Defining a Human Factors Specialist


When someone says, “I am a teacher” or “I am an accountant,” folks get it. People know what those jobs are.

But when I say, “I am a human factors specialist,” I might as well say I am an alien from Mars—except even then folks would still have a better idea of exactly what I was.

In explaining what a human factors specialist is, I try to start with something most people already know: “Have you heard of the term ergonomics before? Like when an office worker gets his or her computer, desk and chair set up to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome?”

That’s a job people are familiar with. So I build on their knowledge, explaining that ergonomics is a sub-specialty of human factors. If you think of ergonomics as designing products to work with people from the neck down, then think of human factors as designing products to work with people from the neck up—the thinking part.

That’s what I do. I am a human factors specialist and I work with companies to assure them that their products, services and websites work for people.

On the human factors side (the cognitive side) I make sure:

  • Folks can easily find a phone number in the cell phone.
  • Medical devices are safe and easy to use so doctors and nurses can think about patients instead of trying to figure out how a medical device works.
  • The ATM gives you back your ATM card before giving you your money. Because once you get your money, nothing else matters and you will drive away from the ATM.

On the ergonomic side (the physical side) I make sure:

  • The back hatch of the SUV can be easily opened even when someone is wearing gloves
  • The radio and heating / air conditioning controls are within reach of the driver even when the driver is wearing a seatbelt.
  • Medication packaging takes into account decreased hand and finger strength of patients, so that patients can open the packaging

My explanation drives some of my colleagues crazy. Among experts the terms human factors and ergonomics are frequently used interchangeably. But when I separate the physical versus the cognitive aspects of human factors, folks understand what it is I do. And making things easier to understand is also part of what I do.