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Standards for Communication: Engineering and its Customers

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 19 July 1995
The Hon Dame Catherine Tizard, GCMG, GCVO, DBE, QSO

"Engineering and its customers" is the subject for this year's Hopkins Lecture, as advertised. It has turned out, however, to be one of those iceberg subjects that hides much of its size below the surface - the hidden part turned out to be the general topic of communication. But I should start with a few observations about engineers and what you do for a living.

There was once a rather cynical Frenchman - which is not particularly rare, as confirmed by recent news from Mururoa - there was once a rather cynical Frenchman named Marcel Pagnol, who advised the world that "One has to look out for engineers - they begin with sewing machines and end up with the atomic bomb."

But nuclear trials and possible eventual errors excepted, does his advice still apply? Are engineers les eminences noirs who shape society?

Or are engineers more accurately described as the servants of the societies in which they live and work? This second view is more like that of the American who said in the late 60s that "If the human race want[s] to go to hell...[engineers] can help it get there by jet. [They] won't change the desire or the direction, but [they] can greatly speed the passage."

So which view is accurate? Or, as is often the case, are both opinions true, depending on the circumstances? And if both are true, then what is, and what should be, the relationship between engineering and its customers?

Let's say, for this evening's purposes, that engineering refers both to the products and services provided by engineers, and the profession itself.

The customers referred to are clients in more than one way, as well. There are individual purchasers of engineered products - tools, devices, appliances, machines, structures, systems and so on - and society as a whole also seeks engineering advice. The public has at least two main expectations of engineers.

You engineers are both individual designers and members of the profession of engineering. Which in turn raises the basic question, what is a profession these days, and what public duties must professions carry out?

Before giving my attempts at answering this series of question, I should reassure you that it is not my intent to pick on engineers as individuals this evening, but to criticise, I hope constructively, engineering. I acknowledge as well, that most New Zealand engineers might never design some of the specific products and devices that I've used as illustrations. While my criticism is global, I hope that New Zealand engineers might begin to respond, or act, locally.

Let's begin with those engineered products I was talking about - the tools, devices, machines, systems - all the pieces of embodied technology that surround us and upon which we've come to rely.

As wonderful as some of the inventions and conveniences of modern life are, they also have some persistent problems. As a man named Donald Norman (Emeritus Professor of Communications Psychology, University of California, San Diego) has said: "As I study the interaction of people with technology, I am not happy with what I see...Right now, technology lacks social graces. The machine sits there, [passive], demanding. It tends to interact only in order to demand attention, not to communicate, not to interact gracefully. People ... [by way of contrast] have evolved a wide range of signaling systems, the better to make their interactions pleasant and productive."

Yet technology's social ineptitude is not necessary. It is not inherent in the using of it. It is not demanded in the design of it. It is simply what results when technologists and engineers create what is merely possible, without full regard for their creations' human and environmental impact.

Technology's social dimension usually goes unrecognised. For instance: many machines and common devices are accessible only to initiates, not to first-time users. There are few things more off-putting, however, more disconcerting, more morale-sapping, than the feeling of not being able to control things in everyday life - of being "put down" by a mere device.

Mr Norman's biggest complaint is how much of our technology, much of engineering, is deficient in design. The design shortfall is in the way many technological implements fail to interact with people, in human terms. As he noted: "One of the reasons that modern [electronic] technology is so difficult to use is because [it operates silently and invisibly]. The videocassette recorder, the digital watch, and the microwave oven - none is inherently complicated. The problem for us is their lack of communication." Then he repeats his earlier comment. "They fail to interact gracefully. They demand attention and services, but without reciprocating, without providing sufficient background and context. There is little or no feedback."

In other words, our machines work like machines, and not like other people, or extensions of ourselves, or as partners. Yet unless our technology communicates properly, it's much less useful and usable than it should or could be.

Think about the complaints that you still hear about VCRs. How many people have you heard say, "I don't even try to set it. I get the kids to do it," - the implication being that only they have the time to learn by trial and error: particularly error, in the case of the VCR.

Granted, the most perverse steps in the way you're supposed to operate a VCR are slowly being corrected. But one's blood pressure can still rise by several points when an episode of Shortland Street somehow gets away.

As time goes by, one learns to take the hidden steps in the right sequence, but it's all pretty much by rote. Even with on-screen menus, you still sense the machine's deep reluctance to let you know where you are. And why doesn't a VCR make it plain whether there's a tape behind the closed door? It's a domestic example, certainly. But as domestic and seemingly-trivial as it is, it's fairly representative of the big picture.

