Lessons from the Workshop
I think the days of human factors meetings, where we all wring our hands and complain that we are not brought into systems development soon enough, are over. Our program officers in the laboratories are developing prototypes that are being sought after by the Navy.... We are leading, we are the initiators.
Willard Vaughan, Jr.
Several cross-cutting themes and lessons about explaining the value of and promoting human factors emerged from the workshop presentations, discussions, and working groups. Many human factors professionals are optimistic about the future of their discipline, based on several developments. Domains like health care and telecommunications offer rapidly growing challenges and opportunities for the application of human factors. In the medical arena, for example, demand is soaring for home health care devices that family caregivers can use safely and comfortably. Hospitals and health care professionals are demanding greater attention to human factors in equipment and systems that range from simple to high-tech, so opportunities for significant contributions are growing.
Procedures and systems are becoming more complex in many industries. More complex systems place greater demands on human users, which creates a need for better design, improved training, and serious attention to strengths and vulnerabilities of humans throughout system development and implementation.
Workforces in both the private and public sectors are being cut, encouraging greater collaboration among workers, and increasing their reliance on technology—changes that rely on human factors expertise for effective implementation. The military, for example, is reducing the
number of manned defense systems, embedding training in the equipment itself, and emphasizing support systems for making decisions: all three trends will need innovations based on human factors.
Several government agencies—including the Department of Defense, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration—have adopted regulations or procedures that require decision makers to consider human factors. The Navy, for example, has made interdisciplinary management an institutional requirement for advanced programs, and it is a procedure in which human factors expertise has provided critical support. Although these regulations ensure that human factors will receive some type of attention, they do not guarantee that decisions will be made by human factors experts or that involvement will amount to more than checking off a box. Human factors professionals still must articulate and demonstrate the value of bringing in the right kinds of people and effectively using their expertise.
The rest of this section identifies key points drawn from workshop discussions regarding resource commitments, resource mobilization, strategies for advancing human factors, and packaging the outputs of human factors; it ends with a note on continuing issues in the field.
Human factors research and development can produce numerous benefits for individuals, business, government, and society. The workshop discussions focused on some of the most compelling reasons that industry and government should invest in human factors.
A strong case can be made that investments in human factors improve health and safety. Companies that do so also signal that they have positive values: they care about the health, safety, and well-being of their employees and the consumers of their products.
One factor that persuaded the military to fund ergonomics research after the Vietnam War was the number of American casualties attributable to our own errors, including such highly visible errors as blowing up an ammunition dump or shooting a rocket into one of our own tanks. The airline industry also
provides dramatic examples of the relationship between safety and human factors. In 1977, two Boeing 747s collided on a runway at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, the worst commercial aircraft disaster in history. As with any major accident, several factors were involved, but a critical one was the misunderstanding in voice communications between the controller and the captain of one of the aircraft. As a consequence of this disaster, major efforts were made to standardize communications procedures in international airspace.
There are a lot of cases in which failure to go in up front has been followed by serious problems, which have been fixed, but very expensively.
Examples do not have to be large scale or sensational to be convincing. Every industry has modest but compelling instances of discomfort, injuries, illnesses, or accidents that could be prevented with greater attention to human factors. An example is the large number of slips and falls that happen on the ground under ordinary circumstances.
Human factors experts not only must be able to identify particular areas where safety improvements could be made, but also must be prepared to demonstrate, in clear and specific terms, how their involvement will appreciably improve the existing situation. They must take into account both the human side of the equation—a healthier, safer, happier workforce—and the monetary side, such as cost savings due to fewer absences, lower medical fees, reduced insurance and workers' compensation costs, and fewer lawsuits.
Human factors practitioners confront the fact that human characteristics among individuals are variable. These characteristics include physical dimensions; personality states and traits; knowledge, skills, and aptitudes; cognitive schema and style; motivation; and a host of behavioral attributes—which collectively contribute to variability in human performance. Maximizing system reliability and performance requires effectively addressing the most variable component—the human.
Some human factors practitioners consider human variability the Achilles' heel of human factors. But many consider the challenge of managing human variability a core competency of human factors that should be highlighted during discussions of organizational strategic planning. Management of human variability requires the application of human factors principles,
data, and methods across the life-cycle of product development. This includes taking into account human variability throughout analysis, design, and test and evaluation activities.
