Defining Human Factors

What is human factors and ergonomics?

According to The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, human factors is a field that seeks to “present theoretical and practical advances concerning the relationship between people and technologies, tools, environments, and systems” with a vast field of research, which aims to “leverage fundamental knowledge of human capabilities and limitations – and the basic understanding of cognitive, physical, behavioral, physiological, social, developmental, affective, and motivational aspects of human performance – to yield design principles; enhance training, selection, and communication; and ultimately improve human-system interfaces and sociotechnical systems that lead to safer and more effective outcomes.”

The Tufts University Department of Psychology website describes human factors and ergonomics as a field that “applies knowledge of human behavior and attributes to the design of equipment, machines, and large-scale systems for human use.”

Human factors and ergonomics is essentially the study of human (cognitive or physical) interaction with our surrounding tools, technology and environments. With areas of application ranging from architecture, transportation and healthcare to industrial engineering and cognitive science, there is no doubt that human factors (or ergonomics) is an incredibly relevant and widespread field. As our sociotechnical systems advance and usability needs evolve, so must our expertise and knowledge of human interaction with the manmade systems that surround us.

What is the difference between human factors and ergonomics?

According to the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors, the terms ergonomics and human factors are widely interchangeable. However, ergonomics is usually used to describe the physical aspects or the “fit” of the tool, technology or system in question. Ergonomists, people who specialize in ergonomic design, tend to look at individual pieces of a system such as buttons, indicator lights or handles, while human factors specialists study the wider systems and technologies that people inhabit and use. Despite these minute differences, the two specialties go hand in hand. Any human-centered tool, technology or system will inevitably require research and knowledge in both human factors and ergonomics.    

What are some real world examples of human factors and ergonomics?

Human factors is everywhere! Every door handle (good or bad), web or app interface, washing machine, staircase, or healthcare device you have ever used has been influenced by human factors and ergonomic design in some way. Many prominent examples of real world applications for human factors and ergonomics come from aviation or automotive systems such as the control panels in planes or speed tachometers in cars, but these are just a few limited applications of such a vast field of study. Human factors and ergonomics play a crucial role in the development of biomedical systems such as joint replacement technologies, respirators and dynamic prosthetics, as well as smaller scale user-centered designs such as the insanely satisfying keyboard buttons on Apple’s the new Macbook pro or Spotify’s clean mobile and desktop user interfaces. Anytime and anywhere in the world that a human is tasked with interacting with an object, there is likely an application for human factors and ergonomics. 


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