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PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS FOR A COMPLEX WORLD
What is Human Factors and Ergonomics?
and Why Does it Make Good Business Sense?
Eric F. Shaver, Ph.D. & Curt C. Braun, Ph.D February 2009
As a unique scientific discipline, human factors and ergonomics systematically
applies the knowledge of human abilities and limitations to the design of systems
with the goal of optimizing the interaction between people and other system
elements to enhance safety, performance, and satisfaction.
In simpler terms, human factors and ergonomics focuses on designing the world
to better accommodate people.
Human factors are relevant anywhere people work with systems, whether they
are social or technical in nature. The breadth of these sociotechnical systems
include situations and circumstances where people interact with other system
Artifacts (e.g., tools, machines, products, software, etc.)
Legal (e.g., regulations, enforcement, etc.) and political
To learn more about each of these elements, the interested reader should consult
the writings of Carayon (2006), Carayon and Smith (2000), Karwowski (2000),
Moray (2000), and Wilson (2000).
Within the last 100 years, a broad spectrum of industries have benefitted by
deliberately focusing on how people interact with systems. These industries
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Consumer products Petroleum
The gamut of work human factors and ergonomics practitioners perform is great
and has been discussed in greater detail by Karwowski (2005; 2006) and Salvendy
A Brief History of HF and E
In the United States, the discipline of human factors and ergonomics, is generally
considered to have originated during World War II (Wickens & Hollands, 2000),
although advances that contributed to its formation can be traced to the turn of
the 20th century. Prior to World War II, the focus was “designing the human to
fit the machine” (i.e., trial and error), instead of designing machines to fit the
human (p. 3). This can be found in Frederick Taylor‟s work studying selection,
training, work-rest schedules, and time & motion studies of industrial workers
(Taylor, 1911), and through the extension of his time & motions studies, by
Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (Gilbreth, 1914; Gilbreth & Gilbreth, 1917).
Many of the human factors and ergonomic advances originated out of military
necessity. With the start of World War I, the first conflict to employ the newly
invented airplane in combat, the need arose for methods to rapidly select and
train qualified pilots. This prompted the development of aviation psychology
and the beginning of aeromedical research. Although advances were made in
this time period, according to Meister (1999), the impetus for developing the
discipline wasn‟t met due to a lack of “critical mass of technology and personnel
as there was in World War II” (p. 149).
The time between World War I and World War II saw a reduction in research,
although some achievements were made. Aeromedical research continued to see
advances in laboratories built at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas and Wright
Field in Ohio. These laboratories performed studies that focused on further
identifying the characteristics of successful pilots, and determining what effects
environmental stressors had on flight performance. Also, the basics of
anthropometry (the study of human body measurements) were applied to the
design of airplanes in this time period. In the private sector, automobile driving
behavioral research was also conducted (Forbes, 1939).
The outbreak of World War II, and the two inherent needs it generated, formed
the catalyst for developing the human factors and ergonomics discipline. First,
the need to mobilize and employ vast numbers of men and women made it
impractical to select individuals for specific jobs. Thus, the focus shifted to
designing for people‟s capabilities, while minimizing the negative consequences
of their limitations. Second, World War II witnessed the tipping point where the
technological advances had finally outpaced the ability of people to adapt and
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compensate to poor designs. This was most evident in airplane crashes by
highly-trained pilots due to problems with control configurations (Fitts & Jones,
1947a) and instrument displays (Fitts & Jones, 1947b). Also, enemy contacts
were missed by motivated radar operators (Wickens & Hollands, 2000).
Experimental psychologists were retained to study these issues by adapting
laboratory techniques to solve applied problems. Consequently, the discipline of
human factors and ergonomics was born, even if the people (e.g., Paul Fitts,
Alphonse Chapanis, Arnold Small, etc.) involved didn‟t realize it at the time
The two decades following the end of World War II saw the continuation of
military-sponsored research, driven in large part, by the Cold War. Military
research laboratories established during the war were expanded and additional
ones were developed by the Army (Human Engineering Laboratory), the Air
Force (Air Force Personnel and Training Research Center), and the Navy (Naval
Electronics Laboratory). Universities also established laboratories, with the
assistance of government funding, including ones at the University of Illinois
(Aviation Psychology Laboratory) in 1946, and Ohio State University
(Laboratory of Aviation Psychology) in 1949. The private sector saw the
establishment of human factors and ergonomics groups in aviation companies
(e.g., Boeing, McDonnell Douglass, and Grumman Corporation, etc.) and
electronics and communication (e.g., Bell Laboratories, etc.).
