‘Human Factors’ and ‘Human Performance’: What’s the difference?

The term ‘Human Performance’ (and ‘Human and Organisational Performance’, or HOP) has become increasingly common in recent years in a number of industries, especially those with a safety focus. It is often associated with ‘Human Factors’, or even used as a replacement for the term. But in some cases, different practitioners have identified with one term or both. So I thought it might be useful to clarify a few important distinctions between the two.


Clement127 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/qr4XXW

In this post, I use ‘Human Factors’ and ‘Human Performance’ (mixed case) to refer to spheres of academic research/teaching and practice in applied contexts by internal and consultants (e.g., Human Factors Specialist, Human Performance Specialist). But there is another, more ordinary meaning of ‘human performance’ (lower case), as simply what people do and how. This ordinary meaning is not the focus of this post.

Human Factors emerged from many disciplines. ‘Human Factors’ (or Ergonomics) emerged from disciplines including psychology, anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, anthropometry, industrial design and engineering, industrial medicine, industrial hygiene, sociology, architecture, illumination engineering, interaction design, visual design, and user interface design. Still today, journals and textbooks cover all of these disciplines, and none dominates singly, but Human Factors now sits as a discipline itself (see later). Those who practise as qualified Human Factors professionals today tend to come mainly from psychology, engineering and physiology/biomedical academic backgrounds.

Human Performance is related primarily to psychology and physiology. ‘Human Performance’ as a sphere of research and practice is related primarily to psychology in industry, and to physiology and sports science in sport and leisure. For industrial applications, psychology dominates in discussions (evident on social media), and in research, though theory is not particularly well-connected to practice (arguably less so than for Human Factors). One of the very few academic textbooks for industrial applications with ‘Human Performance’ in the title (Matthews et al, 2000) is written by four academic psychologists, and covers cognition, stress, and individual differences. (Other books that mention Human Performance in the subtitle mostly concern sport and exercise.)

‘Human Factors’ emerged from many disciplines, with none dominating completely. Human Performance is related primarily to psychology, physiology, and sports science, with psychology dominating industrial applications. 

Human Factors is a discipline. ‘Human Factors’ emerged as a distinct field of academic study – taught and researched as part of higher education – over time since WWII (see this chapter and this article by Pat Waterson). The first learned Society (now CIEHF) was set up in 1949, and during the 1950s and 1960s, Professorial Chairs, postgraduate degree courses, and scientific journals were established. But for some time, Human Factors/Ergonomics was a “convenient gathering place” (Rodgers, 1959) for a variety of stakeholders, including other disciplines. Human Factors is now considered a distinct scientific and design discipline, with university departments/schools, research institutes, professors, conferences, and scientific journals, including Human Factors, Ergonomics, and Applied Ergonomics (the top three journals in the discipline).

Human Performance is an interdisciplinary focus. ‘Human Performance’ is not a discipline as such, but rather an interdisciplinary focus. It has long been associated with sport and exercise, with performance in extreme environments, and with work, but as a focus of activity for sports scientists, physiologists and industrial-organizational psychologists. There are scientific journals associated with the term Human Performance (but not many). Examples include Human Performance, Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments, and Organisational Behaviour and Human Performance (1966-1984). There are few university schools/departments and Professors of ‘Human Performance’. Those that exist tend to focus on sport and exercise science.

‘Human Factors’ is a distinct discipline, as well as a forum for other disciplines that share a similar focus. ‘Human Performance’ is not a distinct discipline, though it is a focus of, or umbrella for, allied human sciences. 

Human Factors is a profession. The profession of ‘Human Factors Engineer’/’Ergonomist’ emerged (unexpectedly) over 50 years ago, and is now associated with specialised education, recognised qualification routes, professional associations, and associated codes of conduct. Specialists are now employed in many industries – especially safety critical industries – such as aviation, rail, military, nuclear, oil and gas, and healthcare. These roles tend to require formal, post-graduate degree qualifications in Human Factors (or Ergonomics), and/or certification (‘Chartership’ in the UK) by recognised professional bodies. Membership of professional bodies requires adherence to a Code of Conduct (such as this from CIEHF).

Human Performance is not yet a profession. ‘Human Performance’ cannot be described as a profession, with specialised education, recognised qualification routes, professional associations, and associated codes of conduct. This may emerge in the future. Sometimes, those who identify as ‘Human Performance Specialists’ are full members of professional associations for disciplines such as Human Factors, Industrial/Organisational Psychology, Medicine, Sports Science, etc. More commonly, Human Performance (or Human and Organisational Performance) is a term adopted by health and safety practitioners, and is sometimes described as a ‘movement’.