Let's look at a few other examples of engineered products in common, but extremely frustrating, use. There are, in everyone's life, many, many examples of machines and devices that confuse, or disorient, or obstruct. Even common household appliances offer many traps for the unwary.

How many people ever use the time-delay defrost function of their microwave oven? The function does exist, supposedly. But if you ask around, you'll hear a widespread resentment at having to obey the dictates of the machine. Really, wouldn't it be better if the darned things just communicated their needs properly - sociably - in an obviously civil sort of a way.

When daylight saving ended, did you have to look for the owner's manual to reset your digital watch? And your TV, your VCR, your microwave, your stereo and your car clocks? Did you know, just by looking at the buttons, which combination and sequence was correct? And for the people who are having a smug attack that they do indeed know how, I'll politely look the other way while you try to use, or even access, some of the exotic features on your CD player.

So I agree rather strongly with Mr Norman when he says: "If our information-based technologies are to become socialised members of our society, interacting with and supporting the activities of people, then they have to be able to interact with us on our terms, not on theirs. Our most modern technologies are social isolates." If these machines were people, we'd very soon cut off all contact with them. We'd characterise them as insensitive, arrogant, or downright uncivil.

"Human social interaction has developed a rich assortment of methods to ensure social harmony," says Norman again. One example from everyday life would be a listener's behaviour in face to face conversation. He or she will nod, or give some verbal acknowledgment - a "yes," an "uh huh," "right," - all sorts of signals that say," Yes, I hear you, I'm listening."

One of the features of modern communications systems is the proliferation of handshaking protocols. In other words, there are clearly defined inter-machine social niceties. Faxes and similar devices have to get to know each other so they can get on with their jobs. But no such civility usually exists in the communications between machines and people.

People are constantly signaling their intentions, their internal states - how they're feeling - their reactions and expectations. The steady feedback promotes better communication - or less ambiguity than there would otherwise be, at the very least. It helps keep outcomes predictable.

Machines should be doing the same thing. So tomorrow's engineers will have to design in the ability, for machines, structures, systems the whole range of engineered products and services - tomorrow's engineers will have to design in the analogues of the social skills humans have evolved with.

Hmmm, says our archetypal left-brained sceptic, does all this "manners" and "civility" stuff really matter? What will happen if our technologies - in whatever form they take - what if they don't ever communicate better than they already do?

Well, at least two unfortunate things. The first will be many more instances of so-called "operator error" in industrial processes, in transportation, in computing, and every other system or machine in day-to-day life. As we're all well aware, "operator error" is already the reason given for many of the modern world's disasters including Three Mile Island and the Erebus crash, not to mention millions more domestic upsets.

It's a serious question though, whether it's ever really good enough simply to blame the operator. Isn't it more often the case that the operator did his or her best, but was mislead by deficient design? Is it fair - or come to that, even useful - to blame the operator when the machinery doesn't operate in a human-oriented, basically-civil kind of a way? If controls are counter-intuitive, control menus internal, commands out of context and therefore obscure, should we say that the best general remedy is more operator training? Or should we put in a greater effort to socialise the interface between person and machine?

A moment ago, I mentioned "operator error" and "computers" in the same breath - computers being the devices, we are regularly told, that are going to be the key technology of the coming information age. But is an information age really what's needed? There's a saying that information is a giving out, but that communication is about getting through.

And to get through, people need that constant feedback, that awareness of context, those signals about internal states and moods that computers have conspicuously lacked. Apologists will say that personal computers have developed a lot in the days since the Altair. The Windows operating system, for instance, is shortly to let you label your files in "people English" instead of a machine code of eight characters, plus a three-character suffix.

And it will only have taken Microsoft about thirteen or fourteen years longer than MacIntosh to do it.

I accept that evolution is slow. But why did plain-English file-labeling need to evolve so lackadaisically? Surely, with just a smidgen of design imagination, this basic function could have been improved long, long ago?

Still, there are some exceptions to machines' general incivility, some examples of splendid design. The resulting products show the way for other engineers and designers. There's one example, from Dunedin for goodness' sake, that caused a stir during the America's Cup regatta. A small computer company, Animation Research, made the racing easy to comprehend. In other words, even in New Zealand's smallest main centre, with the right approach, the right attitude, and the willingness to present information in a people-friendly way, designers can do world-beating work. And from what I hear, the company is thriving. The point would seem to be that not only does good design serve customers better, it also serves the designers better.