The Human Factors Society, the main professional organization for human
factors and ergonomics practitioners in the US, was formed in 1957 with
approximately 90 people attending the first annual meeting. The name was
changed to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in 1992. Today the
society has more than 4500 members, many of whom participate in one or more
of the 23 technical groups, local and student chapters, and attend the annual
Starting in the mid-1960s, the discipline continued to grow and develop in
previously established areas. Moreover, it expanded into other areas including
computer hardware (1960s); computer software (1970s); nuclear power plants &
weapon systems (1980s); the Internet & automation (1990s), and adaptive
technology (2000s), just to name a few. Most recently, new areas of interest have
emerged including affect, neuroergonomics, and nanoergonomics.
A consistent theme that has emerged over the years is the ever expanding sphere
of influence human factors and ergonomics has sought to encompass, as
technology advances and grows. What started out as a narrowly defined break
off of experimental psychology that focused on the interaction of people with
machine controls has grown to encompass almost any interaction of people with
their surroundings. With the rapid advances in science and technology, in such
areas as bio- and nanotechnology, it‟s interesting to speculate on what newly
discovered problems human factors and ergonomics will be called on to solve.
Several authors have theorized about the future directions for the discipline,
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including Brewer and Hsiang (2002), Cacciabue (2008), Hancock and Diaz
(2002), Rasmussen (2000), and Vicente (2008).
Today, as it was at its inception, HF and E remains a multi-disciplinary
profession. In the United States, the profession grew from the behavioral
sciences, like experimental psychology, and certain engineering disciplines.
Among European nations, the profession finds its roots in the physical sciences,
like human physiology. Today, individuals from a number of disciplines ranging
from psychology, engineering and physiology, focus their unique skills and
abilities to the study of how people interact with systems.
Readers interested in learning more about the formal history of the human
factors and ergonomics discipline are encouraged to read the very informative
text authored by Meister (1999). The authors of this abbreviated history are very
much indebted to this work. Also, the reader may want to consult O‟Brien and
The Return on Investment (ROI) of HF and E Initiatives
A common way to determine the benefit of a given human factors and
ergonomics initiative is by performing a cost-benefit analysis. The results of a
cost-benefit analysis can guide where an organization can best invest their
financial resources, thus maximizing their return on investment (ROI).
There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates a positive return on
investment (ROI) for implementing human factors and ergonomics initiatives.
Case studies have demonstrated the benefits for many technologies, processes,
and industries, including:
Websites (Bias & Mayhew, 2005)
Software (Bias & Mayhew, 2005)
Computers (Beevis, 2003; Nielson, 1993)
Intranets (Kerr, et al., 2008)
Electronics (Hendrick, 1996; Sen & Yeow, 2003)
Office ergonomics (Goggins, et al., 2008)
Workplace ergonomics / manual material handling (Hendrick, 1996;
Lahiri, et al., 2005; Maudgalya, et al., 2008; Rodrigues, 2001)
Industrial production lines (Stanton & Baber, 2003)
Forestry (Hendrick, 1996)
Automotive (Stanton & Baber, 2003)
Aircraft (Hendrick, 1996)
Petroleum (Hendrick, 1996)
Healthcare (Goggins, et al., 2008)
Nuclear (Kirwan, 2003) and electrical power plants (Seeley & Marklin,
4 PO BOX 9088 | Moscow, ID 83843 | tel: 877.641.4468| fax: 208.882.2541
Specific benefits for human factors and ergonomics initiatives include:
Assembly job redesign: 10.76% first year ROI & 30.10% subsequent year
ROI (Lyon, 1997)
Workstation redesign: 15% increase in productivity (Hendrick, 2003)
Robotic case palletizer: 17% ROI over a 10 year period (Rodrigues, 2001)
Log truck redesign: $6900 investment & $65,000 return = 1:9.4 first year
cost-benefit ratio (Hendrick, 2008)
Electric utility tool replacement: $300,000 capital investment paid back in
4 months (Seeley & Marklin, 2003)
Motherboard redesign: $581,495/year factory savings & $142,105/year
customer savings (Sen & Yeow, 2003)
Computer usability: 200% – 500% return on a 6% budget investment
These benefits arise by increasing and decreasing cost-related aspects of the
development, manufacturing, distribution, sales and support activities. These
increases and decreases include:
Ease of use Accidents, injuries & illnesses
Ease of learning Lost workdays
Satisfaction, trust, & loyalty Error rates
Repeat purchases Training time
Purchase recommendation Absenteeism & turnover
Safety & health Development costs
Productivity & work quality Need for redesign & recall
Satisfaction & commitment Support & service costs
Sales & market share Labor costs
Stock value Equipment damage
Brand recognition Maintenance costs
Besides the many references listed in this writing, there are a few other general
texts on the topic of human factors & ergonomics the interested reader might
consider acquiring. They can be purchased in most bookstores, and include
Casey (1998), Norman (1988; 2007), and Vicente (2003).
