What is Human Factors Psychology?

Human Factor PsychologyHuman factors psychology is a newer branch of psychology that aims to design and improve things through applying knowledge of human behavior and thought processes. Human factors based psychology is directly related to the well-known health science of ergonomics.

How Did Human Factors Research Begin?

Human factors based psychology began to develop during and after World War II. This is because many tools and weapons were poorly designed and therefore ineffective. Consequently, psychologists began to focus on the relationships between workspace designs and controls and corresponding worker skills and performance. During the 1960’s, human factor research spread into exclusive fields, such as aerospace research, and commercial fields, such as business and education.

What Does a Human Factors Psychologist Do?

Depending on the industry, human factor psychologists perform a variety of unique tasks. However, most share the same objectives. For example, they generally evaluate and design products or systems in order to improve the safety or user-friendliness. Part of this involves analyzing how information is presented, such as on a control display, and re-designing it in order to reduce errors. Sometimes, they will focus on a specific process or system problem in order to isolate the contributing factors. All human factor psychologists seek to develop procedures and user-friendly controls that reduce fatigue, mistakes, miscommunication and training costs. On the plus side, they will increase safety, production and performance.

Where Does a Human Factors Psychologist Work?

Most human factor psychologists work for private companies or government agencies. They predominately work for private companies in the automotive, aerospace, computer and manufacturing fields. They also work for State and Federal government agencies, such as NASA or the Department of Labor. Many human factors psychologists specialize in a certain area, such as product design, error prevention and user experience engineering. Others focus on cognitive ergonomics or human-machine and human-computer interactions.

Career Snapshot

According to the American Psychology Association (APA), human factors based psychology goes hand in hand with engineering. This is because engineers have the power to make product-consumer interactions safer, easier and more comfortable. Therefore, human factors psychologists work with engineers to design products and systems that are more effective and reliable. For example, psychologists will analyze human behaviors and characteristics related to vision, attention span and the cognitive decision making process. Consequently, many products, such as mobile phones and electronic appliances, are easier to use. However, human factors psychology is very beneficial for other fields, such as health care, air transportation and even emergency services.

Air Travel Example

The majority of airplane crashes are due to human error, not equipment failure or extreme weather conditions. Therefore, human factors psychologists developed crew resource management (CRM) training programs for flight crews. As a result, all flight crews are properly trained how to identify and handle different types of threats. This lowers decision and operational errors that can lead to collective injuries and fatalities. Part of the training involves an observational process of how the crew manages the CRM practices. Human factors psychologists will also analyze how flight crews perceive threats, process information, make decisions and communicate with others.

Related Resource: Behavioral Psychology

In brief, human factors psychologists spend their time researching and evaluating human performance and interactions with machines, computers and systems. These psychologists explore ways to improve worker and consumer safety and efficiency. Human factors psychology is an applied practice that offers excellent career opportunities.