‘Human Factors’ is a distinct profession, and is also sometimes used by other allied professions with similar aims and scopes. ‘Human Performance’ is not a profession, but is a focus of interest for allied professions.

Human Factors and Ergonomics are considered roughly equivalent. Within the discipline and profession, the terms ‘Human Factors’ and ‘Ergonomics’ are generally considered equivalent. The scope of research units, schools, and journals, and the official internationally-accepted definition, is equivalent. Different terms are, however, used in different industries and contexts. Human Factors Specialists tend to be happy with either title, depending on the context (the formal Chartered title in the UK is ‘Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist’.)

Human Performance and Ergonomics are considered more distinct. While human performance (what people do and how they do it – concerning physical, cognitive, social aspects) is of course of critical interest to Ergonomics, the terms are not equivalent. Those who identify as ‘Human Performance Specialists’ tend not to identify as ‘Ergonomists’, unless they are qualified in Ergonomics. ‘Ergonomics’ has clear design connotations, while ‘Human Performance’ tends to have training connotations, or (lowercase) human performance is simply seen as something that people do – perform.

Human Factors and Ergonomics are considered roughly equivalent within the discipline, and by many in the profession. Human Performance is of interest to Ergonomics (Human Factors), but also of many other disciplines.

Human Factors has a design focus. ‘Human Factors’ interventions tend to have a design focus. This has been the method of intervention since the inception of HF in WWII, and since then in many definitions, including that of the International Ergonomics Association (adopted by all Human Factors [or Ergonomics] professional associations), to apply “theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance” (IEA). ‘Design thinking’ is therefore inseparable from Human Factors.

Human Performance has a behavioural focus. ‘Human Performance’ interventions by those who identify as Human Performance Specialists tend to have a more direct behaviour modification focus, frequently associated with safe behaviour, leadership, culture, and teamwork. The primary methods of intervention for Human Performance are primarily training, coaching, awareness-raising, and behaviour change methods that tend not to be design-led. ‘Design thinking’ is not necessarily associated with Human Performance (though it may be, in some interventions and publications).

Human Factors and Human Performance tend to have different modes of intervention. Human Factors tends to have a design focus, while Human Performance tends to have a behaviour modification focus.

Human Factors is concerned with system performance. ‘Human Factors’ concerns “interactions among humans and other elements of a system” (IEA). It has an military-industrial heritage, with a focus on the sociotechnical system. This system focus can be confusing, especially outside of the discipline, where it is sometimes associated with ‘factors of humans’ (which is, confusingly, more aligned with Human Performance). The focus is therefore not only human performance per se, but system performance more generally, with human performance being a key influence on this. Human performance at an individual or team level could be considered effective (locally), but – by the nature of system interactions – produce unwanted effects at a higher system level, or in another part of the system, or be detrimental to human wellbeing. ‘Systems thinking’ is inseparable from Human Factors.

Human Performance is concerned with individual and team performance. ‘Human Performance’ is primarily focused on the performance of individuals and teams (and organisations, in the case of Human and Organisational Performance) – what people do, and how. Academically, it has a human science heritage, in sport and exercise science, physiology (endurance and survival in extreme environments), and also industrial-organisational psychology. ‘Systems thinking’ is not necessarily associated with Human Performance (though it may be, in some interventions and publications)

Human Factors, despite the name, is concerned with system performance, as a discipline and profession. Human Performance tends to be concerned with individual and team performance, as a focus for various disciplines and professions.

Summing up

‘Human Performance’ is seemingly self-evident in its focus; it is about what it says on the tin – human performance. It is not a distinct discipline or profession, but offers a convenient gathering place for those who are interested in improving human performance. ‘Human Performance’, as used by some health and safety professionals now (who sometimes identify as Human Performance or Human and Organisational Performance specialists) is, in some respects, in a similar position to that of ‘Human Factors’ (and ‘Ergonomics’) in the 1960s. It is also in a similar position to ‘User Experience’ or UX a decade or two ago (compared to Human Computer Interaction, Usability Engineering or Interaction Design).

Whether ‘Human Performance’ should become a discipline and profession is a matter of opinion. But since there are already a number of academic disciplines and professions concerned with human performance, I would say this is unnecessary and unhelpful. I would also say that it is unhelpful to call it a ‘movement’. Rather, the term ‘human performance’ is more useful in a multi-disciplinary, non-professionalised (or multi-professional) way concerning what people do, and how, and to bring people together to talk about this, somewhat like ‘systems thinking’. It is something of interest to many stakeholders

But I see three key future risks for ‘Human Performance’ as a ‘movement’. The first risk is that – disconnected from a discipline – it becomes allied with populist science, without an evidence base in pragmatic science. Populist science can appeal to industry, but takes practice further from theory, to the point that intervention may be ineffective or counterproductive.

