What is (are) Human Factors?

One of the great things about working in statistics is that you can play in other people’s backyards. After all, just about every scientific discipline uses statistics. So I enjoyed giving an invited talk at the recent annual conference of the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society of Australia (HFESA).

I spoke, of course, about Open Science and adopting the new statistics. Numerous people said that their discipline of human factors is currently grappling with exactly the issues—including insufficient replication, over-reliance on statistical significance testing, and publication bias—that Open Science is designed to address. That’s another sign that Open Science is currently a hot topic in numerous disciplines across much of science.

Incidentally, if you go to the list of speakers and scroll down, before finding me you may notice the Cumming Memorial Lecture. That annual lecture was named for my late father, Ron Cumming, who in 1964, with psychologist Ross Day, introduced human factors & ergonomics to Australia. Ron worked in aviation safety and then road safety and was one of the multi-disciplinary team that persuaded the Victorian State Government to introduce in 1970 the world’s first law for compulsory seat belt wearing in cars.

So what’s human factors? Think of taps that turn on as you would expect, door handles designed so that you naturally pull or push, correctly, without needing to think, and computer software in which your guesses as to how to make it work are mostly correct. It’s the study of how things and systems can be designed so they are safer, easier, and more effective for the people who use them, and the actual design of things and systems to achieve those goals.

Of course there’s lots of psychology in human factors & ergonomics, but it was fascinating to discover how many disciplines were represented at the HFESA meeting. Besides psychologists, there were also, for example, engineers, medicos, social scientists of various kinds, economists, and many from a range of health sciences.

The meeting was nostalgic for me, not only because my father was associated with HFESA in its very early days, but also because for many years I taught ‘cognitive ergonomics’ or ‘usability’ to psychology students. Some at the conference introduced themselves to me and said that it had been my course that sparked their interest in human factors, and set them on their career path.

If you are interested to learn more about human factors, a good place to start is the classic book by Don Norman that I referred to recently in another blog post, The Design of Everyday Things. Not many books have such a long and influential life that they deserve a second edition after 25 years! You’ll never look at a tap, door handle, or computer interface in quite the same way every again, and it may even lead on to a super-interesting career. 

Geoff  the_design_of_everyday_things_cover_1988


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *