Chapter 24: Human Factors and Ergonomics Practice in User Experience: Demonstrating Value in a Fast-growing Field

by Lisa Duddington

Practitioner summary

User experience (UX) is a fast growing discipline that is widely recognised. The field is unregulated and, as demand has grown, there has been a decrease in the level of skill and experience of the average practitioner. In digital projects, there are often limited budgets and time constraints. It is rare that a practitioner is able to use all the tools and techniques of the ideal user-centred design process. Also, unfortunately, research is often the first thing to be downsized or removed. This has the effect of reducing the connection with the discipline of HF/E. As we move away from mouse control to touch, gesture, voice control and virtual reality, there will, however, be a greater demand for the skills of HF/E.

Chapter quotes

“‘User experience’ is a relatively new term that is most commonly used to describe HF/E as applied to digital platforms and the interactions that users have with digital interfaces, such as, websites, software and apps. There is little agreement of the precise definition. ”

“It is often misunderstood as a profession that is easy and quick to learn. As a natural response to the sudden demand for UX professionals, the entry level has lowered and many people have successfully sidestepped careers from other fields, often with little retraining. The result is a substantial difference in capability between practitioners and it is very difficult for employers and buyers of UX to distinguish these differences.”

“The ideal situation is to have UX embedded in the whole company culture or at least someone on the board or management team who believes in UX. This will ensure that your work and recommendations are considered at a level where they will make a difference and it will ensure you get the budget you need to conduct enough research to inform your UX work.”

“HF/E professionals considering entering the field of UX may find that their skills are not fully appreciated and are underused, and may have to clarify the benefits to performance and wellbeing that a background in HF/E brings. However I believe this will change in the future as technology advances and challenges us to design for very small interfaces and utilise gesture control.”


Practitioner reflections (scroll down to add your own reflection)

Reflection by Ed Chandler (co-author of Chapter 22)

Lisa and I have evolved our careers in a very similar time period where technology and digital experiences are often ahead of the research and understanding of what works best (in terms of fit for humans). The PET technique that Lisa illustrates later in the chapter is a good example of where many of our cognitive psychology / ergonomics skills are now being turned to create more compelling experiences.

One of the concepts that I keep returning to, which I learnt during my degree in HFE was the work by Stephen Pheasant. Although this work was published well before digital (web) experiences, they hold true today as they ever day. Lisa summarised the position within UX that there is a miss-held belief that a UX designer or UX developer can fix all the issues with their own designs. At this point it is Pheasant’s “The design is satisfactory for me, therefore it will be satisfactory for everyone”   which comes to the forefront of the conversation. After all, if the design isn’t based on any customer input, then who is the design actually fit for? At this point I feel that we are at a cross roads where the very term User Experience could be hijacked by the people that think they do it but don’t.

One way to combat this is to create a UX accreditation process and this is exactly what the User Experience Qualifications Board (UXQA) his doing by creating certification. The first of these, Certified Professional of Usability and User Experience (UXPA) draws heavily on the ISO 9241 series and specifically ISO 9241-210 Human-centred design for interactive systems. These standards are created from the Ergonomics technical committee within the International Standards Organisation. Whilst, I am sure that there have been many colourful discussions relating to User Experience and HFE and how they are not the same, I hope that a UX certification process build on a foundation of Ergonomics standards is sufficient to silence these discussions once and for all. Now the question turns to whether the HFE community can in turn recognise their UX counterparts…

Reflection by Dan Jenkins (author of Chapter 21)

The main musing point for me was – what is the role of HF/E (as performed by formally trained practitioners) in UX? As an Institute is there more to be done in communicating why its important that development teams don’t just make do with a coder who has some experience in usability.

Its always going to be tough to draw a clear line between what is UX and what isn’t. As the chapter brings out there is a convergence between the digital and the physical world. However, for me a simple heuristic is that if there is an artefact involved then it should have a human factors person involved in the conversation.

Other reflections relate to the discussion about research being the first thing to be dropped when budgets are squeezed. Sadly, this is not completely unfamiliar with some clients in the development of physical products. Although, I wonder if this is a less of a problem. The cost of failure with a physical product is often much more tangible. Decision makers tend to think in terms of tooling costs, stock, recalls, product refresh costs, etc. Conversely, ostensibly at least, software and code can be introduced to the market and then readily updated based on real-world feedback. The world of UX is often dominated by mantras to do with failure (e.g. fail fast, fail often), hacking one’s way through a project is not only tolerated, it’s often encouraged. While this may be great for an alarm clock app, it’s simply not acceptable for many of the markets that HF/E has traditionally served. Medical apps simply need to work when they hit the market. Safety critical concerns aside, there are also concerns about damage to reputation and end-user dismissal of products that fail to meet minimum requirements.

In the future, I would like to see a greater awareness and clarity of what very specialist HF/E practitioners can bring to the world of UX above and beyond others working under the same job title. I am certainly not advocating that we push for only chartered members working in this area. Above anything else, there simply aren’t enough of us to go around. However, I would like to see representation on the most critical projects and certainly those with safety-critical concerns.

For this project managers need to understand the differences between these roles and have an appreciation of when they are working on the fringes of two or more disciplines.

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About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock
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