The second risk for the Human Performance movement is that – disconnected from a profession – clients of services related to Human Performance do not really know who or what they are getting, and have no recourse to a code of conduct and associated professional association. Clients therefore have to ensure the person employed or contracted is suitably qualified and experienced for the work, whether it is labelled as ‘Human Performance’ or ‘Human Factors’.

The third risk is that the term ‘Human Performance’, as often used by HP/HOP consultants, may reinforce behavioural approaches to improvement (training, coaching, supervision, monitoring, behaviour-based safety), at the expense of system and design approaches, which may well be more effective. As Sanders and McCormick (1987) stated in their textbook Human Factors in Engineering and Design, “it is easier to bend metal than twist arms”. And so we should be wary of abandoning ‘Human Factors’ for a term that may be on trend, but risks taking us back to an ideology of only fitting the human to the task, rather than (first) fitting the task to the human.


This post reflects on developments in a number of industries concerning the growth of ‘Human Performance’ as a movement or sphere of activity for internal and external consultants – separate from, equivalent to, an aspect of, or even subsuming ‘Human Factors’ as a discipline and profession. In some cases, the terms Human Factors and Human Performance refer to rather different things as spheres of professional activity. In others, and for some publications, they refer to closely related things or the same thing, but with one term or the other being used depending on the purpose, scope and readership. This White Paper on Human Performance in Air Traffic Management Safety, for instance (for which I was lead editor) is arguably more about Human Factors, though it does not include human wellbeing in its scope (which is core to the definition of Human Factors and Ergonomics). This Human Performance Standard of Excellence (also within air traffic management) similarly includes design and behavioural approaches, and also mentions wellbeing. Again, this is more aligned with Human Factors (in a non-professionalised way), but the term human performance is used. So ‘Human Performance’ as movement or a sphere of research and professional activity is different to ‘human performance’ as simply what people do and how. Both of the above publications essentially concern ‘human performance’ (lowercase) in the ordinary sense – what people do and how they do it, and how to improve that using training, design, management, and other interventions. In summary, in some applications, publications, and contexts, either term may be used with essentially the same meaning, while in others, the terms have somewhat different meanings and implications, and even the meaning of ‘human performance’/’Human Performance’ (and even ‘human factors‘/’Human Factors‘) can differ.

About stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. 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, and Honorary Clinical Tutor at the University of Edinburgh. 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 or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.
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5 Responses to ‘Human Factors’ and ‘Human Performance’: What’s the difference?

  1. Jack Martin says:

    You are so wrong about Human Performance not being a recognized discipline. There are a number of wold recognized individuals who are experts in the field Sydney Decker, James Reason, Tony Muschara, Rob Fisher, Bob Nelms, and a number of others. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operators has provided training and certification of Human Performance discipline for over 30 Years. The Human Performance Association is a non-profit website offering training and certification for general practitioners.
    Another international organization is the Human Performance Root Cause and Trending (HPRCT) which has held conferences dealing with Human Performance issues for 25 years.

    • Hi Jack, I understand your point, as a Human Factors and Human Performance Specialist myself (most of my work probably falls into the latter nowadays), but this is quite a special distinction relating to higher education. From an academic point of view, however (which defines a discipline, rather than a profession or occupation), ‘Human Performance’ relates to established disciplines, but arguably does not fit the criteria for a ‘discipline’ itself. For this, there would have to be 1) established degree programs, as a minimum, also 2) a critical mass of academic positions with ‘Human Performance’ in the title (e.g. ‘Professor of Human Performance’), and also a body of journals with Human Performance in the title. These are all very few indeed, and those that exist tend to relate to sport and exercise. The people you mention that are well known academics are psychologists and Human Factors specialists by discipline, but of course write about human performance. (Sidney is and was professor of Safety Science, System Safety, Psychology, and Human Factors, but not Human Performance. Similar for Jim). Others are engineers by discipline (academic background). HPA an association but not a learned society (relating to a discipline) requiring specific approved qualifications for entry (as per, for instance, the British Psychological Society or Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors). Hence what is a discipline is more related to research and teaching in higher education, than occupation/profession/commercial training/application. A subtle but pertinent difference.

