Human factors engineering, sometimes called ergonomics, is a career field that applies knowledge of human physiology and psychology to the study of how humans interact with their environment and with machine or computer interfaces, such as in flying an airplane or driving a car. Most human factors engineers work in consulting firms, the government or military, medical, and aviation fields. Transportation, manufacturing, and telecommunications are also common fields in that human factors engineers find jobs. Any field that develops tools or interface systems between humans and technology may employ human factors engineers to increase safety and usability of systems. Some human factors engineers work in research and academia.
In industry, the goal of human factors engineering is to design technological systems that are easy for people to use safely and reduce the chance of mistakes while increasing the efficacy of the system. Human factors engineers working in industry typically need to have expertise in their employer’s product line, as well as familiarity in how people are likely to use the product. The designer creates a system that works as a natural extension of the user while meeting the user’s needs.
The aviation field uses human factors engineers to reduce pilot error and the risks associated with piloting a plane. Pilots rely highly on instrument panels to fly a plane and ensure the safety of passengers. Their decision-making skills rely on efficient interaction between the pilot and the instrument panel interface.
The computer industry uses human factors engineers to make workstations fit the needs of the worker. Due to advances in human factors engineering, computers have become much easier to use, utilizing computer screens that resemble the more familiar physical desktops. Other technology, including cell phones, personal digital assistants, and smartphones, is engineered to be easier to use.
Human factors engineers may work in either research, design, or both. Research involves the observation of user situations and the collection of information relating to the problem. Design is the application of collected information to workable solutions. A skillful engineer should possess the ability to foresee possible problems and conflicts and have the flexibility and creativity to brainstorm possible solutions.
A career in human factors engineering typically requires an masters- or or Ph.D.-level degree. In addition to proficiency in engineering, expertise in psychology and interface design are required for a career in human factors engineering. Human factors engineering combines a variety of fields such as psychology, physiology, engineering, and industrial design. Many human factors engineers come from other disciplines, such as industrial/organizational engineering, systems engineering, or research psychology.