But in computers and computing, Dunedin's Animation Research is a rarity. The noted mathematician, John von Neumann, who amongst other accomplishments developed the theory of games, was an inveterate practical joker. During World War II, he constructed one of the first electronic brains for the US Government. On the papers that accompanied it when it was delivered, he called it a Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer. It took several days before the government scientists to whom he had dispatched it, realised that the acronym was, therefore, MANIAC.

I'd like to think that this was because he realised, more than fifty years ago, that computers were already likely to be far more user-unfriendly than they should be. The technology wasn't going to communicate properly. In human terms, it was unbalanced, like a maniac.

OK, says this evening's straw man - the busy designer without time to worry about communication trivia - OK, maybe many machines are user-unfriendly, but they're so useful that they'll continue to be employed anyway. It'll turn out that the costs are transient. So we needn't worry about it. The users will catch on eventually.

Which is a highly disrespectful attitude. Surely the rule still is that the customers are, actually, right.

I came across a good illustration last weekend. I had the loan of a Mercedes for a couple of days. Being somewhat vertically challenged, I needed to adjust the driver's seat and there, lo and behold, immediately to hand, was a seat-shaped control. I moved it forward and the seat moved forward; upwards and the seat rose; I tilted the front of the control up and the angle of the seat changed correspondingly. Magic! And what was truly satisfying - the manual stayed in the glovebox. I'm aware that Mercedes Benz cars are not everyday things for most people, but surely it doesn't require great expense to anticipate the customer's needs.

The second thing that will happen if engineered products and services aren't better socialised is that the respect for the engineering profession itself will decline. Why? Because people tend to reciprocate the attitudes of others. If someone is friendly towards you, you are friendly in return. If you don't respect your customers, your customers won't respect you. And if a person loses respect of others - or if an institution like the profession of engineering loses respect - any authority that person or institution may have is dissipated as well. For everyone concerned, that is a huge price to pay, as we can explore in more detail shortly.

Some engineers, people like Samuel Florman, who wrote a book with the unlikely title of "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering," have held that engineering is a creative enterprise, even when it's dealing with basic structures and devices. This is another way of saying that design lies at the heart of the profession. The claim is that creativity is at the heart of an engineer's professional life.

But what is backing that claim about the profession?

Let's take a look at a simple mix-up that would almost certainly sneak in under the threshold of most designers' attention. Have any of you ever tried to pull a door open, when it's supposed to be pushed? Or have you ever tried to push through a door that's supposed to be pulled?

This is a useful example, not because engineers are usually so deeply engaged in door-design, but because it typifies a the fundamental communications problem. If you pushed when you should have pulled, or pulled when you should have pushed, by definition, the behavioural cues that the door presented were inappropriate for the user. If a door is supposed to open away from you, it should convey that method of operation by the appropriate placement of a flat surface against which the user should push. Simple. If the door is supposed to be pulled, there should be a basic, and behaviourally-unambiguous handle. Once again, elementary.

The bottom line is that the proper way to design something is to take into account what people really do, and how people interact with the world and the things in it, and construct things accordingly.

This is a long-established design rule, logical, sensible and quite often, even taught. But it must be obvious, even from the short list of examples I provided earlier, and all the ones you mentally added as I was talking, that the rule is more breached than observed.

With electronic controls now being added to everything, we now have the situation where, even at the centre of domestic life - let alone in heavy engineering, or construction, or electrical and chemical engineering - we now have the situation where basic functions have become sophisticated beyond the point of common sense.

The problems with much of modern technology come from several factors. The rate of technological change creates its own difficulties. Will new devices be compatible with older devices? Or does a new technology promise so many benefits that we feel obliged to grope our way through the opacity of its many new options and commands? The trouble is, with so many new devices, there's a lot that could be unpleasant, dangerous or expensive to consciously guard against. The opposite of this state of permanent anxiety is user-friendliness. So, if devices are designed to communicate properly, they become truly useful servants instead of uncivil masters.

You have to wonder in the end, how many new products and services are developed solely with the goal of using a particular technology.

Anyway, I've just intoned a long litany of complaint, interrupted only briefly by praise of Animation Research and Mercedes Benz. Let's get back to the issue of why engineers should pay more heed to the idea that technology needs to be more human in the way communication is handled. After all, it's likely that the prospects for engineers and engineering in the next few decades are extremely good. So what's in it for the profession to make better, more people-oriented, more "social" design, a higher priority in professional practice? Here's where we should take a brief look at the definition of a profession.

