The Value of Collaboration Between Human Factors Engineering and Design

In an industry where outcomes are dependent on interdisciplinary synergy, effective communication and collaboration should be embedded into product development. This was a topic of discussion at the HFES 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, where Director of Human Factors Michael Lau and User Experience Design Manager Alisa Rantanen participated in a panel to share their perspectives on the value of partnership between human factors engineering and design.

We’re here with Alisa, to build on the session at HFES and discuss the relationship between human factors engineering and ID/UX design here at Insight:

So, Alisa, what is the value of collaboration between human factors engineering and design?

human factors and design

Whether or not designers and human factors engineers recognize it, the two are intrinsically linked. The product development process is both streamlined and strengthened when Human Factors Engineers and ID/UX Designers are in sync.

Right out of the gate, collaboration is powerful when used to define user needs, identify opportunities, and structure ideation. Successful products are not designed in a vacuum, and human factors engineers play a vital role in building the context around concepts by providing the voice of the user. And the systems-based approach of human factors engineering experts continues to be useful throughout the (often nonlinear) creative process.

Of course, designers with a foundational understanding of human factors engineering standards and methods should be able to create sound concepts even prior to human factors evaluation. In turn, human factors engineers with substantial knowledge of the design process should be able to recognize existing design constraints and rationales, understand the impact of their input, and advise accordingly.

All of this can contribute to a highly proactive approach to collaboration – resulting in exceptional experiences driven by user needs.

So in your experience, what prevents successful collaboration between human factors engineers and designers?

A lack of interdisciplinary awareness often results in a tendency to “silo” the two disciplines, even in academia. As we learned during the panel discussion, educators are faced with their own set of challenges when trying to introduce cross-departmental collaboration and applied learning within rigid academic structures. Unfortunately, this means that graduates from human factors engineering and design programs may only learn these principles after being exposed to them on the job.

This dynamic isn’t limited to academia, either. I’ve certainly gotten spoiled here at Insight with access to our great human factors team, but in many companies, designers are asked to wear the human factors hat, too. That’s not to say designers must become human factors experts, but they should have a solid understanding of the fundamentals and how to access expertise beyond their own —that is, that they can, when they should, and how to do so.

Breakdown occurs when the disciplines can’t communicate because they don’t have—or know how to gain—access to each other, or because they don’t speak the same language. Fluency is crucial for translating your goals into meaningful terms for the other party. It’s also crucial for cultivating an understanding of individual goals and working together to meet those goals. Academia is a natural place to begin addressing these issues, and we also try to lead by example here at Insight. In literally every design program, part of the budget is reserved for the human factors team’s involvement.

So how do you accomplish this at Insight?

We prioritize collaboration across all departments and strive for proactive rather than reactive engagement, so we structure our programs accordingly from the onset. We occasionally run into resourcing obstacles, but knowing the challenges of coordinating schedules, we make sure our design and human factors teams are well trained. We also benefit from an open office, both in terms of layout and attitude; we’re set up so that designers can informally drop by the human factors department for input, and vice versa.

Our designers seek to leverage human factors standards and methods throughout the design process, and our human factors engineers tailor their input accordingly. This begins in early development, when the human factors team is better able to mitigate risk while gaining an appreciation for design rationales in addition to any technical constraints. Then they can translate recommendations into usable action items for the design team.

Finally, we like to push each other! We ask our designers to employ user needs-based logic when developing concepts and our human factors engineers to apply creativity when evaluating concepts, striving for everyone to think outside the box. And in the end, we know how to compromise or arrive at a different solution.