New approaches to modelling human behaviour

2 September 2015

2010 Croucher scholar, Dr Zan Mei Ling Chu is a program manager at Microsoft Corporation. She recently completed her PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Stanford University, California, where she simulated human behaviour during emergency evacuations of buildings.

In both her current work at Microsoft and previous research at Stanford, Chu has applied her passion in modeling human and social behaviour to improve building or software interface designs.

In order to meet health and safety regulations, safe egress is an important aspect of building design. Safe egress considerations include: how fast individuals can evacuate from an emerging situation, how many individuals exit paths can handle, and clarity of exit routes. The current methods used to determine the number, size, and distribution of exit routes are based on the assumption that people will act predictably and rationally in emergency situations, and would evenly utilise all available escape paths during an emergency evacuation. However, this assumption does not always reflect reality. Human behaviour, particularly during emotional and stressful situations, cannot easily be predicted; many complex factors must be considered.

Historical events have indicated that people tend to prefer exit paths that they are familiar with, even when there may be more practical alternatives. Human behaviour can also be heavily influenced by a number of social factors, such as whether there is an authoritative figure in a group, like a teacher in school, or the crowd’s mood- perhaps a fire breaks out during a horror film at the cinema, when the audience may already be in a heightened emotional state. At present, little has been done to quantify and model such factors in safe egress design.

Chu’s research at Stanford aimed to understand how social factors influence human behaviour during emergency evacuations. Studying witness reports during events of the past, and observing crowd behaviour at various events, Chu was able to formulate a computational framework, to understand how different factors influence evacuation response. The framework observes:

– Individuals’ decisions based on body size, disability, risk-taking level, and other perceptual factors

– Group norms based on group size, familiarity with the venue, leadership, and intimacy level

– Crowd characteristics, including density, number of groups, and crowd mood

In addition, Chu developed an agent-based model to simulate evacuation patterns for crowds with different characteristics. Chu can compare, for example, emergency responses in schools, where people are familiar with their surroundings and leadership is clear, versus in a concert setting where leadership may be unclear, and participants may be unfamiliar with the venue. The results of considering such factors will help design an evacuation path tailored not just to the group’s physical characteristics but to its social dynamics as well.

At Microsoft, Chu continues her passion in understanding human behaviour to improve user interface design in MS Office products. In her current work, she conducts usability studies, to identify product features that are key to improving user experience. Working with the engineers and user interface designers, Chu strives to determine which features to incorporate into products, and sets measurement for future evaluations.

Chu is enjoying the opportunity to work with cross-functional teams within Microsoft- "my current work at Microsoft aligns with my core skills and passion in understanding human behaviour to improve design. I am enjoying the fast-pace environment at Microsoft, where ‘fail fast learn fast’ is key."

Looking back, Chu is thankful for the support she received for her research at Stanford in incorporating social factors into emergency evacuation design. At that time, the idea of incorporating social factors in safe egress was novel and she notes that she is thankful for Croucher Foundation’s foresightedness and open mindedness in accepting new research ideas.

After receiving her undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering at The University of Hong Kong University in 2008, Dr Zan Chu went on to the Stanford University and completed a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2015. Chu received the Croucher Scholarship from 2010 to 2013.

To view Dr Zan Chu’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.