About the author

Bill Papantoniou

Picture of Bill Papantoniou.
Bill Papantoniou is researcher at the Ergonomics Unit of the National Technical University of Athens. He also teaches Ergonomics in the AKTO Industrial Design school  and works in projects involving the support of human work (physical and cognitive). Bill graduated in Mechanical Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens and specialized in Production Engineering. ...   
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Bill Papantoniou
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Bill Papantoniou

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Cognitive ergonomics

by Bill Papantoniou. How to cite in your report.

Cognitive Ergonomics, also known as Cognitive Engineering, is an engineering discipline that is concerned with supporting cognitive work.

The aim of the intervention can be the design of an artifact (cognitive design (Dowell and Long 1998)), a training program, or work redesign. Since any human activity-even so-called physical work-involves a cognitive part, Cognitive Ergonomics could be said to analyze any purposeful human task. Nevertheless, Cognitive Ergonomics (CE henceforth) mainly focuses on work activities having:

The first domains investigated by CE were nuclear power plants, air traffic control, and anaesthesia. In recent years many studies have been conducted in other softer domains such as banking, office work and leisure activities.

As a field of study CE overlaps with fields such as Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), Human Reliability Analysis (HRA), Safety Engineering, Risk Management. CE's difference from HCI is mainly the broader focus of the analysis to include the worksystem as a whole, as opposed to the user-computer interaction, as well as other factors (organizational, historical etc.) that traditional HCI often avoids to address, and hides under the context label instead.

Central in CE is the notion of domain: domain is the larger environment in which the worksystem must operate, and presents both constraints and opportunities for the worksystem. The domain influences the approach followed, as the degree of coupling among its constituents, the level of top-down causality and the degree of human intentionality in decision making shapes the validity of the models used.

CE also studies the competencies and limitations of the worker in his interaction with the worksystem in general (e.g. attention, perception errors, strategies, cognitive workload), and in particular the cognitive artifacts he uses to achieve his goals as well as his co-operation with other actors.

Models of Cognitive Ergonomics

As a result, one could say that each Cognitive Ergonomics study operates with two underlying theories (implicit or explicit): a theory about the domain and a theory about human cognition .

Regarding analysis and modeling of the domain, CE has used methods borrowed from systems theory, ethnography, cognitive anthropology. There are two strands of approaches regarding the domain. The first stand is mainly based on written documents and blueprints that reflect the structural aspects of the domain - e.g. (Rasmussen, Pejtersen et al. 1994). The second strand is mainly preoccupied with field research in order to study the representations of the domain as dynamically constructed by people at work - e.g. (Engeström and Middleton 1996).

Traditionally CE has used the human information-processing model of cognition (Wickens 1992) , which models human cognition through a computer metaphor. Although this approach has proved fruitful, it has limitations since it doesn't address issues such as embodiment, emotion, intentionality etc. In order to overcome these limitations, there have been approaches based on other frameworks such as Gibson's Ecological Psychology and the notion of affordances (Gibson 1979; Rasmussen, Pejtersen et al. 1994), Heidegger's Phenomenology (Winograd and Flores 1987; Dourish 2001), Activity Theory (Nardi 1996), and Autopoiesis (Theureau 2003). Each of these approaches offers a way of reframing CE's relation with the work activity under investigation. Ecological psychology and phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty 1958) are concerned with the embodied aspects of cognition as they are revealed in skillful acts (Gallagher 2005), as well as the extension of cognition beyond the boundaries of the body (Hutchins 1995). Activity Theory revealed the historical character of activity and gives CE a tool to investigate the interplay between man, work and domain. The difficulty lies in achieving a balanced approach to work that doesn't give precedence to any of these aspects (i.e. a purely historical approach that neglects information processing aspects, or an information processing approach that neglects ethnographic aspects of work).

Methods-Theories Used

Methods and theories used in CE include:

Where to Learn More

Cognitive Ergonomics embraces a diverse field of disciplines and as a result no authoritative books exist, or even common terminology, although efforts have been made to develop one - e.g. (Dowell and Long 1998).

The closest thing to a CE textbook is Cognitive Work Analysis (Vicente 1999), which is a good popularization of Rasmussen's Cognitive Systems Engineering framework. Latest work involves two books written by E. Hollnagel & D. Woods (Hollnagel and Woods 2005; Woods and Hollnagel 2006).

Informative websites include:


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Dourish, Paul (2001): Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press

Dowell, John and Long, John (1998): Conception of the Cognitive Engineering Design Problem. In Ergonomics, 41 (2) pp. 126-139.

Engestrom, Yrjo and Middleton, David (eds.) (1996): Cognition and Communication at Work. Cambridge University Press

Gallagher, Shaun (2005): How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford, UK, Clarendon Press

Gibson, James J. (1979): The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New Jersey, USA, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Hollands, Justin and Wickens, Christopher D. (1999): Engineering Psychology and Human Performance. Prentice Hall

Hollnagel, Erik (ed.) (2003): Handbook of Cognitive Task Design. Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Hutchins, Edwin (1995): Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press

Kirwan, Barry and Ainsworth, L. K. (eds.) (1992): A Guide to Task Analysis. London, England, Taylor and Francis

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1958): Phenomenology of Perception. London, England, Routledge

Nardi, Bonnie A. (ed.) (1996): Context and Consciousness. Cambridge, MA, USA, MIT Press

Rasmussen, Jens, Pejtersen, Annelise Mark and Goldstein, L. P. (1994): Cognitive Systems Engineering. New York, USA, John Wiley and Sons

Theureau, Jacques (2003): Course of Action Analysis & Course of Action Centered Design. In: Hollnagel, Erik (ed.). "Handbook of Cognitive Task Design". Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Vicente, Kim J. (1999): Cognitive Work Analysis: Toward Safe, Productive, and Healthy Computer-Based Work. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Winograd, Terry and Flores, Fernando (1987): Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Reading MA, Addison-Wesley Publishing

Woods, David D. and Hollnagel, Erik (eds.) (2005): Joint Cognitive Systems. Foundations of Cognitive Systems Engineering. Boca Raton, Florida, USA, CRC Press