A master’s degree in human-computer interaction – one of the highest-paying master’s degrees – can prepare you for a variety of job roles. One such career path is human factors engineer. If you’re interested in the challenge of designing technology with human perspectives of ease of use in mind, human factors engineer may be the occupation that fits your strengths, skills and interests.
What Is Human Factors Engineering?
To put it simply, human factors engineering is a branch of engineering that focuses on the interaction between human users and technology. Engineering itself is a discipline concerned with the design and development of solutions based on scientific and mathematical concepts, so it’s not surprising that a lot of work in human factors engineering emphasizes practical application. Working in human factors engineering typically means working in some capacity to design technology that allows for better interactions with human users, although you can also work in basic research to advance knowledge in the field.
Although technical skills matter in human factors engineering, the focus of the field is primarily on humans, how they use technology and how better design can help them better and more safely use technology.
Areas of Specialization in Human Factors Engineering
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Human factors engineers commonly work in computer-interface design, which is the aspect of the field that most closely relates to human-computer interaction. However, they can also work in other areas. Some human factors engineers, for example, design products in general, often focusing on different categories of consumer products, automotive products, agricultural products and more.
Other human factors engineers focus specifically on the design and development of medical devices and systems, such as infusion pumps and medication auto-injectors. One medical device application of human factors engineering is designing and developing the robotic technologies and equipment that doctors use to perform minimally invasive surgeries, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Human factors engineers differ in focus from other types of engineers involved in medical device development, like biomedical engineers and mechanical engineers, because their focus is on the usability of the device more so than the technical capabilities that make it work.
Workplace safety is another aspect of human factors engineering. There are a lot of factors that contribute to occupational dangers. However, the work human factors engineers do to develop interactive systems pertaining to technical equipment, work environment and people in the workplace can reduce many of the risks.
For example, one role of human factors engineers in workplace safety is predicting the most likely human errors in a workplace and designing equipment and computer systems to minimize those mistakes, according to Radiographics, the journal of the Radiological Society of North America. By reducing the likelihood of serious mistakes or putting processes into place that catch those mistakes before any harm is done, human factors engineers make work environments safer.
Human factors engineers also work in the related field of ergonomics, which emphasizes the design of work tasks, procedures and equipment to fit the worker more comfortably. Ergonomic designs reduce discomfort while working and even decrease the risk of work injuries. An ergonomic computer workstation that has workers seated at the right height and computers and keyboards raised to the right height, for example, can decrease the likelihood of developing musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
A degree in human-computer engineering may be more relevant to human factors engineering roles that emphasize user interface design, but there is a lot of overlap in the skills and knowledge needed to design any machine or equipment for optimal human use.
Working in Human Factors Engineering
Although many roles in human factors engineering are practical in nature, research is still an important part of the job. After all, you can’t address and improve problems in usability without first identifying those problems. The best way to do that is to observe human users in a usability study. When human factors engineers witness users misunderstanding controls within the user interface as part of a usability study, they can better understand how users expect the controls to work and make adjustments to the technology, according to the BLS.
Designing and evaluating human work systems is the single most important core responsibility of human factors engineers, O*NET reported. Investigating and researching human performance as it relates to technologies and making recommendations to improve work environments closely follow this task in terms of importance.
Students of human-computer interactions should know that they don’t necessarily have to be an engineer to find their place in the human factors engineering industry. In fact, graduates of human-computer engineering programs can also find work as web designers, product designers, user interface or user experience designers, information architects, project managers and researchers in usability and user experience.
Human factors engineers should be good communicators, strong critical thinkers and compassionate listeners. If your response to worker discomfort or frustration is “How can we fix it?” instead of “Get over it,” you might make a good human factors engineer.