Human factors psychology is a multi-discipline academic specialization that focuses on a range of unique topics of interest in psychology and engineering. For example, ergonomics, human errors, work site safety, product engineering and human computer interaction. It is used in such a range of subjects that its utility cannot be confined simply to psychology, but employs aspects of engineering.
Human Factors Psychology 101
While most people interchangeably use the ergonomics and human factors to describe the same field of study, they are very different fields. Ergonomics focuses specifically on work processes and movements, while human factors psychology is an integrated approach of ergonomics, engineering, and psychology. Human factors psychology is the scientific study of the relationships and interactions between products, processes, and people.
Human factors psychology borrows advanced social, learning, cognitive, and experimental psychology theories and techniques. This branch of is very different from mainstream psychology because almost all research and experiments are done in the field in either business or industrial settings. Therefore, design and engineering are major parts of human factors psychology. Consequently, human factors psychology has nothing to do with counseling, mental health or psychological disorders.
Rather, it is an applied field of the discipline, which studies how individuals think and why they make the choices they do. Recursively, those observed choices are then applied to the design of products, processes, and interfaces in order to improve their use. It uses factors such as the enculturation of particular ways or methods of doing things, sociolinguistics or how individuals talk about a process or product, and sociological availability of goods or services to understand how an item or service is used.
How Human Factors Psychology Started
While many people have never even heard the term human factors psychologist, their work is everywhere we look. The rudimentary theories of human factors psychology began to develop during the 1950’s when industry experts and regular psychologists attempted to improve airplane safety. Human factor psychologists have vastly improved airplane and tower staff processes and communication methods for better air flight safety. Throughout the years, human factors psychology has expanded to the fields of computing, manufacturing and product design.
Related and integral to Human Factors is the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Prior to the 1970s, HCI was not its own field. As computers became smaller, more complex, and appeared more frequently in the daily lives of more people, it became a necessity. The rise of the personal computer allowed more people to interact with computing technology. This indicated a need for better, more intuitive design.
However, this realm of psychology isn’t limited to the virtual. It also comes into play when humans interact with tangible objects in order to prevent repetitive strain injuries, costly mistakes, or injury through an inability to understand how an object works. In many ways, it is a field that studies how we use objects, real and virtual, with the objective of making them both safer and more comfortable in a conceptual sense.
This is what User Experience designers call User Advocacy. A great deal of thought goes into how people will interface with a product, an artifact, or a system, because if the user cannot or will not use it, it doesn’t work. Today, human factors psychologists work in almost any situation that involves people working with products, machines and environments, according to the American Psychological Association. Therefore, human factors psychology allows students to work in almost any field.
How is Human Factors Psychology Different from Other Psychology Branches?
Many psychology branches are driven by academic research in university settings. However, many human factors psychologists work hands on in 100 percent applied and conducted research in the field. Human factors psychologists spend the majority of their time conducting research into the relationships between human behaviors, perceptions and cognition within a framework of product usage, and workplace environments. Their goal is to solve real-world problems that people and organizations face every day. Ideally, there will be safety, performance and functionality improvements.
For example, a human factors psychologist might conduct research on a certain workplace product, such as a computer interface screen by workers at an industrial plant. After conducting observational, quantitative, and qualitative research, the human factors psychologist will attempt to redesign the interface screen to increase accuracy and ease of use. Or rather, offer their findings to a design team and allow them to iterated on the desired outcome As a result, many human factors psychologists are expected to assist with designing training programs aimed to increase productivity, performance and accuracy. These programs also focus on reducing work related injuries, accidents and mistakes.
What are Common Topics and Specializations?
Human factors psychologists often choose to specialize in a subfield. This includes common concentrations such as product design, usability, engineering, and engineering psychology. Unique concentrations include cognitive ergonomics, which is the scientific discipline of making technology systems compatible with human cognitive abilities and limitations at work as well as human behavior. On the other hand, user experience (UX) engineers improve functionality and efficiency. Finally, error prevention is one of the most important specializations because it plays an active role in reducing quality and safety concerns.
It’s important when designing products not to assume that the proper use of them will be inherent, whether it’s a virtual product or service or a tangible object. In many cases today, the two realms are blended, with services being administered through virtual interactions and kiosks, with tangible counterparts, such as physician visits or the delivery of objects, also called artifacts, in the real world. Human factors specialists gather data on aesthetics, the spatial relationship between objects and the user, anthropometry, and the psychological understanding of how things are used.
There are many anecdotes about putting together furniture or appliances in which the instruction manual was written in another language, which was then translated into English. While humorous, this indicates a design failure in terms of human factors. The way humans convey information and how they privilege it varies from culture to culture, which can lead to some surprisingly difficult interactions when ordering a product from a company that is primarily based in another country.
