hanging fruit in a problemsolving process and treat the urgent symptoms first. Especially in a rather sceptical environment towards HF/E it makes sense to convince project owners with practical solutions before returning with a problemsetting proposal. Problem-setting and problem-solving are closely connected anyway: During problem-solving you learn about your problem-setting (e.g. whether you asked the right questions) or vice versa: Once you develop a proper problem-setting you might recognise, that best practices for problem-solving from the past just make no sense anymore.

With proper problem-setting, HF/E has the potential to integrate different disciplines by providing a coherent view and thus design objective. Overall system performance and human well-being are well suited for treating conflicting goals and facilitating trade-off discussions, as they allow a qualitative discourse beyond schedule and costs.

Source: White Paper on Human Factors Integration in ATM System Design, EUROCONTROL, 2019

The White Paper is available on Bookshelf here: White Paper on Human Factors Integration in ATM System Design

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