I’m human so am I a Human Factors Expert?

There are a lot of definitions of Human Factors out there … so let me add one more.

Human Factors is the application of knowledge about human capabilities and limitations to design for safe, comfortable, and efficient use.

[This definition is an amalgamation of a number of definitions but most particularly the definitions found in Alphonse Chapanis’ 1995 Ergonomics in Product Development: A Personal View, and Martin Helander’s 1997 The Human Factors Profession.]

And, when Human Factors is effectively included in the design process, the product can enjoy a number of benefits.  Some benefits include minimizing the potential for use error; reducing the amount of required training and guidance material to use your product; and increased user satisfaction, productivity, and confidence in your product.

A thought more common than you’d expect is: Last time I checked I was human, so aren’t I a human factors expert? Isn’t it just common sense?  The answer is “not necessarily.”  The key element in considering human factors in design is that you thoroughly consider how the various types of users who are intended to use your product will think and behave when interacting with it.

And, while you may have many of the characteristics of one or more of the types of users who are intended to be using your product, you are unique.  You have experiences, capabilities, preferences, and insights that others do not. So, designing for yourself as the user can lead to early and troublesome design decisions that are expensive to undo.

How do I avoid designing for myself?

The best strategy is to use and trust in a system design process in which:

  • Intentions are defined up front. The intentions you define should include who are your intended users, what are the intended functions of your product, and what is the product’s intended context of use.
  • Design decisions are documented (including reasoning behind them and trade-offs) and each decision may be traced back to the intentions.  The reasoning behind the design decisions for your product should be based on domain and industry knowledge of your intended user’s capabilities and limitations.
  • Well-planned user tests with representative users are conducted throughout the design process (with appropriate level of fidelity given the test and stage in the design process).
  • Results of the product testing are documented, analyzed, and used to improve the design.

So, in a nutshell, you definitely have the makings of a Human Factors Expert if you:

  • Apply domain and industry knowledge of human capabilities and limitations to design for safe, comfortable, and efficient use
  • Don’t simply design for yourself
  • Use a strong system design process based on up-front, well-defined intentions


What’s your definition of Human Factors?

Do you have your own definition of human factors or do you have a favorite that’s already out there? Leave a reply below to share it here! I’d love to hear it!

As a side note: If you feel like you never can read too many definitions of human factors, check out Eric Shaver’s post on The many definitions of human factors and ergonomics to enjoy more definitions. You’ll find it at http://www.thehumanfactorblog.com/2009/03/16/the-many-definitions-of-human-factors-and-ergonomics/.


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