So Chris, What do you do for a living?

20.04.17

My daughter’s primary school teacher asked if I would come in and talk about my work the other day. I had to politely decline; the thought of explaining Human Factors (HF) to clients is daunting enough let alone a class of 5 year olds! I’ve been working in HF for the best part of 10 years and in design before that, and I’m yet to hear a good and brief description of what HF is! It’s not surprising then that many of our clients regard HF as a ‘tick box’ activity they need to do and don’t fully understand the benefits of incorporating it into their design process right from the start.

At Kinneir Dufort, much of our work is in medical devices however I have also worked in the Rail, Aviation, Road, Oil & Gas and Engineering sectors. I’ve worked with HF colleagues with backgrounds in Psychology, Design, Engineering and Physiotherapy on projects from simple hand-held consumer devices to complex systems and working environments in safety critical industries. In addition, I have heard HF referred to as Applied Cognitive Psychology, Engineering Psychology, Usability, Ergonomics and the Human Element. Safe to say Human Factors is diverse; it’s no wonder it’s so difficult to neatly define. Sadly, I don’t have a snappy description, but what I would like to do is explain how I see HF and the benefits it has delivered to the projects I’ve worked on over the years.

HF research and application has influenced a wide variety of the products and environments we interact with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, due to its very nature, you probably only notice when HF has been done badly or not at all. For example, when you’re walking through a public space like an airport, if you have to stop and really look for a sign to your destination then the sign is probably in the wrong place; good HF would ensure that adequate signs are at all the important decision making points.  Or a pay and display parking machine that needs a sticker added by a frustrated parking attendant telling people where to put their money; poor HF consideration. And how about the classic handle on a push door; handles are for pulling, aren’t they?

There are HF experts working behind the scenes in almost every sector you can imagine from Aerospace to Agriculture and Marine to Medical. HF might influence anything from the complex cockpit of a fighter jet, to a commonplace plastic inhaler. So, how is HF defined in terms of the sectors it operates in, and informs? Well, none of the industries have nailed a good description but they all see it in a similar light.

It boils down to two things; firstly, understanding people. For example, understanding why people turn right and not left, or knowing how long someone can use a screen before they get tired. But above all: understanding that we’re all different.

Secondly, it’s about considering the spaces that we live and work in and the objects we interact with; understanding how our environment influences the way we behave or perform.

I personally have applied HF to a variety of projects. I have worked with a bus company to help procure a more advanced on-board ticketing system where the challenge was getting grumpy customers onto the buses as quickly as possible whilst ensuring they all had valid tickets. Sure, technology, such as contactless payment, can play a role but where should the reader be installed – by the door of the bus, by the driver or should there be more than one? Who are the likely users of the system? What do the users need to achieve with the system? How might the environment impact how people behave? By addressing such questions and working with technology providers and designers we were able to develop an excellent solution for the client.

More recently, I’ve worked with medical device companies to help them deliver great products to their consumers. Looking at the end-to-end journey of a product including manufacture, delivery, installation, use and disposal ensures that all potential end-users are catered for.  By carrying out contextual research and formative testing with these end users, be that surgeons, technicians or patients, we are able to fully define what the product needs to do.

In much of my work, HF is a translation task. We translate our understanding of humans into informed recommendations to help design or create better products, systems and environments. This understanding comes from not just the academic theory in the HF sphere but also the research and testing carried out; it’s ever evolving. HF is, at its heart, a scientific discipline that generates output based on thorough research and rigorous experiments. However, it’s this rigour that is often misunderstood and in some cases even over shadows the tangible and useful output good HF work can generate. Put simply, HF can be seen as dry, academic and boring. In my opinion part of the skill of a good HF expert in industry lies in this translation. Interpreting the results and working closely with our clients’ risk, engineering, design and marketing teams is critical to product success. 

It feels to me that I shouldn’t need to explain what Human Factors is to our clients. In a perfect world designers and engineers should inherently understand HF. However, there is still a job to be done in educating people of its value and importance. To be truly beneficial, Human Factors can’t be isolated, it must be integrated and that’s how we work at KD. That said, I’m still not sure I could get that message across to a room of 5 year olds.