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Eden Oration 2006

4 December 2006

The 2006 Eden Oration, given by Professor John Clarkson:

"Imagine walking into a darkened room the same size of this chapel to be confronted by signs of a raging fire. The air temperature is in excess of that in a hot oven at 300ºC. The room is full of smoke. The flames, glowing in the distance, are burning with the intensity of 200 gas fires. You are one of a team of novice fire-fighters tasked to go in and put out the fire. After fifteen minutes of extreme effort, constructing a protective water-wall and applying foam to the seat of the fire, the flames are out. The lights go on and the smoke clears. An instructor appears through a side door to bellow instructions. The team regroups. The fire restarts. You have just been through a training exercise in the Royal Navy’s Fire-Fighting Training Unit at HMS Excellent near Portsmouth.

I was fortunate enough to be responsible for the development of the control system for the prototype training unit, comprising eight computers, nine propane gas burners, ten smoke generators, five large fans and a dozen foam and water sensors. My team of four engineers delivered software, with more than 15,000 lines of code and 12,500 control variables, along with over 600 physical actuators and sensors within ten months, on time and to specification. But did the system really work? I spent weeks with a colleague testing the equipment and software, since no one else would go near the computer-controlled burners! Finally the instructors tested the prescribed scenarios, ranging from waste-paper and paint-store fires to the more severe galley and engine-room fires. They remained sceptical, concerned about the realism of the experience.

On the last day of testing we ran the largest trial, an engine-room fire. The instructors entered the room through a hatch in the roof and climbed down a set of steep steps, incidentally the most dangerous part of the exercise, and started to fight the fire. They returned 20 minutes later, exhausted, thinking they had put the fire out. As they climbed the steps the fire re-ignited behind them. A further 15 minutes of fire-fighting saw the flames completely out. The smiles on their blackened faces said it all, the trainer was indeed fit for its intended purpose. This represented my proudest moment as a young engineer, the architect of a world-beating fire-training system that had finally delighted its users.

Moving on to something that may be a little more familiar, imagine now a pint of cold, freshly-poured draught beer, 500 million bubbles of nitrogen dancing in a glass. Nitrogen for flavour and to preserve the beer in the can, and 500 million is the right number to ensure the bubbles are of the right size to create an appropriately creamy head. This particular product was developed in under ten months at a cost of nearly two million pounds. One team developed the widget, a plastic device to go in the can to generate the bubbles. A second team developed the means of putting the widget in the can, while a third built a machine to introduce nitrogen into the widget-filled cans.

I was the safety manager for the team, specifically concerned with minimising deaths due to nitrogen overdose (we discovered that even modest levels of oxygen depletion could cause the rapid death of machine operators!). I was also a part-time taster, charged with providing opinion on the design of the widget, as evidenced by its performance in the pallet of beer delivered each Friday afternoon. We delivered the new product in time for Christmas. It was a huge success. Home beer sales for our client increased by over 400%, turning the company around and paying off the development cost in only six weeks. The widget-induced head clearly delighted its customers, and the almost forgotten comedian Jack Dee was revived from his professional death-bed by advertising the new beer.

Thus began my fascination with the process of design, leading to a move from industry into a Lectureship in Engineering Design a few years later. I knew little about design research, and learned much from my early research students and colleagues. Even the word “design” caused initial difficulty for a simple-minded engineer, referring as it does to the process of originating and developing a plan for a new object, as well as both the final plan or proposal for the object and the result of implementing that plan or proposal. The word “design” is also used with reference to the applied arts as well as to engineering and architecture, taking on many forms. I have found remarkable similarities in the processes employed for designing buildings, jet engines, typographical fonts, film documentaries and even food. I have also found significant differences in the use of language to describe these processes.

I quickly learned that as a research community we know remarkably little about design. There is no accepted science or knowledge base. We still know little about design as a process, both at the individual level, with regard to the mechanisms that govern creativity, and within teams, where the subtleties of communication and overview can have a huge influence on success. I am often amazed that companies like Boeing can design a new aircraft, such as the 777, with over 130,000 parts, in four and a half years employing a team of nearly 17,000 designers. I am equally amazed that it can take a team of six one year to design a new screwdriver!