Membership of a profession is a guarantee that one knows something of significance that most other people do not. To be a professional, you have to possess a body of knowledge, usually specialised, that other people are prepared to pay for. That's why the term "professional" has added the connotation of "paid," over time.

A professional body of knowledge used to mean something else, as well - near-automatic and widespread respect for the knowledge-based opinions of professionals, both individually and collectively. This, however, is no longer always the case. The professions have all, to one extent or another, been de-mystified.

Doctors' diagnoses are challenged by alternative practitioners, including some unlikely ones like crystal- and aroma-therapists. Lawyers are looked at askance by pretty well everyone. And while I'll admit to laughing myself at the occasional lawyer joke, I join those who think it is dangerous when people feel free to start attacking the judiciary, indiscriminately. Politicians, if they ever were perceived as belonging to a profession, now rank below almost everyone on the ladder of people whose opinions should be heeded.

While many may argue that this decline in public esteem can be sheeted home to the behaviour of members of these groups it is also part of a process of popularisation, or democratisation. The claim is made that this is the way towards progress and greater equity - a sort of collective refusal to tip our cloth caps any longer. Elites, even knowledge elites as exist in the professions, have become profoundly suspect. And, oh dear, what a dangerous state this is to be in, where, because of a distaste for historical or colonial-era hierarchies or something, we're prepared to devalue the worth of the institutions that furnish invention, innovation and even inspiration to the whole of society.

Trying to escape the unnecessary and humiliating deference to the upper classes of yesteryear, we're losing that noble kind of humility that can acknowledge other individuals' and groups' superior knowledge. Scepticism abounds. William Thorsell is the editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Edmonton, in Canada. He put it this way: "[A] popular expression [in the] attack on the very stature of learning [is] 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.' This seductive phrase suggests there is nothing to learn about beauty, in which case you could close down whole portions of [our universities] that teach the arts and literature...The careless and fundamentally arrogant assumption that everyone's opinion is just as authoritative as everyone else's, infects the arts as well as economics, science as well as philosophy."

"Populism," he went on to illustrate what he was saying, "is the expression of this in politics, which at its worst reduces our elected representatives to order takers in the parliamentary restaurant. All newly-elected MPs discover there are things to learn about issues they thought they understood. They discover that things are more complex and interesting than they imagined. But if they come home after a year or two in Ottawa - substitute Wellington in our case - and ask their constituents to consider the other sides of the story, or accept the authority of their...experience on matters of some complexity, our MPs are likely to elicit angry charges of being sell-outs or snobs. In essence, the MP is told to listen and obey, rather than to learn and engage."

Mr Thorsell continued that "too often, [we] suspend our critical judgement in the cause of being deeply sceptical. We too often equate untutored or self-interested views with those grounded in much learning. We too often assume and suggest venal motivations for well-intended acts."

And then he talks about where this process leads: from a belief that Jack is as good as his master in every respect, to the devaluation of expert opinion, on to the decay of legitimate professional authority and the resultant loss for the whole community. Go too far down this road, and we "tip over the barrier of scepticism into the less-demanding, self-indulgent territory of cynicism where learning enjoys no stature - where 'balance' means that everything is a matter of equally-valid opinion - where no test of our own knowledge or judgement is required, and thus we cannot fail."

Then, he reached the hard core of his argument. Without acknowledgement of expertise, of superior knowledge, held by some elite groups, society as a whole cannot advance.

"...the transmission of knowledge through universities," and, I am claiming tonight, through the professions, "the transmission of knowledge through universities constitutes society's fountain of youth."

He used the analogy of a city to make his last point. "...the defining requirement of any great city is that it house great cultural institutions - universities, orchestras, theatres, newspapers, film houses, museums and galleries. Otherwise cities are only suburbs in disguise. And so it follows that the defining requirement of any great society is that it love...learning - that it respects the fact [that] there are things to learn, that it appreciate how true knowledge requires enormous application if it is to be gained, that it honour...individual mastery of the...knowledge whose sum constitutes our civilisation."

Well, I suspect that love of professional learning and the honouring of professional excellence, like charity, must begin at home. For engineers, this means it must begin within the profession itself.

The evaluation of engineering knowledge, the setting of standards, the review of professional competence - all these functions are best carried out by one's learned peers. A properly functioning professional body is, in other words, a communications network - a network of two-way streets if you will, although I suppose if you live in Christchurch, you can be forgiven for not remembering what those are.

