Chapter 7: Human Factors and Ergonomics Practitioner Roles

by Claire Williams and Steven Shorrock

Practitioner summary

Human factors and ergonomics (HF/E) practitioners do not all work in the same way. We take on various roles depending on the situation and context, and our own preferred ways of working. We present a few ways of describing such roles in the context of HF/E practice. While we may favour particular roles over others, we need to be able to reflect on and communicate about our roles, adapt, and consider who else might be better placed to adopt certain roles. Whatever roles we take on, we need to hone process and interpersonal skills alongside content knowledge.

Chapter quotes

“…In our roles as human factors and ergonomics (HF/E) practitioners, what we do as individuals can have effects that have wide consequences for others as well as ourselves (Corlett, 2000). Understanding these effects and consequences is important for professional practice…”

“Mulligan and Barber define two overarching roles; consultant as artist (yin) and consultant as scientist (yang)…The need in HF/E practice for both scientific skills (‘yang’) and those more aligned to the artist (‘yin’) have been acknowledged and discussed…”

“…We believe that another important role is that of the Connector. In a community context, McKnight and Block (2010) describe how some people naturally seem to have a capacity for making connections in a community, but each of us can be encouraged to discover our own connecting possibility…”

“Role transitions that are not reflective and reflexive may be a source of difficulty … There may also be helpful and unhelpful role combinations, roles that we have not really considered before, and roles that may be better performed by others who have a stake in the goals of HF/E.”


Practitioner reflections (scroll down to add your own reflection)

Reflection by Ken Catchpole (co-author of Chapter 13)

I find I largely take 4 roles in my work:

  1. Advocate for staff. The application of the human-centric ideal to situations and conversations where those things are not always acknowledged.
    • This is especially where conversations in healthcare go something like: “this goes wrong because this person doesn’t care enough”; I point out that no-one enters healthcare to ‘not care’ and that almost certainly the staff in this case do very much care (as has been bourne out by my experience). This also us to shift the conversation beyond blame.
    • Also in ‘top down’ implementation conversations where administrators who exist in a “work as imagined” space (this ‘should not’ be happening) are attempting to address a problem, that has been poorly understood, through what amounts to a struggle of wills that no-one will win. Instead, I advocate for understanding why this problem is happening, and illustrate the many ways in which well-meaning staff might be prevented from doing what the administrator thinks they ‘should’ (or indeed where it might be advantageous that they don’t) – and thus to understand work ‘as performed’.
  2. As a researcher. Where my semi-objective and non-clinical viewpoint allows me to step back from the politics empassioned conversations to explore the evidence, and ask stupid questions. This is particularly useful when advocating for staff over managers – many middle-level administrators realize how tough it is for staff, but are under threat from their jobs by challenging the ‘top down’ implementation hierarchy. My role as a researcher (‘detective’) sets me aside from those considerations somewhat & gives me authority to say what I like to whom I like (and so the challenge is in being effective, rather than being scared to challenge!)
  3. As a “guerilla” interventionalist (“barbarian”). Some of my most successful and influential projects have been just gathering the right group of people together and making changes that needed to be made, without an official budget or senior management support. This has allowed us to address the problems experienced by staff, and for staff, not managers to be acknowledged for the success. This ‘bottom up’ approach is unusual in healthcare and can be challenging to authority, but is much more effective. Similarly, since staff are directly involved, and take credit, rather than being “told” what to do and having someone else take the credit, these projects end up being empowering, effective (since they address the ‘work as performed’ problems, not those ‘as imagined’) and sustain.
  4. As a communicator and speaker (“evangelist”). I’ve been lucky to have been asked to talk about this to clinical (and occasionally other audiences) all over the world. Though I’ve gone to considerable lengths to publish a great deal of science, what really influences people to think a different way is entertaining them and inspiring them. Some of my work has been very media friendly, which gave me the opportunity to spread the message of HF/E all over the world, to people who have never come across the idea before. This can have a profound effect for some.

Refection by Ben O’Flanagan (co-author of Chapter 14)

I love this chapter because I enjoyed the examples provided from past experiences by the authors, but mostly I love it because it introduced me to Steele’s taxonomy. The names of some of Steele’s roles for consultants fired my imagination and make me want to be a barbarian or a detective at my work.

I’ve always liked stories and games and I have to admit to being a tiny bit geeky in the past (way past, like many decades ago, honest).One of the games I used to enjoy playing was dungeons and dragons with my school friends. I didn’t reflect on it until now but maybe the hours spent playing different characters was a useful skill that may have benefited me later on in life?

I think that as HF/E practitioners too often we slip into the most familiar role as well. As a consultant the client may be asking you to adopt a certain role or position but this is not always obvious at the start and only really becomes apparent through experience.

Being the Dungeon Master was the hardest job as you had to do all the preparation, you also took the biggest risk because if the game failed it was largely (but not always) down to your efforts. Ultimately, however, it was the most creative and rewarding role if people went along with your adventures and enjoyed the worlds that you created. Also if you put the work in beforehand people would forgive any minor issues and start working collaboratively with you to create a fun shared experience.

Is there an equivalent HF/E practitioner role? We don’t often get the chance to create worlds but we certainly do have to use our imagination and powers of persuasion to bring everyone else along on the journey of system improvement. I think the power of stories to sell ideas, understand the work that people do, help explain concepts and seek engagement should not be underestimated. So pull up a chair…

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About drclairewilliams

I am a senior consultant at Human Applications and Visiting Research Fellow in Human Factors and Behaviour Change at the University of Derby. Most of my work just now deals with leadership and culture in the health and safety realm; trying to support organisations to take a systems approach to understanding behaviour. 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 @claire_dr
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