My fascination with the design process has continued, with a desire to find the optimum process to design an adequate product. In other words, how do we do just enough to design a new product that meets its technical, aesthetic and commercial requirements. There is always room for improvement. I am frequently surprised when world-class engineering companies cannot tell me how they design their products, not because of commercial sensitivity, but because they genuinely do not know. They will have a competent team of designers who understand what they do as individuals, but often no one person who understands the process as a whole. The role of the chief engineer, a person of significant experience and authority, is in decline in many areas of design.

Much of my research is spent in studying “design” as the process by which the object is created and thinking about how this process might be improved. However, over the years I have also become more interested in studying “design” as a description of the object itself. A chance meeting in the late nineties with Roger Coleman, who is Professor of Inclusive Design at the Royal College of Art, had a profound impact on my research. We met at a workshop for academics and designers to discuss design for the elderly and disabled. Many of those present were claiming that everyday designs were getting better. I asked if there was any evidence for such improvement and there was none.

Professor Coleman trained in fine arts and is an expert in design for the older user. I was an electrical engineer with no experience in this emerging field of “Inclusive Design”. Over the years, we have disagreed often yet got on particularly well, trying to understand how designers could be inspired to design more inclusively and how we could measure their success. Along the way we have written a British Standard for Inclusive Design, influenced the design of a number of successful products and put the UK firmly on the map as leading exponents of inclusive design thinking. We have also come to realise, through much discussion with friends and collaborators, the real potential of inclusive design.

Inclusive design is “the design of mainstream products and services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible, without the need for special adaptation or specialised design.” Inclusive design is about understanding population diversity, solving the right problems and making life easier – put simply it is about age, needs and simplicity.

Populations are diverse. Today half the UK population is aged over 45, with the number of people over 65 expected to increase by roughly 30% over the next fifteen years. One in five of us also have some marked loss of physical capability, with that proportion rising to over one in two for those over 75. The situation is similar across the developed world, people are living longer and as they age becoming less able. In 1950 the Potential Support Ratio, i.e. the ratio of the number of 15-64 year olds who could support 1 person aged 65 or over, was 12:1. In 2000 that figure was 9:1, in 2050 it will be 2:1 for the developed world. Independent living, therefore, is changing from being an aspiration to an imperative, both for individuals and the state.

Solving the right problems enables independent living. This may be achieved by addressing the instrumental activities of daily living. We all know of food packaging that is impossible to open, requiring a sharp knife where a usable tear-strip should do. Such coping strategies are common and often dangerous. We also all know of electronic products that are beyond comprehension for the average adult, but intuitive to use for a normal inquisitive five year-old. I have even heard the Chancellor of this University describe in detail the problems his wife has in programming the video! My researchers have visited homes where older occupants have four or more radios in a single room, one for each channel that they wish to listen to. So what happened to the simple twist-dial programme selector? These problems are soluble, the cordless kettle was designed for those with arthritis and is now the product of choice for most purchasers. Solving the right problems leads to increased product usage, increased customer delight and ultimately improved profits.

Simplicity is the key. Perversely, many products have become rather complex to use, rather like eating soup with a fork. Philips Research undertook a survey of internet users in 2004 and deduced that only 13% of Americans believe that in general technology products are easy to use and that nearly 65% have lost interest in purchasing a technology product because it seemed too complex to setup or operate. Microsoft, in another survey from the same year, suggested that 60% of Americans are likely or very likely to benefit from technology that will make products more accessible. Last year sales of the ‘Simply’ mobile phone exceeded expectations as people hoped they were buying an easy-to-use phone.

Products make demands of their users, demands of their sensory, cognitive and motion capabilities. If such demands exceed the capabilities of the users, exclusion or difficulty will arise. A previously unopened jam jar may exclude many older users, especially those with arthritis. Child-resistant medicine containers provide a similar challenge. A recent audit of a typical household air freshener spray revealed that more than four million people would be excluded from using such a product in the UK, yet simple design changes could almost halve this figure. A similar audit of typical digital television set-top boxes predicted that two million households in the UK would contain at least one user who is excluded from using such technology, whilst a further six million households would contain someone who found the technology difficult to use. Again, simple design changes could dramatically reduce these figures.

