Machines don't make mistakes – but as we know, to err is human. There's a long list of possible causes: misunderstandings, neglect, habits, and a lack of knowledge – all of us make mistakes from time to time. And Anna is looking into the reasons behind this. That's because what often appears to be a random mistake can normally be explained. An unfamiliar interface, incorrect lighting, incomplete instructions – all of this can up the number of mistakes.
But if an error results in an incident, it will be examined. However, "engineers tend to initially examine errors from a technical point of view," says Anna. "At ZEISS, this is something we do very well. For example, we can find the molecule that's responsible for tiny irregularities in a crystal lattice. But my job is to consider the human factor in order to make work environments less susceptible to error," says the PhD natural scientist.
Anna is a pioneer in this field: she looks into the overlaps between science and communication, between high tech and humans. She laid the groundwork for this by studying biology – which she supplemented with a degree in scientific journalism.
After spending over 15 years working at online agencies and publishing houses as a usability expert for the digital world, Anna joined ZEISS in the summer of 2011. She and her colleagues have set up pages on the company Wiki, and they look after a user community and put together newsletters and user manuals. She later switched to Internal Communications at the Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology segment and earned her PhD alongside her work, which saw her write a thesis on communication strategies at CERN.
And now she works on the ongoing enhancement of the production processes at the ZEISS Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology segment. She scours databases with existing incident protocols – but is often directly contacted by project managers who are having trouble determining the cause of a particular error.
Errors come in many shapes and sizes: from selecting the wrong tool or noticing data gaps in shipping papers through to operating errors on machine displays. In fact, there are so many possible causes that they usually can't be revealed simply by completing a standard questionnaire. Let's assume you've selected the wrong tool: upon further examination, we find out that the tool number – while logically sequenced – was far too long, and so the user's short-term memory couldn't cope with it. So they reached for the wrong tool.
Errors can normally be traced back to specific details and, to find out more, Anna can conduct an on-site analysis and ask those involved. "Take operating errors, for example. I take a close look at the interface – perhaps there is a key difference between it and the machine next to it, which the user previously worked on. Users will often retain their way of working when switching to a new environment. While understandable, this can lead to errors."
Looking into human errors is still a new idea in the industrial context. And in low-risk environments – where errors neither put lives at risk nor spell disaster – specialist literature is simply not available for the high-tech domain of semiconductor manufacturing technology. So what does Anna find so fascinating about her work? "This role allows me to combine my natural science and technical knowledge, as well as my many years of experience in the area of the user experience, with newly acquired knowledge about production processes in semiconductor manufacturing technology in a way that allows me to derive new information," she says.
The high-tech ZEISS systems have captured her interest, and she enjoys working with professional teams. "I'm proud that it's not just production departments that have taken an interest in the topic of usability – other departments now want to make use of our findings, too." So Anna is continuing her research. She hopes to write one scientific essay on the human factor every year – and uncover fewer and fewer errors.