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Computing is a "man-machine" system. Everything about a human interface has a human component; human physiology is what drives the requirements for the hardware and software. You can't talk about the hardware or user interface and exclude half of the equation.

The site has tags to cover topics like ergonomics and work environment. For those, it's easy to see that you can't talk about the best way to set up the computer if you leave out the user. Ergonomic keyboards are also on-topic. People who pound a keyboard all day don't want to get carpal tunnel syndrome, so that makes it on-topic.

It doesn't take long to get to a grey area. The QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts, mice, GUI interfaces, etc. were all based on human requirements. The same with response time requirements for interface devices, visual user interfaces and web pages. Two recent questions come to mind.

How fast does application response time need to be The gist of this question and answer focused on people expending a lot of effort and money on the hardware and software side of the user interface to improve response time while being unaware of the role that the user plays in the result. This was downvoted even after eliminating the possibility of opinion-based answers because it focused on the user rather than the hardware/software, which may seem off-topic.

Why do i sometimes type the as teh mean that the response of keyboard is too was just closed as off-topic. The gist of one comment (since deleted), was a common sentiment--"Are you kidding me? You're asking on SU why you make typos? Learn to type." If you aren't familiar with human factors research, that reaction is understandable. It happens that the kind of error the question was about is caused by a poor user interface, and limitations of human physiology bumping up against that. In a sense, it isn't a whole lot different from users developing carpal tunnel syndrome from using a mismatched input device.

The cause is the interaction between the human machine and the computer machine. The solution can come from either or both sides of the equation. You can modify the keyboard (which is exactly where the QWERTY layout came from when the shoe was on the other foot), and this would clearly be on-topic here. You can mitigate the problem through software, which is clearly on-topic here. Or you can try to do things on the human side to better adapt to the characteristics of the technology, which appears to be off-topic.

So big picture, at the very least, understanding the human side of the equation can facilitate a solution on the hardware/software side. However, when someone has a problem that would be on-topic because it involves hardware or software and there are hardware/software solutions, does it become off-topic to discuss solutions that focus on the user? Where do we draw the line?

What is on-topic and off-topic is driven by the community. This question is not a request to declare all human factors questions on-topic, so please don't downvote it on that basis. Rather, I want to raise the question, generate discussion, and let the community decide what the standard should be. The purpose of the question is to develop a guideline, whatever that turns out to be, including a potential decision to ban human factors questions and/or responses. So up or down votes on the question should reflect whether you think there should be discussion and official guidance rather than whether you are for or against human factors content on SU. Hopefully, there will be answers for and against and that is where subject matter preference should be voted.

  • Just a minor comment: asking why you make typos is not about computer hardware or software directly, and cannot be answered, at least not in our scope. Asking how to prevent it with software or hardware instead would be fine. It's a hard line to draw (e.g. touch typing is very closely related to computers and power users). – slhck Nov 21 '14 at 21:13
  • @slhck - See, even that is a grey area. The question asked whether the problem was that the keyboard was too slow (a hardware question). – fixer1234 Nov 21 '14 at 21:23
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To me any problem that is not a fault with hardware or software but is a problem centered entirely on a human rather than a computer is off topic.

Ergonomics such as "how do I arrange my workplace?" or "how do I stop typing things wrong" are purely wetware problems that are not concerned with problems on the computer itself. They have almost nothing to do with the computer.

A keyboard might have a fault that delays one key over another which means someone types "teh" instead of "the" but it is thousands of some more likely that the human is at fault and needs retraining, perhaps forcibly even. This is probably not a problem with the hardware and is certainly not a software fault. "How can I fix my autocorrect?" would be a valid question, "how can I fix my hands/brain?" would not. The question would have to show adequate research before I gave any credence to it being a hardware fault.

"How do I arrange my workplace to prevent RSI/back injury/groin strain?" is another one I've argued before. We can easily close them as primarily opinion based, because they are, but some people have argued that they are asking about hardware related to computing. Desks, chairs and pencils might be a type of hardware, but they are not computer hardware. This is also another wetware problem.

Ergonomics should not be on topic on SU in my opinion, the problem lies entirely outside of computer hardware and software. As has been stated with Android just because we have a tag does not make it on topic. Questions have to be reasonably scoped and not be entirely opinion based as most ergonomics questions will be. "Well this worked for me but YMMV" would be a very common start to any answer.