Individual practitioners must consult other practitioners constantly. And practitioners, as a collective, must communicate with individual members and vice versa. The communications channel that's less open than it should be is the one between the profession and customers: I spent the first part of this evening giving some concrete examples of how customers are not, currently, properly consulted - consultation and communication both require as much active listening as expert pronouncement.

The more important way that most professions, including engineering, are failing to consider public opinion is that there are few professional attempts to educate the customers, the public. The result of this is expensive and diversionary. This is because of what happens when differences of professional opinion are transmitted live and uncut to the general public. Usually, society as a whole loses, when clashing expert opinion is transmitted without the proper, professional context - issues and events are sidetracked, sometimes for years, in the resulting confusion.

One example that comes to mind is from agriculture - the debate about agrichemicals. The appropriate use of some of them makes our foods safer. Yet we have witnessed an enormous backlash against any use because, in the past, other agrichemicals have been foolishly employed, after professional assurances that DDT, for instance, could be used without worry - remember "Silent Spring?"

A local, engineering-related difference of expert opinion, was the reported range of estimates for the standards that should be set for Wellington's new waste-water treatment regime.

There's something else to take into account. Of all the professions, it seems to me that only engineering and medicine, have such a pressing need to communicate better, internally. No other professions have to revise so much of their working knowledge so quickly, as pure and applied science rapidly updates so much of your basic intellectual stock.

In even the recent past, a practitioner could supplement an initial stock of knowledge, through the doing of his or her job. These days, it's becoming ever more likely that this will result in a set of professional skills becoming seriously out of date, in as little as ten or fifteen years. It almost requires that the word "educated," be banished from the dictionary. One of the things that the profession of engineering has to stand for, is that the only concept about learning that can logically exist, is "educating."

Engineers have an increasing professional need for lifetime learning. And since there's a difference between academic engineering and engineering as it is practised, your professional bodies have a key role - a communications and education role that maintains and communicates professional standards.

When Auckland City amalgamated with eight other territorial local authorities and re-organised its management structures, three out of six top managers appointed, were engineers. They were all in the business of people management to some degree. Their training as engineers manifested itself in various ways, but hands-on engineers they no longer were.

The diversification of engineers and lawyers and, increasingly, doctors, into managerial jobs is hardly new, but it is more common today when professional schools are producing greater numbers of graduates than their practising professions can accommodate.

I do not know a lot about the course content of a modern engineering degree. I do know that about one third of the Auckland School of Engineering is that formerly-rare specimen, a female, and that engineering students are generally deemed to be somewhat more couth, now, than the reputation of yesteryear would have them. But do the options available include any significant studies of politics, sociology, group psychology or management skills? I know that Auckland University has included courses which might be described as Liberal Studies and I was interested in this profile in this morning's Dominion, of the new man at the helm of Ernst and Young. [Quotes from Dominion.]

Which leads to my final question, this evening. Why am I, a Governor-General rather than an engineer, lecturing you on these topics? At first, there seem to be few bridges between the world of engineering and my own. And perhaps that's why this is the Hopkins Lecture - Harry Hopkins' main interest was bridges, after all. I believe that Professor Hopkins is certain to have agreed that the profession had to span both physical and metaphorical gulfs.

As it turned out, it wasn't long before I saw how our worlds were linked: I'm a customer of yours - and have been for a long time and in a variety of ways. Governments, local and national, are always commissioning engineers from one specialty or another to perform public works. And as outlined earlier, every individual New Zealander's life, including mine, is surrounded, regulated, enriched - and frustrated - by engineered products and engineering services.

So my answer to this final question was that engineers, as a co-ordinated expert body, needed to better communicate and consult about professional standards - to build better bridges - both among yourselves and between yourselves and your customers. Yet is this what you, and the members of most other professions, aspire towards these days? And if not, why not?

There would be practical benefits for individual practitioners in all professions - engineers for instance, would more readily stay up to date with developing technology and technique. But everyone else - society as a whole - would also benefit from better communication of professional standards. To misquote the Duchess of Windsor, one can never be too-thoroughly consulted or too well-informed.

My prediction is that professional consultation and communication - and how well these processes are collectively managed - will more and more come to define, once again, the very nature of a "profession." It goes right back to the origin of the word: a group that has disciplined itself in a particular field of expertise, a body of disciples, who profess something.

Usefully, what a profession actually professes is a collective standard. Communicating the standards of the discipline, and communicating about these standards, is simply the most basic "professional" activity there is. In other words, you're only a true professional if you're out there, building bridges. I'm absolutely certain that Harry Hopkins would have agreed.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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