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  • Writer's pictureshannon bailey

What is Human Factors?

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Stack of textbooks on topics such as human factors, research design, and statistics
I've read a lot of textbooks, but these ones I still reference all the time!

What is Human Factors?

I’m a Human Factors Scientist, but most people have no idea what that means. It’s a relatively new, and rapidly growing, field. The simplest way to describe it is that human factors is an applied mix of psychology and engineering, and is often usability focused. Depending on what job one is doing within this field, human factors is sometimes called ergonomics. It’s not easy to narrow down the broad categories of human factors into a simple definition. The easiest way I’ve found to explain it is saying I help make technology safer and easier to use.

Human factors is making technology safer and easier to use

That’s such a broad definition, but the field itself is broad. People trained in human factors are in industry, government, and academia, working on everything from making planes or hospitals safer to designing better training simulations or VR interfaces. Most people in human factors roles have advanced degrees (Masters or PhD), where they learned research techniques and statistics so they can use data to improve systems. Data-driven problem solving is really the key.

In my opinion, what makes this field special is that human factors uses data-driven approaches to solve real-world problems. That’s exactly why I became a Human Factors Scientist – I love trying to find answers to actual problems using a rigorous scientific method. Using a scientific process is a way to show evidence that a solution is feasible or useful without relying on my own biased opinion. It’s not enough to say that a video game will help students learn. I need to show evidence that the game improves specific learning outcomes beyond other factors. One of my mentors always emphasized that a technology should show actual evidence of “value-added” before people should invest money or resources. I’ve adopted this mentality in everything I do in my career, asking “how does this show improvement over what’s out there?”

What do Human Factors practitioners do?

If you don’t know someone in human factors already, chances are you have interacted with something today that a human factors practitioner helped develop or test. At its core, human factors is about designing and testing systems with the human user in mind. For example, a user-friendly phone app puts buttons where a user expects them to be. If the interface doesn’t make sense to the user, it’s going to cause confusion and frustration, leading to errors. This is a simple example, but I’m sure you can think of a time when something you used was annoying because it didn’t make sense. Just today I accidentally set the timer on my microwave instead of cooking the food because the buttons were placed in an unexpected configuration. User testing could have identified this as an issue to solve. If you’re interested in this topic at all, there’s a popular book that gives excellent examples of designing for how people think, called “Design of Everyday Things” by a Cognitive Psychology professor and all-around usability expert Don Norman (who founded the Neilson Norman Group).

What are Human Factors jobs?

It’s not always easy to spot someone in human factors, because the job titles can be pretty diverse. My job title now is Human Factors Scientist, but in my previous job with very similar job description, I was a Research Psychologist. Other people who graduated from my Human Factors program are Design Researchers, Usability Engineers, Safety Specialists, or User Interaction Designers. These are human factors job titles in government and industry, but others in my cohort are now tenure-track professors at universities, with titles like Assistant or Associate Professor of Psychology.

I think that’s part of the appeal of human factors as a field – you can make it what you want. When I first started my PhD in Human Factors and Cognitive Psychology almost ten years ago, I had no idea I would end up working on a virtual reality trainer for surgeons at a startup company. It’s a good fit for my human factors background because I can use my experience in user-centered design and also experimental methodology to help develop and test our VR system. It’s also a job where I get to learn something new every day, and that’s exactly what I wanted when I decided to go for a PhD.

This outline of what human factors is only scratches the surface, but I hope it’s a decent highlight of the field. There are so many researchers and practitioners in human factors that are saving lives and contributing to society in so many ways. I hope that as the field of human factors becomes better known, those human factors scientists get the broader recognition they deserve.

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1 Comment

JF Wolverton
JF Wolverton
Apr 17, 2020

Great blog, a badly needed field, have you read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman?

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