5 PO BOX 9088 | Moscow, ID 83843 | tel: 877.641.4468| fax: 208.882.2541
Beevis, D. (2003). Ergonomics – Costs and Benefits Revisited. Applied Ergonomics, 34,
Bias, R.G., & Mayhew, D.J. (2005). Cost-justifying usability: An update for the internet age. San
Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufman Publishers.
Brewer, J.D., & Hsiang, S.M. (2002). The „ergonomics paradigm‟: Foundations,
challenges and future directions. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 3, 285-305.
Cacciabue, P.C. (2008). Role and challenges of ergonomics in modern societal contexts.
Ergonomics, 51, 42-48.
Carayon, P. (2006). Human factors of complex sociotechnical systems. Applied
Ergonomics, 37, 525-535.
Carayon, P., & Smith, M.J. (2000). Work organization and ergonomics. Applied
Ergonomics, 31, 649-662.
Casey, S. (1998). Set phasers on stun: And other true tales of design, technology, and human error
(2nd ed). Santa Barbara, CA: Aegean Publishing Company.
Fitts, P.M., & Jones, R.E. (1947a). Analysis of factors contributing to 460 “pilot error”
experiences in operating aircraft controls (Report No. TSEAA-694-12). Dayton, OH:
Aero Medical Laboratory, Air Materiel Command, U.S. Air Force.
Fitts, P.M., & Jones, R.E. (1947b). Psychological aspects of instrument display. Analysis of 270
“pilot-error” experiences in reading and interpreting aircraft instruments (Report No. TSEAA-
694-12A). Dayton, OH: Aero Medical Laboratory, Air Materiel Command, U.S. Air
Forbes, T.W. (1939). The normal automobile driver as a traffic problem. The Journal of
General Psychology. 20, 471-474.
Gilbreth, L.M. (1914). The psychology of management: The function of the mind in determining,
teaching and installing methods of least waste. New York, NY: Sturgis & Walton
Gilbreth, F.B., & Gilbreth, L.M. (1917). Applied motion study: A collection of papers on the
efficient method of industrial preparedness. New York, NY: Sturgis & Walton Company.
Goggins, R.W., Spielholz, P., & Nothstein, G.L. (2008). Estimating the effectiveness of
ergonomics interventions through case studies: Implications for predictive cost-
benefit analysis. Journal of Safety Research, 39, 339-344.
Hancock, P.A., & Diaz, D.D. (2002). Ergonomics as a foundation for a science of
purpose. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 3, 115-123.
Hendrick, H.W. (1996). The ergonomics of economics is the economics of ergonomics.
Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 40, 1-10.
Hendrick, H.W. (2003). Determining the cost-benefits of ergonomics projects and
factors that lead to their success. Applied Ergonomics, 34, 419-427.
Hendrick, H.W. (2008). Applying ergonomics to systems: Some documented “lessons
learned.” Applied Ergonomics, 39, 418-426.
Karwowski, W. (2000). Symvatology: The science of an artifact-human compatibility.
Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 1, 76-91.
Karwowski, W. (2005). Ergonomics and human factors: the paradigms for science,
engineering, design, technology and management of human-compatibility systems.
Ergonomics, 48, 436-463.
Karwowski, W. (2006). The discipline of ergonomics and human factors. In G.
Salvendy (Ed.), Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics, 3rd ed. (pp. 3-31).
Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Kerr, M.P., Knott, D.S., Moss, M.A., Clegg, C.W., & Horton, R.P. (2008). Assessing the
value of human factors initiatives. Applied Ergonomics, 39, 305-315.
