In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Factors

  • Introduction

Psychology Human Factors
Frank T. Durso, Lauren E. Margulieux, Elizabeth L. Blickensderfer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0159


Humans have interacted with technology virtually as long as the species has existed. Technology allows us to accomplish extraordinary feats; however, many of our modern disasters (e.g., Chernobyl), routine accidents (e.g., plane crashes), and daily frustrations can be traced to failures to properly consider how people would interact with technology. Human factors is a field in which researchers and practitioners are interested in both understanding the interaction of people and technology and in making that interaction more efficient, safer, and pleasant. Engineering psychology, a critical component of this effort, is the discipline in psychology that concerns itself with understanding and predicting human behavior while people interact with technology. Human-factors scholars tend to take a systems view of the sociotechnical systems that they study. Human factors scholars believe that a complete understanding of human-technology interactions, including errors that cause failure and benefits that produce safety and efficiency, can be achieved only by looking at both the sharp end (where the operator interacts with the technology) and the blunt end (where latent factors, such as previous design and policy, reside). Human factors researchers (especially engineering psychologists) try both to understand the psychology of the human—the operator’s abilities and limitations—and to (re)design the human-technical system to leverage the abilities and compensate for the limitations. They study human-technical systems by using a variety of quantitative and qualitative methodologies in both operational domain settings staffed by expert operators—“the wild”—and the laboratory setting using undergraduates and novices in the discipline that allows control over situations in order to explore fundamental properties. Human factors researchers explore perceptual, cognitive, social, and physical characteristics of the human operator. When, for the task at hand, there is a mismatch between the human’s knowledge, skills, and abilities and the technology’s display, control, and workstation, the sociotechnical system can improve by either changing the human or changing the technology. The operators can be trained to better interact with the technology or operators can be chosen using better selection criteria. Alternatively, the technology can be changed to “fit” the operator better—by changing the interface the operator uses. This article is designed to supply the intelligent, interested, but uninformed individual with a basic exposure to human factors and engineering psychology. Throughout the article, chapters and articles are identified that both represent the work characteristic of the discipline and explain it clearly in a way such that readers will be able to continue more in-depth study should they choose.

General Overview

The world has seen an acceleration in the development of technology. A greater number of new technologies appear today than ever before, and they are deployed more quickly than previously. The ability of humans to operate, control, and interact with these technologies safely and efficiently is critical to the work, the worker, and often to the rest of us. Sociotechnical systems are systems that involve human operators and engineered technology. When engineers include the human factor of working with engineered systems, the work can be properly called human factors engineering because of the desire to add an awareness of the human element to the engineering systems they would normally study. If psychologists are so inclined, their work can be properly called engineering psychology because of the desire to add an understanding of work and technology to the human being they would normally study. Today, the term human factors has come to cover research and practice that focuses on sociotechnical systems. Outside the United States, the term ergonomics is often used synonymously. Engineering psychologists tend to focus on understanding the abilities and limitations of the human operator. Most engineering psychologists today work “above the neck” on cognitive and perceptual factors, although they are informed by work from their engineering counterparts working in anthropometry and biomechanics. Some apply the work to aid in designing new systems and technologies in the hopes of making the new technology more useable or the system safer or the human more comfortable. The roots of the discipline can be traced back to the late 19th century, but the field greatly expanded during the Second World War. Engineering psychologists often focus on dynamic sociotechnical systems such as driving, air traffic control, medicine, nuclear power, and so on. They also help design products and procedures for industrial and commercial work. A student might begin an exploration of human factors by considering the fundamental difference between basic and applied research (Stokes 1997), then spend time considering how psychology relates to technology by consulting simple to in-depth treatments—Casey 1998, Norman 1988, Cooke and Durso 2008, Hutchins 1995. A straightforward background into the human factors as a discipline (Durso, et al. 2010) can follow. Those interested in detailed history can consult Meister 1999.

  • Casey, S. M. 1998. Set phasers on stun and other true tales of design, technology, and human error. Santa Barbara, CA: Aegean.

    This is a classic collection of short tales, brilliantly told, of technological and human missteps that often end tragically. The stories will remain with you for days and provide the reality against which human factors research advances.

  • Cooke, N. M., and F. T. Durso. 2008. Stories of modern technology failures and cognitive engineering successes. Boca Raton, FL: CRC.

    This easy-to-read volume presents the reader with seven narratives of modern problems involving technology and the human factors researchers who helped solve them. The stories range from the global (the Vincennes) to the personal (a woman awake during surgery), from social (airline crash in Portland that led to crew resource management) to cognitive (military mine sweeping expertise).

  • Durso, F. T., P. R. DeLucia, and K. S. Jones. 2010. Engineering psychology. In Corsini encyclopedia of psychology. Edited by I. B. Weiner and W. E. Craighhead, 573–576. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470479216

    This short encyclopedia entry distinguishes the discipline of human factors by noting that disciplines differ on pretheoretical ideas, intellectual antecedents, concepts and language, analogies, methods, and subject matter. A quick and easy first read to get the lay of the land.

  • Hutchins, E. 1995. Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    Hutchins leads the anthropologists’ charge on understanding cognition by placing the operator “in the wild,” a turn of phrase this book made popular in human factors. Hutchins does a great job of taking the reader on a tack in the direction of appreciating how cognition is shared with other operators and with the environment and technology in which we work.

  • Meister, D. 1999. The history of human factors and ergonomics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Meister begins with chapters introducing and detailing the structure of human factors and ergonomics (HFE), including an informative fifty-seven pages on HFE’s central construct, the “System,” and then gives an excellent history of the field before looking at HFE research and practice.

  • Norman, D. E. 1988. The design of everyday things. New York: Basic Books.

    A classic bestseller intended for the broad market. Norman writes engagingly and authoritatively about the interaction of people and technology. The book highlights the role of design in human factors. Interestingly, the original title was The Psychology of Everyday Things.

  • Stokes, D. E. 1997. Pasteur’s quadrant: Basic science and technological innovation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

    Stokes presents a view of the relationship between basic science and applied research that has been strongly embraced by the human factors research community. Stokes lays the groundwork and advances the notion of “use inspired basic research,” research that simultaneously solves real-world problems and advances science.

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