What is Human Factors?

Human factors is an applied field of study that examines human abilities, limitations, behaviors, and processes in order to inform human-centered designs (those which include the human perspective throughout the design process). The application of human factors principles creates systems and devices that are safer, more intuitive, and more effective for accomplishing their given tasks by the people who are meant to use them. Simply put, human factors strives to make technology work better with humans.

The Field of Human Factors

The field of human factors combines a number of related specializations, such as human-computer interaction, usability, UI/UX, human-centered design, engineering psychology, human-systems engineering, cognitive engineering, ergonomics, and industrial/organizational psychology. While many human factors professionals specialize in either psychology or engineering, others take a more balanced approach and are trained equally in both.

The field dates back to World War II, when an interdisciplinary group of experts teamed up to improve airplane safety. Since then, the field has continued to grow and human factors professionals are in high demand across a variety of industries. As technology advances and becomes more and more prevalent in our daily lives, it's critical that new technologies continue to work for and with us.

What Do Human Factors Professionals Do?

From better cell phones to safer cars, we see the work of human factors professionals every day.  Applying human factors principles to new designs and technologies means better products, happier users, and safer environments.

Human factors professionals are present in nearly every industry, solving a variety of complex problems. The following are just some examples of the types of work that they may do.

Medical

  • Redesign emergency room layouts to improve safety and efficiency
  • Test medical devices for usability and safety
  • Research the impact of technology on mental health and wellbeing
  • Create simulated educational tools for healthcare workers

Consumer Products and Services

  • Improve the user experience of websites or smartphone applications
  • Design tools to support independent living for older adults
  • Perform product safety testing on children's toys to evaluate and mitigate risks

Automotive

  • Test various alert systems to ensure they are easily and quickly understood by the driver
  • Develop training programs and materials for drivers purchasing automated and semi-automated vehicles
  • Design easy-to-use electric vehicle charging stations

What Careers Are There in Human Factors?

Human factors is a growing field with exciting career opportunities in business, non-profits, government, and academia. Core skills of human factors practitioners are frequently listed among critical skills companies need.

Some examples of job titles that may be used by human factors professionals include:

  • Human Factors Psychologist
  • Human Factors Engineer
  • Human Factors Researcher
  • Usability Researcher
  • User Interface (UI) Designer
  • User Experience (UX) Designer
  • Usability Specialist
  • Ergonomics Specialist
  • Systems Engineer
  • Product Manager

How Much Do Human Factors Graduates Earn?

In a 2017 survey done by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, it was suggested that starting salaries in the field of human factors (for earners with less than 5 years of experience) range from $72,000 to $100,000 per year—for those with a master's degree, the average starting salary is $78,000 per year. Consultants with 30 or more years of experience were among the highest paid, earning more than $250,000 per year in some cases.

What Skills Do Human Factors Professionals Need?

To successfully bridge the gap between humans and technology, there are a number of multidisciplinary skill sets that a human factors professional must have:

  • quantitative and qualitative research methods
  • experimental design
  • user-centered design methodologies
  • communication and interpersonal skills
  • critical thinking and problem solving
  • creativity

Though there are a variety of ways a person may enter the field, the most common is by earning an undergraduate and/or graduate degree in human factors, psychology, engineering, or computing.


Human Factors at Michigan Tech

Explore the roles that both humans and machines will play in solving the problems of tomorrow.

Michigan Technological University's Bachelor of Science in Human Factors is one of the first programs of its kind in the nation. In it, students take courses in psychology, usability, ergonomics, systems engineering, human-computer interaction, business, and design. Students choose a concentration to customize their degree, making them competitive in just about any industry. Concentrations are available in systems thinking and design, human-computer interface design, and innovation and human-centered design.

The human factors program is housed within Michigan Tech's Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences, which is known for its commitment to flexibility and personalized attention. 100 percent of undergraduate students in the department conduct their own research through a two-semester course. Many go on to participate in research with faculty mentors. All human factors students participate in the Enterprise program, working on real projects for real clients.

For students interested in pursuing a master's degree, Michigan Tech also offers an Accelerated Master's program. In this program, students are able to earn a Master's of Science in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors in one additional year beyond their bachelor's degree.

Tomorrow needs innovative technology that capitalizes on human strengths and enhances their experiences. Tomorrow needs human factors. Tomorrow needs Michigan Tech.