6 PO BOX 9088 | Moscow, ID 83843 | tel: 877.641.4468| fax: 208.882.2541
Kirwan, B. (2003). An overview of a nuclear reprocessing plant human factors
programme. Applied Ergonomics, 34, 441-452.
Lahiri, S., Markkanen, P., & Levenstein, C. (2005). The cost effectiveness of
occupational health interventions: Preventing occupational back pain. American
Journal of Industrial Medicine, 48, 515-529.
Lyon, B.K. (1997, March). Ergonomic benefit/cost analysis: Communicating the value
of enhancements. Professional Safety, 33-36.
Maudgalya, T., Genaidy, A., & Shell, R. (2008). Productivity-quality-costs-safety: A
sustained approach to competitive advantage – a systematic review of the national
safety council‟s case studies in safety and productivity. Human Factors and Ergonomics
in Manufacturing, 18, 152-179.
Meister, D. (1999). The history of human factors and ergonomics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Moray, N. (2000). Culture, politics and ergonomics. Ergonomics, 43, 858-868.
Nielsen, J. (1993). Usability Engineering. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Norman, D. A. (1988). The design of everyday things. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Norman, D.A. (2007). The design of future things. New York, NY: Basic Books.
O‟Brien, T.G., & Meister, D. (2001). Human factors testing and evaluation: An
historical perspective. In S.G. Charlton & T.G. O‟Brien (Eds.), Handbook of Human
Factors Testing and Evalution (pp. 5-20). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Rasmussen, J. (2000). Human factors in a dynamic information society: Where are we
heading? Ergonomics, 43, 869-879.
Rodrigues, C.C. (2001, April). Ergonomics to the rescue: A cost-justification case study.
Professional Safety, 32-34.
Salvendy, G. (2006). Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics (3rd ed). Hoboken, NJ:
John Wiley & Sons.
Seeley, P.A., & Marklin, R.W. (2003). Business case for implementing two ergonomic
interventions at an electric power ultility. Applied Ergonomics, 34, 429-439.
Sen, R.N., & Yeow, R.H.P. (2003). Cost effectiveness of ergonomic redesign of
electronic motherboard. Applied Ergonomics, 34, 453-463.
Stanton, N.A., & Baber, C. (2003). On the cost-effectiveness of ergonomics. Applied
Ergonomics, 34, 407-411.
Taylor, F.W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York, NY: Harper &
Vicente, K.J. (2003). The human factor. New York, NY: Routledge.
Vicente, K.J. (2008). Human factors engineering that makes a difference: Leveraging a
science of societal change. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 9, 1-24.
Wickens, C.D., & Hollands, J.G. (2000). Engineering psychology and human performance (3rd
ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Wilson, J.R. (2000). Fundamentals of ergonomics in theory and practice. Applied
Ergonomics, 31, 557-567.
Wilson, C.E., & Rosenbaum, S. (2005). Categories of return on investment and their
practical implications. In R.G. Bias and D.J. Mayhew (Eds.), Cost-Justifying Usability:
An Update for the Internet Age (pp. 215-263). San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufman
7 PO BOX 9088 | Moscow, ID 83843 | tel: 877.641.4468| fax: 208.882.2541
Eric F. Shaver, Ph.D. is a senior consultant with Benchmark Research & Safety, Inc.,
based in Boise. Dr. Shaver specializes in human factors & ergonomics, usability, applied
decision making, and safety. Dr. Shaver's work has emphasized achieving a good fit
between people and technology to facilitate their safety, performance, and satisfaction.
Curt C. Braun, Ph.D. is the president, CEO, and founder of Benchmark Research &
Safety, Inc. Dr. Braun has brought psychological and human factors principles to a
variety of industries, including aviation, software development, public administration
and research, and wildland fire management. In each field, Dr. Braun has worked to
identify and shape the psychological and system design factors that promote human
Benchmark Research & Safety, Inc. specializes in providing consulting and professional
services for a variety of areas including human factors design & usability, product &
occupational safety, and training & education. Our ability to blend technology and
psychology while seamlessly bridging the gap between academia and business is what
sets us apart from other consulting firms. For more information on how our
experienced staff can develop a personalized solution that best fits your needs, please
contact Dr. Shaver at firstname.lastname@example.org or 208-407-2908.
8 PO BOX 9088 | Moscow, ID 83843 | tel: 877.641.4468| fax: 208.882.2541