Exclusion is commonly the result of bad design. Why do we have to lift the bonnet of the car to refill the windscreen washer bottle? With suitable safeguards it could be made accessible adjacent to the petrol filler cap, for example. Why in the kitchen do we have to bend down to read the scale of a measuring jug? Better design can make this scale visible from above. Why are most mobile phones so difficult to use? The use of simple numbered lists to present options is known to be easier to use than pull-down menus for most older adults. Young able-bodied designers intuitively design for themselves and are often not granted sufficient time to understand the challenges faced by older or less able users. Yet such investigation is known to inspire better design. The use of tools to simulate loss of capability and to estimate exclusion can also be used to raise awareness of bad design. In addition, we as users need to learn to be more vocal in celebrating good design and criticising bad.

Through our work with the Royal College of Art we have discovered many things, some simple, some subtle, and some obvious once we stumbled upon them. We learned that talking of exclusion grabs people’s attention more than encouraging inclusion. We learned that people listen to numbers: the number of people excluded; the potential market to be gained; the cost of change; even when based on rather suspect data. We learned to talk of simplicity, of improvements for those who experience difficulty as well as those who face exclusion. We learned that we know too little about people and their capabilities, their preferences and experience. We learned that change is slow and that we need champions within industry, government and education to initiate positive action.

The world population will continue to grow older. This presents, along with climate change, the biggest and most important challenge that current and future generations of engineers and designers will face. In the words of the late Peter Laslett, co-founder of the University of the Third Age and vocal advocate of inclusive design, we must learn to “design for our future selves”.

Finally, for those here that were beginning to wonder if the Fellowship has been overrun by engineers, do not be unduly alarmed. Whilst recent statistics show that three out the last four Eden Orations, including this one, have been delivered by engineers, a longer-term view comprised of the past fifteen years in fact suggests that we make up only 40% of the Fellowship. Mercifully, in practice we are less prevalent than even these figures suggest, but as a profession, I believe our impact on this and many other communities is profound. Much of the artificial world around us was designed by engineers, admittedly some parts more successfully than others, and indeed some parts more inclusively than others. In Trinity Hall we are lucky to belong to a community that looks after its older and less able members, the profession to which I belong must learn to do the same.

Before I close, it is customary on this particular occasion to reflect on changes to the Fellowship over the past year. We recently bade farewell to Dr Juliet Fleming, Fellow in English, and Dr Jan Gilbert and Dr Andrew Lang, Research Fellows in Medieval Spanish Literature and Law respectively. We have also welcomed Dr Nigel Chancellor, Dr Lucia Prauscello, Dr Teresa Shawcross and Mr Heiko Zeibell as Fellows and Miss Alison Hennegan, Dr Anne Murphy and Dr William Max Nelson as Fellow Commoners.

It was also with much sadness in February this year that we learned of the sudden death of Dr David Moore, Fellow in Engineering from 1984. David was passionate about the design of small things, in a world where our intuitive feel for the laws of physics begins to fail. He would often talk about his latest ideas at lunch with such enthusiasm that an admission that you did not fully understand micro-fluidic systems seemed inappropriate. David loved Trinity Hall and took great interest in all those who worked and studied here over the years. His generosity and sense of fun knew no bounds. I was invited to Christina and David’s wedding in Australia in the summer of 1984 because I happened to be temporarily on the same continent and David, having taught me for only one term thought that reason enough for me to attend. David was also first to ascend to the tree-house or swim in the lake at the Padfield’s annual engineers’ croquet party, challenging others of far fewer years to follow in his intrepid footsteps. David also enjoyed occasions such as the Eden Commemoration Supper, as much for their fellowship as for their “wine and diet”. So, as we dine tonight let us remember and be thankful for the many ways in which Dr David Moore enriched the life of this community."


December 2006

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