Human Factors

Human Factors practitioners use knowledge, experience, skill and judgement to optimise work. They do this by optimising the components of a workplace, primarily:

  • the environment (place of work);
  • the job (the tasks undertaken);
  • the tools used; and
  • the person(s) themselves (e.g. through training/education, PPE).

Physician heal thyself….

Given our focus on the end-user, and on making things as simple as possible, as human factors practitioners we should be good at concisely explaining what it is we do. But in my opinion, we are not, and the industry still suffers from poor definition and understanding in certain sectors.

One way of thinking about human factors is to compare it with the medical profession. If you have an ailment, there are General Practitioners (GPs) and Specialists (e.g. paramedics and chiropractors, opthalmologists and anaesthetists). There are many different specialists but you might refer to them all collectively as doctors. Similarly, there are lots of HF specialisms and specialists but in general terms we all work to make things safer, more efficient or just easier.

Like a GP, a good HF practitioner should be able to quickly identify what is wrong or could go wrong generally and offer advice. Also like the medical profession HF practitioners may specialise, for example in product design, health and safety, risk assessment, acoustics, HF integration for systems engineering, or workspace ergonomics. There are a great many HF domains and specialisms. For a more complete list click 'HF Domains' at the top of the page or follow this link.

Sector Experience

Industry sector based experience can be important, as the management of human factors is different in the rail, nuclear, defence and oil & gas industries. I don’t think one should get too hung up by this though, there are only a certain number of ways to skin a cat, and in my experience the problems are very similar in all industry sectors. They are predominantly identified and treated in the same way, with a few minor modifiers depending on the specific industry.

What it is important to remember is that all HF practitioners are not the same, and not all will necessarily be expert in health and safety or risk assessment (a common misconception). Many HF practitioners specialise in systems engineering for procurement, or softer systems issues such as social interaction and operational analysis and operations design (developing operational procedures).

 What you should expect from a skilled human factors practitioner is someone who can:

  • Carry out an assessment of the context and identify HF issues (current or potential)
  • Identify what needs to be done in order to gain a sufficient understanding of the issues to identify how they can be avoided or resolved
  • Identify the optimum method of avoiding or resolving the issues (working with other disciplines and carrying out cost-benefits, trading and compromising with other engineering issues as necessary
  • Implement a plan to migrate to the new context

Is it really that simple? Yes and no. Like any other practice that aims to assess, predict or diagnose issues, the amount of work that needs to be done will depend on the complexity of the context. But in essence, all problems will be approached in a similar way. The tasks carried out along the way, and the HF products (the reports or designs for example) will vary considerably.

The planning and management of Human Factors within a complex system is known simply as Human Factors Integration.

Tell me more about Human Factors Integration

© adw Human Factors Ltd 2011