What Does a Human Factors Professional Do?
In this article
Learn more about the roles, responsibilities, and salary of a human factors professional.
Modern user experience (UX) is largely rooted in the older field of Human Factors (HF), which focuses on improving user productivity and safety while minimizing human errors. If you’re familiar with UX then these goals should sound familiar! The two fields share a lot in common and it’s not that hard to transition between them as long as you’re comfortable with the more academic orientations of HF.
Today, human factors practitioners typically have the words engineer, scientist, or researcher in their job titles too. Hence, “Human Factors Engineer” is an example search string that will show you many roles.
Why are human factors in UX important?
Throughout the 20th century, it became painfully apparent that we needed to start taking human limitations into account when designing machines and technology. Human factors came about precisely because these innovations had advanced too far beyond human capabilities; users’ mental and physical limitations weren’t taken into account enough, so bad things happened.
Think of how dangerous the first factories were, how complex the interfaces of early aircraft, land vehicles, and ships were, and how much training was required of virtually anyone who had to use the first computers. Today, modern factories are incredibly safe compared to their early counterparts. Consumer and commercial interfaces for land, sea, and air vehicles are quite intuitive and elegant, causing lower and lower rates of human errors decade over decade. Computers, smartphones and tablets, screens of all kinds, are essentially ‘walk up and use’ friendly, requiring no training to achieve proficiency in most cases. These prime examples demonstrate what human factors, and more recently user experience, have brought to the world and that is why this is such an important field.
Fortunately for anyone entering these fields, the long-term outlook is excellent for many reasons. The primary reason is that technology is only expected to evolve, and UX/HF rides that line, serving as the irreplaceable assurance for user-friendly experiences.
Second, although we now have code that writes more code (think artificial intelligence) and robots that build more robots (think factories), we won’t be able to teach technology to accommodate our ever-changing needs and expectations anytime soon. In short, human factors can only be accurately addressed by humans!
Related: What is UX Design?
What do HF professionals do?
HF and UX professionals share a lot of responsibilities. The context in which they practice, the degree of standardization, and their preferred terminology, is what differs slightly. That being said, here are the key tasks that make up a typical HF job:
- Gather user and technology needs before translating them into product requirements
- Rapid prototyping and iterative testing
- Follow ISP certified human factors and usability engineering techniques
- Apply relevant models of human perception and performance to technology design (e.g., information processing, attention, decision making, situational awareness, trust, ergonomics, biomechanics, etc.)
- Create and run simulations to uncover optimal design decisions
- Lead heuristic reviews, formative and summative research studies
- Support the process of converting product requirements into user interface designs and specifications
What makes HF professionals unique?
Unlike most UX professionals, most of those in human factors tend to have advanced degrees, as their colleagues do, in settings like healthcare, aviation, military, and life sciences, HF engineers, researchers, and scientists usually work in mission-critical settings where safety, human performance, productivity, and ergonomics are especially key aspects of design.
You’ll often find them toiling with tech innovations deep inside large companies’ research & development laboratories. Accordingly, HF jobs tend to sit within engineering verticals much more often than UX jobs. This means they spend a lot of time talking to the actual builders of technology and thinking of design from a systems engineering perspective. They are expected to take more standardized and quantitative approaches to product development than what most practitioners in UX adopt.
Related: What Does a UX Designer Do?
What tech skills do HF professionals need?
If you’ve seen our UX researcher article, then you’ll notice virtually identical overlap here with what’s required of HF practitioners:
- Standard office software (word processing, spreadsheets, email, instant messaging, etc.)
- Web conferencing for meetings and moderated studies
- Design tools such as Invision, Sketch, Adobe XD, Marvel POP, and Figma
- Survey software
- Project management software
- Collaborative whiteboards
- Unmoderated research software
- Survey tools
- Video editing
- Video transcription technology
- Diary study software
- Certain biometric instruments such as eye trackers and facial recognition technology
- Statistical programs and basic database management
How much do HF professionals make?
A number of factors impact salary, such as location, company size, industry, compensation packages, and actual job title. These numbers are merely averages compiled from Glassdoor as of September 2020.
As with many trajectories in this line of work, after about 15 years many people in Human Factors move onto management or independent consulting. In each of those cases, although competition is even more intense, compensation has few limits!
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