It seems that each day more companies are wising up to the fact that designing for the end-user is an integral part of what drives a product, service, or system to be successful. Due in part to its rise in popularity and merit, User Experience (UX) has become a huge buzzword in many tech and healthcare industries. Yet whereas UX can be thought of as the hip, IPA drinking, infinity-scarf-wearing guy or gal, Human Factors continues to be seen as the stringent, club soda drinking, pocket protected cousin that bums everyone out at family gatherings.
We think Human Factors needs a second look. Maybe it’s just a classic case of ugly duckling syndrome. You know, bad press. And maybe we just need to open our eyes to the value it has — kind of like the premise to every movie Freddie Prinze Jr. starred in throughout his entire career. Ever.
This article explores the ins and outs of Human Factors (from a nosebleed high level). It will introduce you to the underpinnings of what fields contribute to its professional and academic knowledge base. Additionally, it will argue the merits of committing to a similar systems view when troubleshooting, dissecting, and identifying solutions to design decisions in your field.
So, what is Human Factors?
As you can probably imagine, Human Factors deals with humans. Specifically, what humans do, make, say, and think. Indeed, the “making” and “saying” parts of the equation are often easier to tease apart than the “doing” and “thinking” parts — ex. a statement (“saying”) is easier to identify, quantify, and measure than what the person meant or wanted to say (“thinking”).
Keep in mind, Human Factors is not exclusive to the category of human cognition. It encompasses physical faculties as well. After all, there is no “making” or “doing” without some form of physiological movement or locomotion. As a result, Human Factors studies the human capacity to lift things, hold things, and otherwise maneuver things in space and time.
The other element of Human Factors is context. It’s one thing to study human behavior in a bubble, but that’s not realistic (or helpful). Our environments are fickle, schoolyard bullies that just want to see the world burn. That is, they make it hard to know if our research is measuring what we think it’s measuring, and informing what we think it’s informing. Still, in order to fully understand how and why humans “do”, “make”, “say”, and “think” the ways they do, you need to take into account the context of the event itself.
So, there you have it. That’s Human Factors. Got it?
Okay, so there’s more to it. A fair amount more, actually. But to appreciate the inner workings of Human Factors research, it’s important to have a thorough grasp of the all the disciplines and communities from which it’s professionals elicit knowledge. The following sections outline the three primary components of Human Factors research, according to Wickens, Gordon, & Liu’s An introduction to human factors engineering.
The social sciences have long been pegged as “soft sciences” — that is, compared to “hard sciences” like chemistry, physics, and biology. This could not be any further from the truth today. Yes, during the age of Jungian beliefs about archetypes and ego’s falling in love with their neurotic psyches, there was no way to “quantify” fundamental psychological and sociological principles. Today however, we use research methods aimed at producing verifiable and repeatable results — which is a cornerstone of what makes a hard science, well, “hard”.
Among the list of social sciences are three broad disciplines: Psychology, Anthropology, and Sociology. Unlike Psychology which strives to make sense of an individual’s beliefs, decisions, and actions in context, Anthropology and Sociology aim to understand the human condition at societal, cultural, and historical levels. Indeed, the combination of these three disciplines provide a micro- (Psychology), meso- (Sociology), and macro- (Anthropology) level look at what, when, where, and why humans live the way we do.
Especially in the world of User Experience (UX) research and design, it’s crucial to consider a human’s cognitive abilities when developing new products. How do people typically behave in a specific, definable environment? How are their decision making capabilities affected by a given set of measurable variables? How do they perceive features x, y, and z? How does the environment affect their attentional resources and working memory capacity?
Just like a person can only hold a finite number of objects in their hands before they start dropping things, there is a limit to the amount of information a person can process, retain, and act upon cognitively at any given moment. Interestingly however, it’s the environmental variables, context of operation, temporal constraints, and social circumstances that amplify these factors in unusual ways — making it a challenge to distill the human condition down to highly predictable levels.
In Human Factors, we study elements of psychology, anthropology, and sociology so that we understand the upper and lower bounds of an individual’s capacity to operate efficiently, safely, and accurately in a definable environment.
While most Human Factors Engineers do not come from the world of wet labs and ventilator hoods, it’s important to remember that elements of biological sciences are nevertheless a critical component of Human Factors. Indeed, without a basic understanding (or at least awareness) of disciplines such as Anatomy and Physiology, it would be impossible to understand a human’s capacity to lift, carry, squat, or pinch objects in their environment.
For example, while most of us know that an external medical device weighing more than 50 lbs. would be too heavy for an average person to carry in a backpack each day, what would most of us say about a device weighing 20 lbs.? What about 14 lbs.? What if their life depended on it? Where does age, gender, and overall health factor into this? How quickly will the person fatigue? Likewise, we all know that our ability to concentrate declines after a night of deprived sleep. But does the average person know how much it declines? Can we even explain why it declines in the first place?
These are extreme examples, I admit. However, even at a more granular level, the extent of the average person’s understanding of biology, anatomy, and physiology can have steep repercussions for a product’s design — even if lives aren’t at stake. For example, designing a keyboard with too narrow of spacing between keys can negatively affect typing performance (MacKenzie, 1992). The same is true with spacing that is too wide. Surely, the company responsible for manufacturing this design will struggle with the massive volumes of product returns, if the problem is too severe. Say goodbye to profitability. So long! See you at the return desk at Target!
Engineering and design
While the social and biological sciences involve learning as much about the human as possible, we must then apply that knowledge to working environments. Broad disciplines like design and engineering consistently collaborate with psychology, sociology, and the medical field to establish new practices like cognitive engineering and biomechanics (among others). These collaborations have come a long way in addressing the true needs of the human user and continue to design with productivity, safety, and risk of error in mind.
All in all, human factors is a concept that is summarized nicely by An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering, “The ultimate goal of the study of Human Factors is toward system design, accounting for those factors, psychological and physical, that are properties of the human component” (Wickens, Gordon, & Liu, 2004). There are many perspectives at work when it comes to Human Factors, but at the end of the day, creating a usable, safe, and effective product, service, or system must be at the heart of all things human.
MacKenzie, I. S. (1992). Fitts’ law as a research and design tool in human-computer interaction. Human-computer interaction, 7(1), 91-139.
Sources: Wickens, C. D., Gordon, S. E., & Liu, Y. (2004). An introduction to human factors engineering. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.