The obvious answer to this question is of course Ergonomics, however this is an industry where the professionals within generally have completed more than one field of study. This is because the subject of Human Factors is so broad not only in its understanding but its application in the commercial world. It is also a sector that attracts those looking for a career change. Probably the easiest (and most logical) way to reason this argument is to discuss how human factors is applied in the real world.
Ergonomics is a scientific discipline that seeks to improve the design of products, services and systems in order to optimise performance, reduce errors and risk and promote human well-being. This sounds very simple in theory but when you consider the range of industries, users involved and contributing factors it becomes very much less so. For example, if we look at the application of ergonomics to an individual desk set up for optimum use we only have one user to consider. Therefore, the chair, desk, screen and the appropriate heights, distances between components and angles are all set up with the one user in mind. This is probably something that we have all experienced in our work history and (depending on your work environment) it is usually conducted by Occupational Health and tends to lead to a label at the work station to let everyone know that it has been set specifically for the one user and is not to be tampered with! This solution will normally fix the discomfort/limb strain experienced by the user and is a resounding success.
But what about the mass production of one product that cannot be altered by the user for best fit? This could be anything from a hoover to a medical device to a car – how are they tailored and to whom? What about information services that are going to be viewed by thousands, potentially millions or people – such as the road sign system or passenger information signs in train stations and airports. In these two examples alone, there are so many variables to consider. From the height, weight, age, wellness of the user to cultural and language aspects, and how travellers and road users will seek and interpret information. When you then include high risks industries such as oil and gas, nuclear and aviation these problems not only become more pertinent, but errors come with much more severe consequences.
The understanding of anatomy and physiology are essential in order to assess what the human body is capable of and to strive towards maintaining optimal conditions for health and well-being and the reduction of injury risk. Does the use of the product put any strain on certain parts of the body, is there enough free space to allow the user to manoeuvre adequately to operate efficiently? Are the movements needed by the user comfortable and natural? If not could the location of key components be altered?
Psychology also has a large part to play in this process; how will the user process and interpret the information provided and how will this affect the decision they then make? Human and computer interaction is becoming increasingly more prevalent in our society, so psychology also has a part to play in this interaction when considering the relationship. The instructions on a self-check in machine at an airport for example. Are the processes and functions logical for the user and when asked for a call to action can they interpret the information provided to move forward to the next step?
The study of Ergonomics as an undergraduate degree will provide a foundation in the principles of both physiological and psychological considerations for user efficiency. However, given all the factors at play above it is not surprising that professionals with degrees in product/industrial design, engineering, psychology, physiology, physiotherapy, computer sciences and sports/exercise sciences can very commonly be found working in the Human Factors arena. Usually following this with a MSc (and sometime PhD) in Ergonomics, commonly with a major in an industry specification. Be that transport, human computer interaction or health and patient safety.
Last month I attended a Careers day run by the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, which focused on graduates and the wealth or opportunities and career pathways within this sector. The overwhelming message, from all the industry professionals who spoke that day, was that they all love their jobs and the promise that a career in Ergonomics would never be a boring one. Considering all of the above it is easy to believe this to be the case.
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Julie has written numerous interesting and well researched blogs on a wide range of topics related to Medical Devices and Human Factors. Please click here to read more of Julie's blogs and here to find out more about Julie.