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What is Human Factors Design?

Rick Zimmerman is an architect with over 50 years education, training, and experience in ergonomics, human dynamics and human factors design

Stairs failing human factors design.

Stairs failing human factors design.

What is Human Factors Design?

A human factor is any physical or cognitive aspect of either an individual or a human social behavior that affects the functioning of a technological system. So, for example, the height of an individual affects or determines the appropriate height of a chair, table, railing, door, window, light switch, and so on. Likewise, human social behavior in operating motor vehicles, keyboards, plumbing fixtures, appliances, machine controls, or handheld digital devices affects or determines the design, placement, and operation of appropriate features, devices, and controls.

Human factors design and the use of ergonomics are the application of a range of human physical, physiological, and psychological attributes and capabilities to the design, engineering and manufacture of a broad range of technological products and systems. One might use human factors design to create safer stairs, a more comfortable car seat, a more efficient and less tiring keyboard, or a more intuitively useful digital device touch-screen.

Ergonomics, and More

The term ergonomics, initially limited primarily to the study of one’s efficiency in the workplace, and derived from the Greek word ergon, meaning work, was first popularized in the early 1950s. Today, the label human factors design is considered by many to be virtually synonymous with ergonomics, but it is a phrase that has seen much broader circulation throughout the United States and Europe over the past several decades.

Human factors design is a more expansive label than ergonomics, for it embraces areas of concern not limited to, nor typically considered, conventional aspects of the workplace or work activities, such as automotive and aircraft design, recreational and gaming equipment, architecture and construction, and residential equipment, furnishings and appliances, for example. Human factors design is therefore best defined as the design of the interface between any human and any built, technical, or technological element or device.

In its broadest sense, ergonomics is a function of:

1. The features and capabilities of human anatomy;

2. The aspects and elements of the external environment, both natural and man-made;

3. The ways in which humans have adapted to interacting with that external environment.

Consider Force, Weight, Distance and Alignment

Force, weight, distance, and alignment are basic to the understanding of human factors design. We interact with the external environment predominately through force. We push or pull a door open; we lean on a handrail or guard; we lift ourselves up stairs or ramps, or press our weight onto chairs or beds. Clearly, our own individual weight, or the weight of a door, or the height we must climb will alter the required force. So too will our body’s or body part’s alignment with the required direction of force. To open a large and heavy door, we face it squarely, with feet firmly planted. To descend stairs safely, we assume an appropriate stance and posture and maintain a regulated speed and gait. As we apply force to weight over suitable distance with appropriate alignment, we experience optimal efficiency. Work becomes easier. A key aim of human factors design is to maximize effiiency, to make work easier, for by making work easier, we also make it safer.

Human Factors Design is Pervasive

Over the years, you may have heard many different adages or jokes regarding the application of human factors design, such as:

“Lift with your legs, not with your back.”

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“Don’t force it! Get a bigger hammer!”

Within the preceding working understanding, one can readily see that architects and architecture are intimately involved in human factors design, oftentimes with the assistance of those from specialized engineering or other technical fields. Our hotels and offices and homes provide interface between us and stairs, ramps, turnstiles, railings, doors, elevators, escalators, windows, mezzanines, decks, balconies, pools, spas, restrooms, appliances, furniture, sinks, switches, controls, and an extremely broad range of related electrical and mechanical and plumbing apparatus. And, in every instance of interface, proper human factors design is required to insure the utility, versatility, economy, efficiency, and safety of each and every built, technical, or technological element or device.

The Built Environment

Safety in Our Built Environment: Architecture and Construction

A simple definition of our built environment would be any environment constructed by man, as opposed to the natural environment. But after millennia of mankind’s shaping of terrain, rivers, coasts, shorelines, wetlands, and forests — from the tops of mountains to the depths of oceans — the line between what is built and what is natural keeps shifting ever outward, encompassing a greater amount of our planet. And, as more and more of us either gravitate from rural areas toward cities, towns, and villages, or relocate to the suburban/wilderness interface, our built environment further continues to expand. Thus there remain very few and isolated human activities that do not require interaction with environments that have been previously built, shaped or altered by human touch.

Focus on Safety

To adequately focus on safety in our broad and ever-expanding built environment, here we will be limiting our discussion of human factors design to the fields of architecture, construction, safety, and maintenance, as experienced by the vast majority of people on a day-to-day basis. We will not, for example, be delving into automotive or aircraft design, machine or vehicle control system design, nor into the design of computer, gaming or other digital devices or appliances. We will also refrain from any in-depth discussion of the burgeoning field of robotics. Those varied fields have expanded and advanced significantly in recent decades, and there are already vast research and educational resources available elsewhere for each.

Here we will instead focus on the elements of our common everyday built environments of home, work, commerce, entertainment, and play, and their related outdoor environments, as well as how human factors design can insure or improve utility, versatility, economy, and safety for humans in those environments.

Bibliographical Sampler

Following are a few selected sources offering deeper insight into aspects of human factors design:

Anthes, Emily, The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY 2020.

Bennett, Corwin, Spaces for People: Human Factors in Design, Prentice Hall Inc., New York, NY, 1977.

Dul, Jan and Weerdmeester, Bernard, Ergonomics for Beginners, CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, Boca Raton, FL, 2008.

Hendren, Sara, What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet The Built World, Penguin Random House LLC, New York, NY, 2020.

Templer, John, The Staircase, Studies of Hazards, Falls and Safer Design, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992.

Tilley, Alvin R. And Henry Dreyfuss Associates, The Measure of Man and Woman, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY, 2002.

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