What Human Factors Isn’t: 1. Common Sense

‘Human Factors’ (or Ergonomics) is often presented as something that it’s not, or as something that is only a small part of the whole. Rather than just explain what Human Factors is, in this sporadic series of short posts I will explain what it isn’t. The posts outline a number of myths, misunderstandings, and false equivalencies.

In this series:

  1. What Human Factors isn’t: 1. Common Sense (this post)
  2. What Human Factors isn’t: 2. Courtesy and Civility at Work
  3. What Human Factors isn’t: 3. Off-the-shelf Behaviour Modification Training
  4. What Human Factors isn’t: 4. A cause of accidents
NATS – UK air traffic control, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://flic.kr/p/ESpkCk

Human Factors Isn’t Common Sense

People sometimes assert that ‘Human Factors’ is common sense. The same is less often said of ‘ergonomics’ (which is equivalent within the discipline or knowledge base) and rarely said of ‘human factors engineering’ (also equivalent, but seems different because of the ‘engineering’ bit). ‘Common sense’ is also notoriously uncommon. Common frustrations with everyday door handles, shower controls, and websites are testament to this. So ‘Human Factors is common sense’ betrays a lack of understanding of both Human Factors and common sense.

Anyone who describes Human Factors as common sense implies that the interaction of physical, biological, social and engineering sciences, and the application of this to the design of work (including the artefacts and environments of work), is obvious and straightforward, and can therefore be done by anyone based on knowledge and skills that are commonly available. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most aspects of Human Factors are difficult and complex, including: 1) the research and experience bases that contribute to the knowledge base of Human Factors; 2) the interaction of the empirical findings from the research in these fields; 3) the extrapolation and application of the knowledge base to work environments, including highly-regulated safety-critical environments that require specific evidence for claims; and 4) the practice skills, relationships and resources that are needed to do this in environments as diverse as healthcare, power generation, defence, manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture, between which Human Factors practitioners, and others who apply Human Factors methods and knowledge, often traverse.

The ‘common sense’ claim betrays a lack of understanding of the foundation, scope and application of Human Factors. Typically, the claim comes from those who confuse Human Factors with ‘behaving safely’. While human performance is a key aspect of Human Factors, the primary method of intervention is (work) design, not behaviour modification. Behaviour modification is usually best filed under ‘Applied Psychology’ (also – related – Human Performance as a sphere of professional activity).

Even when the aim and scope of Human Factors are better understood, the ‘common sense’ claim confuses hindsight with foresight. When a task, artefact or environment is well-designed – it is more likely to be unremarkable, or even unnoticable. It blends in with, and subtly assists, the purposive flow of experience. It is part of ‘how things ought to be’. So it may intuitively feel like common sense because it doesn’t make the day longer and harder than it needs to be. But the activities to bring about these things, including the competencies, relationships, tools, time, project arrangements, and other resources, are not common. In sectors such as air traffic control, rail, defence, and major hazard industries, including regulators, designing for system effectiveness and human wellbeing requires the support of suitably qualified and experienced practitioners working as part of teams in multiple organisational divisions – operational, design and engineering, safety and R&D.

If Human Factors is common sense, then so are architecture, surgery, and electrical engineering, or (as foundation disciplines of Human Factors) psychology, biological sciences, and industrial design.

The common sense claim wouldn’t matter much if it were not for the false and dangerous conclusion that follows: that because ‘Human Factors’ is common sense, then no competent design support is needed. People can carry on and ‘Human Factors’ will just happen as the natural order of things. The ‘natural order’ came to light in the 1940s, when ‘common sense’ cockpits led to many gear-up crash landings. Today, the ‘human factors as common sense’ myth leaves heathcare workers with dangerously confusing devices, medicine packaging, and unforgiving work environments, the consequences of which are inherited by them, by patients, by families, and by society generally.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr 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. 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.

3 thoughts

  1. Steven, does this relate to the large number of control tower errors that we have been seeing in the USA? Best wishes, Ron Westrum, Sociologis

      1. My pleasure, Steven. I look forward to more from your posts. Ron Westrum

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