  • There is research in engineering, medicine, & psychology as early as WW2 behind the wetware that drives the hwr/swr requirements. Wetware-based answers are not necessarily more opinion-based than hwr/swr answers. So I would disagree with that reason for exclusion. However, there is logic for defining the SU scope cleanly as being limited to hdw/swr, perhaps with an exception in special cases where there is a wetware component that can't be excluded from a hwr/swr issue. Ignore the human factors design requirements that went in; focus on the end product as-is. No soft boundary. – fixer1234 Nov 22 '14 at 9:23
  • That seems to be the crux of it for me. SU is not a UX/UI site nor do we want to have much to do the meat that drives a computer except insofar as fixing the problems that various meat-sacks have introduced into the computer. Our focus should always be with the silicon-based life-form that shows pretty lights, not the meat that is somehow allowed to drive a 2 ton hunk of metal at (often) unsafe velocities yet for some inexplicable reason is unable to type the word "the" properly. – Mokubai Nov 22 '14 at 12:30
  • I generally agree with this. One example which I think is fine to stay here though, because it pertains to working on computer hardware (and computer hardware only), and is not opinion-based. – slhck Nov 23 '14 at 8:09
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I found your question/answer ( How fast does application response time need to be? ) quite interesting. It's factual, helpful, and just plain interesting, so to me that's on topic. I'll go upvote in a moment.

I'd say that ( https://superuser.com/questions/840632/why-do-i-sometimes-type-the-as-teh-mean-that-the-response-of-keyboard-is-too ) , while not greatly phrased, is on-topic, because the user is asking if a hardware issue is causing the typos. I don't agree with why it was closed. However I think it was rightfully closed, because in addition to poor phrasing it wasn't generating good answers. No different than closing an acceptable question that ends up generating nothing but opinion-based answers.

Based on the 2 examples given I really don't see the alleged gray-area (not saying it isn't there), but setting that aside, I agree with you that You can't talk about the hardware or user interface and exclude half of the equation. I'd say if it is a question that a reasonable google search can't solve, and it can be factually answered with answers that are worth their weight-in-bytes, it's on topic.

  • The grey area is the difference of opinions as to what is on-topic due to lack of official guidance. On the response time Q&A, some people downvoted primarily because of that issue. I can see your point on the teh question as far as an alternate explanation for closure, but some of the comments described the underlying reason for at least for some of the downvotes. I thought it would be useful to get discussion and generate a consensus. – fixer1234 Nov 22 '14 at 4:21
  • @fixer1234 ` I thought it would be useful to get discussion and generate a consensus.` Communication is always a good idea. :) – Robin Hood Nov 22 '14 at 19:43
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I sort of laid out the logic for inclusion of human factors considerations in the question. Three observations that would support limiting them on SU:

  1. They might be a magnet for attracting low quality answers or discussion even though they are not inherently so.

  2. The knowledge base. Suppose someone asks a question like, "My computer was working fine last night when I backed up everything to a DVD. This morning, I can't get it to boot up." And someone posts an answer like, "You probably left the DVD in the machine. The DVD drive is the first boot device and your backup disk isn't bootable." That would probably be better as a comment, but nobody would blink at that as an answer. It is based on common knowledge. Nobody would expect the answerer to cite a reference source.

    In the "teh" question, my answer is common knowledge to anyone with human factors training. It's pretty basic stuff--it's the reason you can blink when something approaches your eye faster than you can consciously make yourself blink. However, it was seen by some people as an opinion-based answer, or at least a low-quality answer because it lacked citations.

    There is an important curation function performed on the site, policing answers to ensure quality. That is difficult to do when questions or answers are in a subject area for which the majority of the high-rep members are not familiar. That is a reason to limit topics to a defined range of subject areas for which the community has expertise.

  3. Existing capabilities vs. new capabilities. Shopping questions are off-topic. They deal with adding or improving capabilities rather than solving problems with what is there. Almost by definition, solving problems with existing hardware or software is a "silicon-based life form", to use Mokubai's terminology. Questions that involve improving the user interface (as opposed to fixing it), include the human component, even if that is not explicitly raised.

    If the goal is to limit the site to silicon, consider defining the site as dealing with the existing hardware and software. Or, define user interface questions (which would include ergonomics), as off-topic. For that matter, just define the site as silicon-based.

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    The help centre already states that the site is related to computer hardware and software. I'm not entirely sure why we need to explicitly state that issues that are not based in the computer (i.e. people who can't type) are off topic when it is quite implicit anyway. We may need to educate people about what their real problem is (typing so fast they have no idea what order they are hitting keys in) but we do not need to change the wording in the help centre IMO. – Mokubai Nov 22 '14 at 17:49
  • @Mokubai - To quote from Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." To you, "computer hardware and software" means silicon. That isn't explicit in the definition. To others, it includes the user interface that, by definition, includes the user (a bridge to wetware). – fixer1234 Nov 22 '14 at 18:01

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