Cognitive ergonomics is the field of study that focuses on how well the use of a product matches the cognitive capabilities of users. It draws on knowledge of human perception, mental processing, and memory. Rather than being a design discipline, it is a source of knowledge for designers to use as guidelines for ensuring good usability.
Cognitive ergonomics mainly focuses on work activities which:
- have an emphasized cognitive component (e.g., calculation, decision-making)
- are in safety-critical environments
- are in a complex, changeableenvironment(i.e., where tasks cannot be predetermined)
The first domains investigated by cognitive ergonomics were nuclear power plants, air traffic control systems, and medical anesthetics. Those situations feature complex environments (e.g., where there are many controls and switches—or many factors—coming into play) and where exceptional focus is needed so as to make decisions in potentially life-threatening situations. In the years following, many studies were conducted in “softer” domains such as banking, office work and leisure activities. The principles proved transferable between such environments.
Central to cognitive ergonomics is the notion of domain: the larger environment in which the system must operate, presenting both constraints and opportunities for the system. The field also studies the competencies and limitations of users in their interaction with the system in general (e.g., attention, perception errors, strategies, cognitive workload). In particular, it studies the cognitive artifacts they use to achieve their goals, as well as their co-operation with other actors. As a result, each cognitive ergonomic study operates with two underlying theories (implicit or explicit): a theory about the domain and a theory about human cognition. Since cognitive ergonomics covers both realms with such immediacy and addresses the interconnectivity of factors involved in use scenarios, designing with these considerations in mind helps ensure the usability of a product.