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Human factors in design

Updated: Apr 15

This topic is both fascinating and imperative to achieving truly great solutions.

It suggests that good design is the result of a problem-solving approach, that integrates the users and stakeholders throughout the whole process of development. It's impossible to foresee every use-case that a product may go through within the target audience. Therefore human factors is about creating a deep understanding toward their needs, desires, challenges.

In order to develop an educational program for coffee farmers, a far better result will be achieved by working with the farmers in the fields of Columbia, rather than hypothesising from a desk in the UK. As the user becomes more socially, economically and geographically distant from the design team, the greater the need for sympathetic understanding.

Therefore from early research, through ideation, prototyping and implementation, the engagement of users will lead to solutions well-integrated to human considerations.

A great comparison was presented by my tutor Steven Smith from the University of Brighton years ago – and it always stuck with me as such a vivid example; take the humble light switch. A device which half the planet interacts with on a daily basis.

Both designs flip the lights right, so what’s the problem?

What if the room is (unsurprisingly) dark? What if the user is blind? What if the user has severe Parkinson’s disease? What if you’re carrying a baby down the stairs and trying to use your elbow to press the switch?

When you factor in the innumerable use cases with people of vastly different capabilities, it becomes infuriating at how inconsiderate the initial design is. It baffles me how these switches are still being manufactured today. There is fundamentally no functional or economic reason why the toggle switch should be used over the paddle switch. It is unequivocally inferior from a human factors’ perspective - and lacks consideration toward inclusive design.

Ergonomics = human factors?

The field of human factors is intertwined with the study of ergonomics and - depending who you ask - considered synonymous. It relates more specifically to the dimensionality of humans, in relation to the product and context of use. One example might be to study the anthropometric data of children of 8-10 years, in order to ascertain the height of a bicycle handlebar. I like to view ergonomics as a subset of human factors, although anthropometric studies could be considered a subset of human factors and ergonomics.

Do human factors apply to my product?

Well, ask yourself – will a human interact with my product? The answer is usually yes! Despite how trivial the product or system may be, there are always opportunities to optimise the experience for the benefit of the user. It is also widely understood that design which executes well on human factors not only provides additional value to the user, but the broader society and economic benefit to the company as well. A well-performing solution will almost always outlast a lesser opponent.

So how can these principles be put into use? I will direct you towards the experts at IDEO who masterfully employ this practice, that have built a toolkit for designers.


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