The opportunity for economic gains is among the strongest justifications for taking account of human factors. Investments in human factors can give companies a marketplace edge by producing innovations that represent a competitive advantage. They can add value to products or services, making them more desirable to consumers. An economic justification for human factors should not be based solely on the hope of a major market breakthrough; often the effects of human factors are more subtle or cannot be easily determined until after they have happened. For example, investments in human factors can increase productivity and reduce manufacturing costs, identify time-saving steps in the manufacturing process, or increase the life span of expensive equipment—effects that are convincing over the long term.
Advocacy for human factors will essentially boil down to the simple statement that this is a mature technology that can generate profit.
Sometimes the economic justification for human factors comes down to a simple phrase: pay now or pay later. Examples abound in which a failure to address human factors up front was followed by a serious problem that was very expensive to fix. Attention to human factors can also reduce expenditures for warranty problems, health care, accidents, absenteeism, and legal fees. These ''cost avoidance'' arguments can be persuasive, but they are not always enough. Businesses and organizations do not have unlimited budgets. Many corporate executives who are sympathetic to human factors investments must still be convinced that they can afford them, given their budget constraints.
Human factors experts disagree about how much one should emphasize cost-benefit analyses and how precisely one can calculate savings due to human factors. For example, it is not always easy to determine what portion of profits from a successful new product are attributable to investments in human factors. And even where specific savings can be calculated, people do not always give human factors appropriate credit. Nevertheless, human factors professionals should know how to produce cost-benefit analyses because organizations like to see them and often find them persuasive. It is also
important to present cost-benefit models in language and format tailored to a specific client's needs.
Some of the very characteristics that define the discipline of human factors can be used to help articulate its value. The most successful human factors innovations tend to be those that share certain key features.
When I have hired a new Ph.D. out of school, I have provided this advice. I think the sooner you can become an expert in at least two areas outside of human factors, and possibly three if you're good, the better off you are going to be.
The multidisciplinary nature of human factors (including individual, group, and organizational considerations) can be a great strength, although potential clients do not always understand it. Human factors professionals must be able to explain how human factors principles can be adapted to meet the needs of a wide variety of disciplines. In fact, some human factors professionals also become experts in other areas to enable them understand and meet the needs of a particular industry or technological field.
The real work of human factors is often done in multidisciplinary teams. In many companies, people who are not specialists in human factors still have responsibilities for implementing and in some cases designing innovations based on human factors. Thus, human factors professionals must know how to educate designers, engineers, managers, and other key individuals to think about and address human factors in their work.
Opinions differ about whether human factors specialists operate most effectively in a self-contained division or as part of a multidisciplinary team. Some companies have a distinct division for human factors, which provides a clear place where people can go for expertise and helps to maintain a unified approach and identity, especially in times of tight budgets. Sometimes these divisions are organized as self-sustaining enterprises that generate their own profits and manage their own budgets. Other companies choose to distribute human factors expertise across several departments. Human factors functions can also be organized by customers or by processes.
To make the real change, we have to get into systemic change, where we are looking at the whole organization. How can we change the organization to give them incentives to want to consider human factors? We are part of that process now, and I think we are being very successful.
Human factors experts take scientific findings about human performance from biology, psychology, cognitive science, and other fields and apply them to the design of procedures, systems, technology, and devices. They can translate new knowledge about human physiology, learning, and behavior to bear on concrete products and processes. They can multiply the influence of technological advances by ensuring that people can implement the technology to its best advantage.
One of the great strengths of human factors is its ability to look at operations, problems, and needs across an entire system or organization. Successful applications of human factors tend to use this systemic approach to influence practices across a department, a company, or even an industry. Human factors experts can align the small details of a system (the "micro" level) and the broader processes (the "macro" level) around the same strategic goals. In fact, the human factors discipline is moving toward a "sociotechnical" approach, which designs integrated strategies for improving organizational capacity.
You need to come as a helper, not a killer. In many cases, we have seen programs where the human factors engineer simply walks in and proceeds to try to change the program or terminate it. That is certainly not the attitude to have in this day and age.
Experienced human factors specialists often begin their work by examining the needs of the user and working backwards toward a human factors solution, rather than focusing narrowly on the human factors dimensions of a specific problem. Clients seldom say they need expertise in human factors, because they may not understand fully what that means. Instead they say they are looking for solutions to a complicated problem involving people and systems. The clients themselves may misdiagnose or misdefine the real problem. The astute human factors professional should listen to the problem, observe and investigate the situation, decide what really needs to be done, and describe the value of the proposed action.
