Human Factors Evaluation of Pointing Devices

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J. Stephen Higgins
Daniel R. Johnson
Ben Willems
Carolina Zingale, PhD.

Higgins, J. S., Willems, B., Johnson, D. R., & Zingale, C. M. (2012). Human factors evaluation of pointing devices used by air traffic controllers: Changes in physical workload and behavior (DOT/FAA/TC-12/63). Atlantic City International Airport, NJ: Federal Aviation Administration William J. Hughes Technical Center.


Objective: To ensure that air traffic controller interactions with present systems and the future Next Generation Transportation System (NextGen) are efficient and accurate, as well as without health detriments (e.g., musculoskeletal disorders), as possible, we conducted a simulation to explore the introduction of new pointing devices to air traffic controllers.

Background: The current en route trackball is inherently limited as to what kind of interactions it allows. However, switching to a new pointing device has risks—different pointing devices have different speed, accuracy, interaction capabilities, and ergonomic features.

Method: Ten current or recently retired en route Certified Professional Controllers participated in the simulation. Participants controlled traffic in a Data Communications environment while using one of four pointing devices (en route trackball, alternative trackball, hand-shake mouse, and a standard mouse). During the simulations, we recorded the participants’ subjective reports, performance, behavior, and muscle activity.

Results: We found that participants preferred the mouse and current trackball over all other devices and were as successful controlling traffic (e.g., no losses of separation with the same number of aircraft under active control). We found no statistically significant physiological indications that any of the devices under evaluation had the potential to result in musculoskeletal disorders during regular use. We also found that participants were more accurate and significantly faster using the mouse than using other devices.

Conclusions: Considering the above issues, and the wider variety of possible interactions, the mouse appears to be a pointing device better suited for future air traffic control systems than the legacy trackball.