What is Human Factors Anyway?

What is Human Factors Anyway?

By Tim Reeves, PhD CHFP

Human Factors Defined

Human factors is the application of what we know about human capabilities and limitations to the design of equipment and devices in order to enable more productive, safe, and effective use.

Known also as usability engineering, cognitive ergonomics, or user-centered design, human factors is a marriage of psychology and engineering: the application of a scientific body of knowledge about human strengths and weaknesses to the design of technology.

An Historical Perspective

Human factors has its roots in the early efforts of industrial engineers, psychologists, and efficiency experts to streamline manufacturing operations and equipment for better worker efficiency. During World War II, human factors experts were enlisted by the military to help determine why bombs missed their targets, planes were crashing, and friendly ships were being sunk. Aircraft cockpit design received special focus, as the rather poor design of cockpit controls and displays were found to induce deadly pilot errors.

Since then, human factors analysis has become a notable part of the design of many safety critical systems, especially in regulated industries such as transportation and nuclear energy production.

In recent years, human factors has found a calling in the development of main stream commercial products, as consumers demand more “user-friendly” products.

Human Factors In Medicine

In medicine, rising concerns over the safety of anesthesia gas machines triggered interest in the application of human factors (to the considerable benefit of patients), in the late ’70s. In the late 90’s, medical error emerged as a serious issue in the delivery of healthcare, spawning new interest in human factors as a means of reducing error. And like their counterparts in non-medical industries, medical software and device manufacturers have turned to human factors as a tool for shortening time-to-market, managing development costs, reducing product support costs, reducing the risk of product recalls, and improving customer satisfaction with their products. Human factors makes good business sense.


Both a body of knowledge and a methodology (or at least, a collection of empirical and analytical techniques) human factors concerns itself with the interaction between an user, environment, and device:

UserAbilities, behaviors, and physical characteristics of people that impact how they use technology;
EnvironmentCharacteristics of the environment that affect people when they use technology;
DeviceCharacteristics of the device that affect how people use it (the “human interface”).