Human factors experts advise against trying to fit an organization into a textbook design
process; instead, they recommend working to adapt knowledge about processes to the unique needs of the specific client. Every enterprise has its own processes and systems; it is the job of human factors to understand these processes, recognize what they are intended to accomplish, then figure out how to make necessary but compatible changes.
Strategies for Advancing Human Factors
Every potential client has unique problems and perspectives. An economic strategy that convinces one executive to invest in human factors may fizzle with another. Given this diversity, human factors experts will be most effective if they are familiar with a variety of strategies for articulating value.
Tailor the Message
Experienced human factors experts suggest that specialists in the field get to know their customers well. It helps to learn the industry vocabulary, study the steps in the development process for a particular commodity, and find out what a company values. This kind of knowledge can help the experts tailor their strategies to specific audiences, customers, and individuals. For example, a vice president of human resources who has trouble filling jobs might like to know how human factors can help reduce absenteeism and retain a skilled workforce. A line manager looking at labor-capital tradeoffs could respond to figures showing reduced cycle time. A business process engineer might want to see new ideas for clustering tasks.
Reach the Right People
Who needs to know about the potential value of human factors? Often the answer is multiple people, even within the same industry, company, or organization. Within an industry, human factors specialists might target product designers, manufacturers, operators, safety personnel, and product consumers. Within the same company, one might approach the chief executive officer, the product designers, and the managers, all with somewhat different messages. Often a good strategy is to educate one person at a time, until a critical mass of people in the organization understand and support human factors.
Potential users are not the only audience. Many people outside the field of human factors have a stake in the discipline's
Instead of thinking about a traditional group, in this case physicians and nurses, they were thinking, well, maybe malpractice attorneys are really part of the key audience. That is the "out-of-the-box" thinking that is needed here.
vitality and could become articulate advocates. In the field of medicine, for example, one might address not only physicians and nurses, but also home caregivers' associations and medical malpractice attorneys. Human factors experts have not effectively enlisted these kinds of nontraditional supporters.
Reaching the right people also means educating the general public about what human factors are and why they are important, which in turn suggests that human factors specialists must speak and write in lay language.
Change the Organizational Culture
Experience shows the importance of having an organizational culture that values human factors and infuses human factors in all its actions and processes. When such a culture exists, every decision to invest in human factors does not have to be separately justified and debated. When the culture does not understand or support human factors, resistance may be hard to overcome. In these situations, it is often worthwhile to try to change the culture by demonstrating to the corporate leadership that human factors is relevant to the organization's mission. Indeed, a welcoming culture often begins with a strong commitment to human factors among executives and senior management.
The military experience illustrates how leadership attitudes toward human factors can send signals through an organization. Efforts a decade ago to promote human factors in the Navy were not successful until key admirals recognized its importance. Even with leadership from the top, however, it still took time to infuse new attitudes throughout the system—from the Pentagon brass to the systems designers to the sailors—and to make compatible changes in policies and practices.
When human factors experts enter the loop too late, after a product or process has already been designed but isn't working well, their role comes down to patching a poorly designed system with training or procedures. It is easier and more cost-
With good contacts and with folks like us in the room, we can solve a lot of problems up front. Generally what I find myself doing is getting to the executives at the time the design is being written and saying: Do you know what you're buying and do you know why you want it? Have we thought that through from a business point of view and does it get you what you want?
effective if they become involved in the initial phases of design. Several companies and agencies recognize this and are bringing human factors people to the table from the beginning. The Army, for example, has instituted the MANPRINT process, which is designed to bring human factors experts and tools to the table in the early stages of system design. Although somewhat bureaucratic and laden with paperwork, this process has helped to call attention to human dimensions at the beginning of a project. In fact, it is often the human factors people who initiate ideas and innovations for defense systems.
Deliver Short-Term Payoffs
Successful human factors specialists believe that a good way to establish user trust is to deliver a series of short-term payoffs, such as designing useful products at a regular pace. Then, with enhanced credibility, human factors teams can tackle more extensive projects with longer timelines and less certain rewards. In cases where human factors experts have a large project as their first job, it often makes sense to start with the most variable component of the device or the process and find ways to improve it. A success with one component can have a powerful impact.
Packaging the Outputs of Human Factors
In an era of performance-based budgeting, the case for investing in human factors will depend on measurable outcomes. These outcomes of human factors research and development include new or better devices, but they need not be limited to material products. Increasingly, human factors research is producing new processes and strategies for structuring job tasks, helping people work together, and organizing large systems and organizations. For instances, human factors knowledge can yield more effective training strategies, improved manufacturing processes, and innovative strategies for organizing work.
