My thesis, which I wrote so long ago that I no longer recall the title, was a complete redesign of the Boeing 747 cockpit from a human factors and usability point of view.
My designs, which were submitted to Boeing at the time, likely helped create the foundation for the modern glass fly-by-wire cockpit.
At the time, glass cockpits did not exist (the term refers to the glass in the CRT monitors that were eventually used within the cockpit, later replaced by LCD displays). Fly-by-wire, which is the concept of replacing conventional flight controls with an electronic interface, was in its infancy.
I remember working tirelessly to create a comprehensive new human interface for pilots that would minimize errors and improve safety.
My research was based in the cognitive sciences, which consisted of university coursework in human physiology, neuroanatomy (rudimentary at the time), psychology, statistics, engineering, computer science, mathematics, linguistics, neural networks (the very first ones), and artificial intelligence. It was a rigorous and diverse education.
I spent hours and hours watching films of pilots performing a vast array of different procedures. Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they were not. When they were not, it often resulted in serious consequences. I spent long nights listening to hour after hour of dialog between air traffic controllers and pilots. I studied detailed accident and near-accident reports. I also interviewed pilots and spent a fair amount of time inside commercial cockpits, between flights, gathering essential data.
One of the challenges that I vividly recall was reducing complexity for pilots, while keeping the tasks difficult enough so they would stay engaged to their tasks and not fall asleep or become distracted.
The most rewarding part of developing my thesis was converting the cockpit from what I called a control-based center to a task-based center. Up until that time, most controls available to pilots were designed to directly impact a flight control surface such as the rudder. There were some rudimentary "intelligent" controls to perform basic horizontal and vertical navigation (but nothing that integrated the two!).
I designed a new system that was based on high level tasks that the pilot would need to perform. No longer were ailerons, elevators, flaps, and thrust the focus. Instead, I changed the focus of the cockpit to center on essential tasks such as taking off, landing, route planning, communications, and traffic and weather avoidance.
During this work, I learned that I had to seamlessly integrate my human factors engineering and user experience design skills. In my opinion, and from my personal experience, they always need to be.
Whenever I fly, I ask to take a look at the cockpit after we land. It's a joy to see the evolution of my designs. Whether I was the originator of these designs or one of many human factors engineers who came up with them at the same time, I will never know. But similarities of the current designs to what I proposed in my thesis many years ago gives me a little insight into a possible answer to that question.