During discussion with one of our Associate Consultants, they raised the question “should Human Factors as a standalone discipline be made redundant?”.

Usability and human factors are an integral part of the device development process. By having it as a standalone discipline, do we run the risk of designers and engineers neglecting or not considering human factors throughout the design process as much as they should, due to the assumption that the HF team/specialists will take full responsibility for related tasks?

Design Engineer, Elena, considers this question, and how we can utilise the expertise of human factors specialists, without ignoring our own HFE responsibility.

Although Human Factors Engineering is often referred to as a standalone discipline , it’s increasingly becoming a standard practice in many areas of design. Human Factors is now becoming recognised as a crucial consideration during any design process, adding huge benefits to overall project outcomes. Awareness of human factors emphasises the importance of putting the user at the centre of the design process and instills a user-centric mindset in designers. It can help designers create easy to use and intuitive products whilst reducing risks along the way by identifying potential safety hazards to the user (particularly crucial in medical device development). Having an understanding of human factors (and fundamentally user needs), also encourages designers to think about the accessibility and inclusivity of what they are working on and how more users can benefit from it.

However, the level at which HF is integrated into design courses and disciplines which are not entirely HF focused is up for debate. While it is highly beneficial to include elements of HF, it may not be necessary to teach it extensively in these kinds of courses/disciplines. There will always be a space for HF specialists who know the subject thoroughly , for example, when conducting a summative human factors evaluation, but the key to a successful project is collaboration. Where a designer may lack HF knowledge, they should lean on the knowledge of a HF expert and vice versa. Both HF experts and designers with HF knowledge are crucial for a successful user-centered design development process.

Engineers with medical devices

Human factors specialists require in-depth knowledge of human behaviours, cognition, ergonomics and usability principles . On top of this, they are trained to correctly test products and services and provide the supporting documentation which is crucial in medical device design (particularly for risk management). They can provide expert guidance and ensure the application of HF principles throughout the design process. Another benefit may be presented if the HF specialist works independently of the designer/team who are designing the product/service. Leaning on HF experts ensures full impartiality with only the voice of the user as the driving force for results.

Group of medical device design engineers brainstorming medical device concepts at a design consultancy

However, integrating HF principles into designers’ and engineers’ skill sets can be extremely valuable. It allows them to think more critically about the user needs, usability, and safety during the design process. By having the knowledge, they can make informed decisions and create more user-friendly and effective designs without relying solely on HF specialists. Even having basic knowledge of HF design principles and testing/evaluation processes allows designers to contribute to the initial concepts from a HF point of view and conduct quick usability assessment.

In an ideal world, a combination of both HF specialists and HF trained designers/engineers would result in the best outcomes. In reality this depends on the resources available as well as the scale and complexity of the project. For smaller projects, providing designers and engineers with some training in HF can still lead to significant improvements in the quality of the design. However, for larger or more regulated products/services, having dedicated HF specialists is highly recommended. Effective HFE requires a level of understanding of cognitive psychology, which typically doesn’t form part of a designer or engineer’s training. In industry, better synergy is required between the fields of design and psychology for effective HFE. At grass-roots, perhaps cognitive psychology should form part of a design engineers training?

Concerns may be raised of a disconnect being caused between design and human factors if they are kept as their own standalone specialities, however there are huge benefits to having separate HF experts working alongside designers aware of at least the basic principles. Each team can then bring their specialist knowledge whilst being aware enough of the other’s enough to keep effective communication. Ensuring consistent communication and understanding of the project goals and timelines across disciplines will ensure there is no disconnect and collaboration is as effective as possible. Human factors as a standalone discipline is crucial to provide projects with expert knowledge, however for best output all designers/engineers should know the basic principles to not only increase the usability of the product/service but to improve the overall collaboration between designers, engineers and human factor specialists.

Haughton Design provide HF training for all their designers and engineers and ensure users are at the forefront of every project. We work internally to implement human factor principles as well as leaning on expert HF consultants to ensure critical testing is done correctly and efficiently, ultimately resulting in the best product/service possible.

Medical Device Design Development Engineer, Elena Slobodyuk Elena Slobodyuk 26 October 2023

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Get in Touch with Elena Slobodyuk

Elena graduated from Loughborough University in 2017 with a degree in Product Design and Technology. Since, she has worked as a Design Engineer working at a consultancy designing children’s car seats before working as a designer and product lead at a start-up where she oversaw product development from concept to manufacturing of prosthetic limbs, with a heavy emphasis on user-centred design and human factors in addition to involvement with business development activities to grow the company.

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