Often the most highly valued outcomes of human factors are the most comprehensive—addressing tasks, jobs, processes,
and work flow, rather than simply changing the way people work with machines.
Emphasizing Products and Processes
Concrete products and actual processes provide a stronger rationale for investing in human factors than do abstract research results. Products and processes show how human factors can yield marketable technology and devices and can improve operations in workplaces and other settings. Tangible products and processes are more persuasive to potential investors, who want to know in the beginning what outputs an investment can yield and how they can be marketed.
Emphasizing tangible products has a down side, however. A strategy that rewards immediate gains and quick time to market holds little incentive for funding long-term basic research. Yet the future of human factors depends on basic continuing research. Knowledge from research leads to innovation and monumental change, while a product orientation generally produces incremental change.
Embedding Human Factors into Current Tools and Practices
Some of the most appealing and innovative products and processes embed human factors knowledge into existing tools and effective practices. Human factors experts have developed tools that can teach engineers and product designers about human factors issues as they work their way through the design process. Tools embedded in computer-aided design programs can alert engineers to potential human factors problems, answer critical questions, and help designers make wise decisions. Human factors research has also produced techniques and processes to help organizations build their own repositories of human factors knowledge.
Industry and government are conducting more training, research, development, and analysis in synthetic or simulated work environments, rather than actual settings. This trend has created considerable demand for tools that embed human factors principles into computer-aided design, computer-aided engineering, and synthetic task environments. The Air Force, for instance, is developing methods for extrapolating real-world tasks into a laboratory setting. Human factors research-
ers are conducting experiments in these environments to investigate how certain variables affect human performance.
Human factors professionals should prepare to meet the growing need for tools and processes that can help designers visualize how new devices will look, rapidly produce and improve prototypes, and refine devices based on user needs.
The workshop raised several issues—including some fundamental questions about the nature of the field of human factors—that could not be covered in the time available. They are certain to be the subjects of continuing discussion as the role of human factors in industry and government expands.
If our user community is satisfied with some deliverables, with some regular pace of useful products, we will have established credibility with them. And they will say: You have delivered in the past, maybe we should just go ahead and let you do this basic science because we don't want to eat the seed corn.
The current climate has made it difficult to balance the need for basic research with high demands for applied activities. Perplexing questions remain, with no clear consensus among human factors experts. Is the primary function of human factors to conduct new research or support design? What is the right balance between short-term and long-term needs? Can the same people who fight fires also prevent them; in other words, should the experts who deal with immediate, urgent problems in work settings also conduct basic research, or should people specialize in one or the other?
In the past, the federal government has provided incentives for basic research, but government, like industry, is now moving toward a product orientation. The Navy, for example, no longer wants to invest in research with a 20-year timeline. University researchers in human factors continue to do basic research, but they, too, are becoming more dependent on outside funding.
The field of human factors must take steps to ensure that basic research continues to receive attention and funding. One recommendation—a somewhat controversial idea—is to place both basic research and applied functions within a single organizational unit of a company or agency. Some feel that this encourages constant cross-pollination between basic researchers and applied engineers and ties basic research to real-world problems in need of solutions. This arrangement can also provide higher visibility and additional funding options for
basic research. A human factors division that delivers successful products may have a wider latitude from its users or funders to conduct basic science.
Regardless of how divisions are organized, human factors professionals who focus on the applied side can still contribute to and advocate for basic research. For example, human factors engineers who are struggling with a particular dilemma could request basic research—or do it themselves. Some experts also view "action research"—research that tries to solve problems identified by clients—as a middle ground between basic and applied research. Action research can produce new knowledge and keep the discipline on the cutting edge.
Organizationally, some professionals contend that having a separate identity within an organization does not really matter, as long as human factors has sufficient funding and authority. Others believe that without a strong disciplinary identity, expertise and funding might disappear over time.
Finally, as with any research-oriented field, human factors efforts do not always succeed. Even with good design, procedures, and training, some products and processes do not work as intended. Although errors can serve as a pathway to scientific discovery, innovation, and creative solutions, the current climate of user satisfaction tends to discourage investigation of fruitful errors.
What can be done to ensure that human factors professionals learn from their mistakes? How can managers at all levels create work environments in which errors are not the focus of blame as much as the source of creative scientific thinking?