What it leads to is less business for that company, less satisfaction with the products purchased, and lower revenues. When human factors specialists are involved, one may not see an improvement in how directions are conveyed. However, the pictures that accompany the directions are clearer, and success is less a matter of chance. This is because these specialists know that the conceptual model or how an item is thought of in the minds of users, may differ. Even within a culture, this is often the case.
Product design does go deeper than the instruction manual for putting together an item. When the product is being conceptualized, users or clients are considered first. Since these users will vary along many axes, it’s important that scientists and designers learn to consider these variables. Differences may be physical. For example, not all users will have the use of their vision or hearing. Is the product designed for them as well? Concomitantly, some users will have reduced dexterity, strength, and reach. How have the designers considered them?
But there is also a cognitive aspect that must be considered, which is, in some ways, less intuitive for designers. Attention span, information processing, memory, problem solving, and appreciation or grasp of the hazards involved vary quite widely, even within a normal population. Even the environment in which a product is used can influence the ease of use, safety, and utility of the object.
Human subject testing is a routine activity among human factors psychologists and allows them to conduct research to understand human performance. This provides an excellent record of continuing usability or places in which the design team need to return to the drawing board, because the subjects are drawn based on detailed sampling strategies or research schemas. These are often for regulatory agencies, such as the FDA or others with national, unilateral safety standards to consider. In terms of physical products, they also study accident reports to see if the design is responsible for a pattern of injuries, which must then be addressed.
Perhaps the most interesting technological advance with regard to research is the ability to track where test subjects’ eyes go when looking at the product or while reading the directions. As a result of this, entire websites have been redesigned to meet what are called Gestalt Principals, a body of theory often used in the design world.
User Interfaces and User Design
When considering the virtual realm, one rarely pauses to consider how much of the world’s business is now completed online. Moreover and even more rarely does one consider how much time and effort goes into making things effortless, easy to understand, and simple to complete even for a novice user.
This is where human factors research is most visible, and perhaps practiced by individuals with other specialties, because a UX designer must be a user advocate for all types of users. They are supported by UX researchers, who most often model human factors in their research methods, which they then submit to the design teams. What they are seeking to do, at base, is reduce the cognitive load of users and their products. This reduces human error because there is less for the user to think about, so they can make the pertinent decisions with a minimum of hassle.
It harkens back to the original purpose of Human Factors research in the aerospace industry. The more decisions a person has to make, the greater their cognitive load and the greater the chance they will make a mistake. While it may not result in physical injury in UX, it can ruin their day. As well, it is far more applicable than within the original context, since many of the interactions we have take place online or in a virtual context.
Along with Gestalt Principals, and the way human beings understand or feel satisfaction with a design, there is something called skeuomorphism. This is the use or representation of everyday items and terms from the physical world within the virtual world to increase comfort and a sense of familiarity. A shopping cart is often used as a place to put items you may wish to buy while browsing online. What this really represents is a cue. There’s no actual shopping cart.
But what about when the cart is replaced with a shopping bag? One might not consider that this matters, but it does. The shopping bag actually infers a different sort of shopping, one for pleasure and not necessity or perhaps a different sort of shopper is being considered. A bag implies a boutique experience, rather than a wholesale one, even though the two shopping venues may have very little difference between them.
Similarly, the words printed upon buttons matter, whether one is signing in, logging in, accepting, or agreeing. Each of these words means something different, and designers take this to heart when considering the cognitive load of users. Similarly, the color scheme, font, way that text is presented, and how much of it is offered at any one time also have importance because users will interact differently with a product they find pleasurable versus one they do not like, even if that is the only difference.
Human Factors psychology ensures that the online interaction will fit the technology being used. Applications accessed on a phone will be configured in a slightly different way, largely because the screen is smaller than a desk top and touchscreen technology is used more frequently. Everything from page orientation—whether it is viewed vertically or horizontally—to button size is considered in order to ensure that mistakes are not made. User testing is an indispensable aspect of the field because assumptions, however well-informed, are rarely all-encompassing.
Related to UX is service design, which is user-centered. It often has many of the same components as UX, but there is a real-world aspect involved. One might consider a bank, a physical store with a website, a restaurant that has a website, or many other businesses to require user-centered design. This particular realm is one in which Human Factors research is integral. As the name suggests, it is tailored for the needs of the user, which must encompass not only the cognitive load, but also the physical constraints presented by disability or anthropometry.
There are many applications to which the discipline may be applied, especially in a milieu in which there are so many products and processes that must be differentiated from one another. Ultimately, the goal of human factors psychology is to design better processes and products so that companies can increase safety, efficiency and productivity. It allows students to experience a dual career in design and psychology.