An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering

Human factors engineering is a design approach focused on optimizing the interactions between users and devices. Also known as ergonomics or usability engineering, human factors engineering (HFE) can be applied to hardware, software, and a variety of complex systems. This aspect of design development is meant to create devices that feel natural to use and reduce human performance issues caused by inefficient design.

What is the Purpose of Human Engineering?

Regardless of the size or complexity of a device, human factors should always be considered before investing in production. The ways in which human factors are evaluated and incorporated into design depends on an organization’s specific work environment and product. The primary purposes of human engineering are to optimize device safety and productivity.

Safety is at the forefront of human factors engineering. Some products, like medical devices, have higher levels of risk than others which could cause serious injury or even death when operated incorrectly. Trying to pull open a door that is meant to be pushed, however, probably won’t cause serious harm. HFE attempts to understand and predict human behavior to address and mitigate all possible risks before a device is released to users. Human factors engineers must assess how a variety of individuals will interact with a product or work environment to ensure a design that promotes safety and functions as intended. This requires carefully considering human limitations and operating environment.

Designing devices to be intuitive to a range of users is key to promoting safety. Because humans are highly adaptable, users may create their own unsafety by misusing a device that isn’t intuitive. Misuse can increase when users are fatigued, unwell, or stressed, so designing intuitive medical devices in particular is of the utmost importance.

Not only is it unsafe if someone cannot use a device the way it is supposed to be used; it’s unproductive as well. A device should be designed to increase efficiency, maximize quality, and minimize errors. A user shouldn’t have to create a workaround to get value out of the device. It should meet expectations and perform as intended.

Examples of Human Factors Engineering

Human factors can be evaluated when designing everything from a can opener to a nuclear submarine. Driving an automobile is a relatable example of the importance of human factors engineering. Drivers receive input from multiple sources while driving: the traffic around them, road signs, the vehicle’s displays, such as the speedometer, fuel indicator, and temperature gauge. The driver is constantly using this information to make decisions, like when to use the brake and how to turn the steering wheel, and wrong decisions can be fatal.

Human factor engineers in the automobile industry must constantly evaluate and update automobile designs to better accommodate and protect drivers and passengers, likes auditory alerts when quickly approaching the vehicle in front of you so you can slow down and avoid collision.

The phone in your pocket is another prime example of HFE. Extensive testing is conducted to determine the most optimal arrangement of keys that would produce as little human error as possible. Companies utilize human factors engineering to consider the optimal font, spacing, and button activation pressure when designing phones, such as iPhones or Androids.

How Is Human Factors Engineering Applied in Healthcare?

Understanding human factors in healthcare is vital, given that device users tend to be in a heightened state of stress and vulnerability. HFE has become a powerful ally in healthcare in recent years to facilitate better patient care and quality of life. The most important goal of HFE when it comes to medical devices is to try and identify any potential risks of the product design and mitigate those risks before the device is in the hands of a user. Unlike the minimal risks that would be incurred from improperly using a can opener, improperly using a medical device could cause serious and even fatal outcomes for patients, nurses, doctors, and other care providers. Imagine the consequences of improperly administering atrial fibrillation in a crisis, or not dispensing an entire dose of life-saving medication from a prefilled syringe. Depending on device type, HFE documentation and validation may be required by regulatory agencies for new medical device applications.

Two areas human factors engineering rely on to promote medical device safety include user testing and a design aspect called forcing functions.

User Testing
Human factors engineers within the healthcare industry frequently conduct testing of equipment and policies to ensure healthcare professionals are completing tasks as efficiently as possible without the need to bypass procedures. Engineers test new equipment and systems under real-word conditions as much as possible to identify potential problems and consequences.

Some examples of medical equipment user testing include:

  • Having medical personnel test the user interface of electronic healthcare records to ensure each patient is receiving the right care
  • Observing a pharmacist reconstitute a drug using a new type of drug delivery device
  • Watching a patient self-administer medication from an autoinjector

Forcing Functions
To further promote safety and device productivity, we’re now starting to see the design of equipment and systems within healthcare facilities having features that force individuals to be attentive to prevent unwanted action. Just as automobiles are now designed to not reverse without a foot on the brake, medical devices are being designed to limit human error.

Examples include:

  • Administering epinephrine using a premeasured dose to prevent overdoses
  • Requiring a barcode scanner to access certain dangerous drugs
  • A ventilator warning alarm that automatically goes off when pressure becomes too low or too high

Human factors engineering is advancing rapidly in the medical field and other industries to create devices that are both safe and effective for users. At Gilero, human-centered design is core to our process. Learn more about our design and development services, including human factors, or get in touch today to see how our experts can help with your next medical device or drug delivery project

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