Distraction Free Reading

Understanding How People Use Technology: A Primer on Human Factors Engineering and UX Research

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Image: iPad app user experience research. Source:  K2_UX on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Corporations are increasingly interested in hiring anthropologists for human factors engineering (HFE) and, most recently, user experience (UX) research, roles many of us are interested in pursuing when we look beyond academia. I researched and wrote the following piece to help anthropologists of science and technology who want to approach these professional fields. Both HFE and UX research rely on methods that resemble the skill sets required by ethnographic fieldwork. Whether you expect to end up in such a role or not, much work being done in UX and HFE draws on similar theoretical perspectives to that of the  anthropological literature addressing users and interface design, and is interesting as a source of case studies and data. This isn’t coincidental, of course–there’s long been anthropologists in industry, and overlap between anthropology and design research in major tech companies.

Human Factors Engineering (HFE)

“Human factors engineering” is a term from the 1920s and 30s that has recently seen a resurgence, to describe efforts to improve relationships between humans and machines. The work of this profession, which is primarily comprised of engineers and social scientists of all sub-fields, is largely occupied with discovering the limitations and capabilities of people as they interact with technology, and to design for and with these characteristics. A common synonym for the field is ergonomics, although the connotations of this term perhaps cannot entirely encapsulate the work done by HF engineers. As University of Michigan professor Paul Green, head of the Human Factors Engineering Program, [1] defines the profession: “human factors people are potentially involved in any situation where people interact with systems, facilities, and tasks.”

Designing with human factors in mind entails rigorous scientific testing as an alternative to relying on aesthetic and functional intuition to create technological solutions intended for human use. The ideal of this field is to conceive of the human as participating in a system within with she is but one agent. With careful scientific study, techno-mechanical systems can be designed in such a way as to prompt predictable responses in their users, or can be adjusted in response to routine user behavior. Green explains: “common examples include the design of medical devices, medical procedures, and medical information systems, aircraft cockpit, spacecraft living quarters, nuclear and chemical plan control rooms, web sites, factory work stations, and so forth.”

One of the focal points of the HF engineer’s effort is the machine display, the simplest means by which a machine indicates its condition to a user—these may take the form of audio or visual cues: warning signs, lights, or audible messages. To properly use the machine, HF engineers work to insure that the display is correctly interpretable by users, and prompts them to make efficient and correct decisions in response to their output. Here, psychology often intersects with HFE (the reason many engineers in this field have backgrounds in the subject). Understanding the nature of human decision-making allows engineers to, in essence, manipulate it—to predict what actions a user is likely to take and to design for it, or to design for an action they wish users to take.

Because the process of trial and error can slow down the production process, however, much technological development bypasses the research stage and engenders user-interface or other issues.

User Experience Research

User Experience (UX) research is a similar field [2]: As usability.gov defined the profession: “user research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies.” Of the job title, Green notes that it’s a narrower description of job-related functions than “Human Factors Engineer,” and that the key to understanding the difference lies in the term engineer versus researcher. While engineers are engaged in as much design as analysis, UX researchers generally conduct qualitative and quantitative studies of how users interface with technology. These can take the form of surveys, focus groups, and ethnographic observation (fieldwork)–the kind of work that social scientists can easily perform for a company. As he notes, “at the moment, user experience is a trendy term.”

Another difference is the history associated with human factors engineering versus the comparatively new title of UX researcher. In its inception, the field of HFE focused on military and industrial applications, but has expanded to be far broader in its application since then. Professor Green stated: “the 60s brought a greater interest in industrial work along with application to motor vehicles and product safety, especially consumer products. The Three Mile Island event led to interest in nuclear safety and chemical process safety. A report from the Institute of Medicine led to greater interest in patient safety.” UX research is similarly broadening the scope of its potential use value, to include the collection of data on how, to use one site’s example, photographers make use of photo-sharing websites, or woodworkers actually behave on the job. Essentially, as broad as the groups studied by academic social scientists are, the studies performed by UX researchers are similarly diverse.

Anthropologists in the Fields

Anthropologist Amy Santee recently outlined her job functions in a post on Anthropology News as being twofold: “I plan, conduct, and manage research projects, and deliver results and recommendations to stakeholders.” In a practical sense, she explains that the results of her work tend to manifest in “minor changes in an interface that improve navigation and efficiency, or major enhancements to a service that facilitate trust and control.” And most significantly, she emphasizes that there is no single path to working in design and engineering research; the newness of the fields means that many who end up pursuing this path have finished their education before the development of programs, which are currently increasing in number, but not yet widespread.

In sum, these fields are highly accessible to anthropologists. Anthropological training prepares us for  skills similar to user research, studying the use of technology by individual users and making recommendations. We’re good at interviewing, practiced at designing questionnaires, and competent to synthesize observations into analysis. Making technological development and engineering work align more closely with the needs of users is interesting and rewarding work according to the UX researchers I spoke to for this piece. As these fields grow in prominence we’ll be hearing more about them, and considering the academic job market, perhaps they’ll be luring more of us away.


[1] The University of Michigan runs a renowned “short course” in Human Factors Engineering during the summer. For more information, see: http://isd.engin.umich.edu/professional-programs/human-factors-engineering/index.htm.

[2] For more information about UX Research, several sites recommend the book The Elements of User Experience.

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