The MPE Degree

The Importance of Human Factors in Product Design – Part 1

In the field of product research, design and development there are several buzz-words these days: design thinking, empathetic design, human engineering, human-centered, user-centered and user-centric design are just a few. The common ground among them all is human factors, or ergonomics.

In Why Empathy is Crucial to the Product Development Process we discuss the benefits of addressing all stakeholder needs in the front-end process of product development. In this post we will discuss one of the design keys that you cannot afford to ignore and fundamentals integral to developing any successful product.

The Importance of Human Factors in Product Design

A not so atypical day at a busy hospital…

Imagine you’re nearing the end of a 10 hour shift and have only had, what feels like, minutes to rest your feet all day. In the short walk to your next appointment, your body catches up to you and you become aware that your lower back and feet are aching from the day. You walk into the room and instantly recognize that the equipment you need for the scheduled test isn’t in the room. You have 20 minutes to find it, get it back to the room and complete the exam. After searching the wing, you find out the device is a floor down from you. You’re doing something between a walk and a jog to get down a floor and to find the device. You bend down to untangle and wrap up three cords, pick up and hang the foot pedal in its place, check to ensure the supplies are filled and rush out the room with the unit. Not only is the cart top-heavy, but the device isn’t secured to the cart and the handle is placed too low. You find yourself pushing the cart in a hunched over position, bracing the device to the cart with your left arm (because you do not want to be the person responsible for damaging an expensive system) while pushing and steering with your right.  Nonetheless, you push the cart with its small casters down the narrow hallway, lifting each caster gently over the threshold, and onto the elevator before continuing your journey back to the exam room.

The story depicted above is generalized and comparable to looking through a keyhole. It paints a picture of the many stressors faced during a typical work day. Some of the stressors are avoidable, others can be minimized, and there are those, such as human, mental workload and emotion that cannot be controlled, but must be accounted for. Unfortunately, nothing can be done in the design of the product that will fix that long shift of being on your feet, however, designing with empathy will help reduce unnecessary external stressors.

Physical Needs + User Behavior

Products impact the story they exist within. Our interactions and environment directly impact our psychology (perception), behavior, and productivity – for better or worse. As a result, we have numerous fields of scientific studies on most factors that may affect human performance. Manmade materials, products, and environments are a few of those areas that are researched. A simple example is how the use of LED lighting in the home and/or workplace effects people.

Product developers rely on the use of Human Factors, also known as Ergonomics, to accommodate user markets. Defined by the International Ergonomics Association, “Ergonomics is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

“If people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient – or just plain happier-the designer has succeeded.” – Henry Dreyfuss, The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design

While getting out of your comfort zone is generally a good thing in life, it’s not a great idea when it applies to the physical human performance required to complete a systematic task. Visual acuity, reach/extension, and push/pull exertions are samples of the considerations that require meticulous calculations to deliver a safe and comfortable work flow with a superlative user experience. Human factors is one design key that cannot be ignored. In the field of research, design and development, we have an obligation to ensure the products we create serve, protect and delight the user; hence the term user-centered design.

In our next post, we will discuss a human factors centered design approach and some of the benefits of having that design focus.

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