Human Factors & Ergonomics: More Than Meets The Eye

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“What are you studying?”

“Human factors.”

“Really, wow…human factors…I’ve never met any of you people before. What exactly are human factors?”

I’m really good at answering this question. On my very first day of graduate school, my professors drilled into my brain that one of our responsibilities as human factors professionals is to spread the word about our chosen field. “Have you ever heard of ergonomics?”

“Yeah. I think my chair has one of those.”

“Ergonomics and human factors are more or less synonymous, but the human factors field covers a lot more than just office chair design. We design products and systems for human use. We adapt technology, things, and systems to people, not the other way around, and draw from a lot of other disciplines, like engineering, psychology, physiology, and anthropology.”

“Do you guys figure out where the buttons go on cell phones?”

“Yeah, we do that, too.”

“So, why is there a human factors department at an aeronautical university?”

Again, another good question. I asked myself this when I was applying to graduate programs in human factors and saw that Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University housed a department in my field. A little internet investigation serves up the answer sufficiently, but I will explain further here since I already have your attention. Although a few examples of human factors-like analysis and design pop up here and there in history, especially after the Industrial Revolution swept across the globe, the field as we know it today was born alongside aviation and grew up during World War II. You can think of aviation and human factors like twins. Fraternal twins. Human factors would be slightly less popular of the two.

In the early days of aviation, only the bold, daring, and slightly suicidal would attempt to fly. Today, it is one of the safest modes of transportation. We can attribute much of that improvement to human factors professionals and principles. One famous example of an early human factors redesign happened during World War II. Many accidents occurred with particular types of military aircraft, such as B-17s, B-25s, and p-47s, and renowned human factors pioneer, Alphonse Chapanis discovered the root cause of these accidents and devised a clever solution. He realized that the switches and levers for the landing gear wheels and flaps were positioned next to each other and looked identical, and the pilots were pulling the wrong lever at the wrong time. This, of course, led to numerous accidents. At the time, moving the levers and switches farther apart was not an option due to wartime temporal and budget constraints, so he fashioned a small, rubber wheel to attach to the lever that controlled the landing gear wheels and a wing-shaped wedge to attach to the lever that controlled the flaps. This way, pilots could easily detect by sight or by touch which lever controlled the landing gear wheels and which lever controlled the flaps. Of course, the number of accidents in these aircraft went down exponentially, these shape codes became standard on aircraft globally, Chapanis became a hero, and human factors assumed its place as the champion of the human being in the technological revolution.

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