  2. Steven, I enjoyed your blog on this topic. I’m really glad to see someone take a close look at “human performance.” We need more such studies of “human and organizational performance” (H&OP) for it to mature into a “discipline,” such as “human factors.” I fully agree that “human performance” (which I abbreviate ‘Hu’) is about what people do and how, and that it tends to focus on people’s behavior. I also agree that Hu is an interdisciplinary approach. However, it is my opinion that H&OP/Hu is primarily a “risk management” approach. Hu creates uncertainty in the workplace that managers must learn to manage, which, I think, is not effectively addressed by Operational Excellence, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, and re-engineering processes.

    One notable omission in the entry it that it leaves out the science associated with High Reliability Organizing (HRO), (Karl Weick, Karleen Roberts, Kathleen Sutcliffe and others) and Resilience Engineering (RE) (Erik Hollnagel, David Woods, Chris Nemeth, Nancy Leveson, Sidney Dekker, and others) which forms the principles of Hu/H&OP. James Reason and David Embrey are other notable, early researchers and authors in Hu/H&OP. There is also another notable work by Tom Gilbert, “Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance,” which the International Society of Performance Improvement (ISPI) is founded upon.

    One last comment made above that I disagree with: “‘Systems thinking’ is not necessarily associated with Human Performance (though it may be, in some interventions and publications).” This is an important facet of the research done associated with HRO and RE to better understand the system’s (and organization’s) influence on performance and the risk of human error (losing control of energy, mass, or information). With this in mind, I would think that a more balanced blog would have listed the “risks” associated with Human Factors. By itself, I strongly believe it does not adequately address the management of the risk of human error (losing control) in operations.

    For what it’s worth, I perceive H&OP/Hu as the practical application of the science associated with HRO/RE, including psychology, sociology, “Human Factors,” management science, leadership, which reinforces your assertion that H&OP/Hu is indeed interdisciplinary. BTW, I prefer H&OP vs. HOP. “HOP” sounds undignified when verbalized. I include “and” in H&OP to emphasize the importance of the system’s influence (and management’s role) on performance in the workplace.

    • Thanks, Tony. I appreciate the comment. I have a foot in both camps, really. My academic training was in applied psychology, then work design and ergonomics, before a PhD in incident analysis and performance prediction. For the last few years, my work has arguably been more in the ‘Human and Organisational Performance’ camp, than Human Factors (more design-based). My post is likely biased toward Europe.

      As well as my own experience of HP and HF, I take my observations from across a couple of industries I know pretty well, and observing posts on LinkedIn, twitter, etc, HRO is taken up by some who identify as HP practitioners, but I don’t see it used widely, at any depth. It does not seem to be a staple, grounding philosophy, or an identifying feature, in my experience – but maybe it is more so in the US? Similarly RE is not a staple for HP practitioners, though Safety-II – only subtly different – is becoming more aligned with ‘Human (and Organisational) Performance’ (I was a co-author of a seminal White Paper on Safety-II – https://www.skybrary.aero/bookshelf/books/2437.pdf). I know some of the authors you mentioned, but did not mention them as – interestingly – they do not seem to operate under the ‘Human Performance’ (or even ‘Human and Organisational Performance’) title. None (that I found) seem to have ‘Human (and Organisational) Performance’ in the title, though they do of course write about human and organisational performance (lowercase). This can be seen by searching for their home pages. I think this relates to HP not being a ‘discipline’, with professorial titles, schools/departments, etc. They work under a variety of titles, but are primarily psychologists, human factors specialists/ergonomists, safety science, engineers, management scientists, by discipline.

      On systems thinking, again some HP/HOP specialists will integrate this (out of interest, see https://www.skybrary.aero/bookshelf/books/2882.pdf), but I don’t see it widely or deeply integrated. Again, if people are not taught this, then they have to come across it (and there are so many forms of hard and soft systems thinking). Systems thinking is reflected in RE, but again the uptake is not significant as yet (at an RE conference in Europe a couple of years ago – practitioners were conspicuous by their absence. Delegates were overwhelmingly academics.). I see little mention of many of the key names in systems thinking, and little use of key methods, in practice. But that’s just based on my exposure (aviation, healthcare, and social media). Instead, the ‘O’ in HOP seems more often concerned with culture, collaboation, communication, and leadership – people stuff, than systems thinking (a la Donella Meadows, for instance). Once you start to integrate design and systems thinking, you are probably in the realm of Human Factors/Ergonomics…but then again for some, that label is more reductive (https://humanisticsystems.com/2017/08/12/four-kinds-of-human-factors-2-factors-of-humans/).

      Oh, the quagmire of terms in this boggy field…

  3. Michael Moneypenny says:

    Thanks Steven for another excellent blog post.

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