For years I’ve struggled explaining what I do at cocktail parties. The field of Human Factors isn’t a particularly profound concept, it’s just one people aren’t used to hearing about. Here’s my 60-second explanation:
Picture our world divided into two distinct and separated spheres. Technology and the world we interact with on one side, and people, the users of technology on the other. Traditionally the “builders” – engineers, construction workers, hard scientists – are focused on the Tech sphere while “people people” – psychologists, sociologists, therapists, and others in the humanities – are focused on the People sphere. Depending on what industry you are in, what’s between the spheres usually isn’t much. And most bad products and experiences (whether on a website, an automobile, or a mobile phone device) come from this gap in the middle: a lack of understanding of those who use technology by those who build them.
Human Factors’ goal is filling the void in the middle and connecting the two. It’s about understanding the two spheres, their individual limitations, and how they relate to one another. Through research of the People sphere, HF professionals communicate user needs and behaviors back to the Tech sphere, leading to better designs for the end users. It’s sort of a hybrid field, part psychology and research, part engineering and design. There are many methods and subfields which aim to bridge the gap in different ways, and if you want to learn more check out Wikipedia’s definition, which does a nice job.
As each sphere continues to grow on its own (technological advances allow us to do more while we continue to learn more and more about people) the need for Human Factors in connecting the two also increases. It’s applications are limitless, it’s benefits priceless.
Ultimately, it’s about adding human factor to technology. Making the things we build and interact with easier for people by understanding people. Period.
I’m also working on a 15-second version for bus-stop encounters. Let me know what you think!