About HFES

What is Human Factors and Ergonomics?

Human Factors and Ergonomics are all around us! Any time you’ve engineered a product, process or system to work more efficiently with humans, you’ve practiced human factors. The goal of human factors is to reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance safety and comfort with a specific focus on the interaction between a human and the thing of interest.

The field is a combination of numerous disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, engineering, biomechanics, industrial design, physiology, anthropometry, interaction design, visual design, user experience, and user interface design, so the exact definition of HF/E varies.

Definitions from Professional Societies

The following definition was developed by the International Ergonomics Association and has been adopted by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society:

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance. Ergonomists contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people.

The following definitions were developed by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (found in older HFES literature):

Human Factors is concerned with the application of what we know about people, their abilities, characteristics, and limitations to the design of equipment they use, environments in which they function, and jobs they perform.

This definition is found here.  

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society is dedicated to the betterment of humankind through the scientific inquiry into and application of those principles that relate to the interface of humans with their natural, residential, recreational, and vocational environments and the procedures, practices, and design considerations that increase a human's performance and safety at those interfaces.

Definitions from Scientific Literature

The following report compiles and analyzes definitions of human factors and other related terms from a wide range of resources: Licht, D. M., Polzella, D. J., & Boff, K. (1989). Human Factors, Ergonomics, and Human Factors Engineering: An Analysis of Definitions. CSERIAC-89-01. Wright Patterson AFB, Dayton, OH: CSERIAC. With permission, we post the report here.

This definition is from The Dictionary for Human Factors/Ergnomics by James H. Stramler (Boca Raton, LA: CRC Press, 1993):

Human Factors is that field which is involved in conducting research regarding human psychological, social, physical, and biological characteristics, maintaining the information obtained from that research, and working to apply that information with respect to the design, operation, or use of products or systems for optimizing human performance, health, safety, and/or habitability.

The following definition is from the article by Alphonse Chapanis, "To Communicate the Human Factors Message, You Have to Know What the Message Is and How to Communicate It," Human Factors Society Bulletin, Volume 34, Number 11, November 1991, pp 1-4:

Human Factors is a body of knowledge about human abilities, human limitations, and other human characteristics that are relevant to design. Human factors engineering is the application of human factors information to the design of tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs, and environments for safe, comfortable, and effective human use.

A concise definition proposed by Dempsey et al. boils it down to its very fundamental nature:

Ergonomics is the design and engineering of human-machine systems for the purpose of enhancing human performance.

Dempsey, Patrick G., Wogalter, Michael S., & Hancock, Peter A. (2000). What's in a name? Using terms from definitions to examine the fundamental foundation of human factors and ergonomics science. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 1(1), 3-10.

Definitions from Government Agencies

National Academy of Sciences 

The National Academy of Sciences 1992 defintion of human factors (found here) is as follows:

[A person] who is concerned primarily with the performance of one or more persons in a task-oriented environment interacting with equipment, other people, or both.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) 

This definition is found here.  

Human factors is an umbrella term for several areas of research that include human performance, technology design, and human-computer interaction. The study of human factors in the Human Factors Research and Technology Division at NASA Ames Research Center focuses on the need for safe, efficient and cost-effective operations, maintenance and training, both in flight and on the ground.

This definition comes from their website.  

Ergonomics is the scientific study of human work conditions, especially the interaction between man and machine. Ergonomics is a term taken from the Greek work "ergon," meaning work, and "nomos," meaning natural laws. The goal of ergonomics is to make work more comfortable and to improve both health and productivity. It is an interdisciplinary science of designing the job, products, and place to fit the worker. Psychology, industrial engineering, computer science, biomechanics, and safety engineering all play a role in ergonomics.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 

This definition is found on their website.  

Human Factors. Within the FAA, human factors entails a multidisciplinary effort to generate and compile information about human capabilities and limitations and apply that information to equipment, systems, facilities, procedures, jobs, environments, training, staffing, and personnel management for safe, comfortable, and effective human performance.

Transportation Research Board (TRB)

This definition came from the TRB; however, that page is no longer active on their website, www.trb.org

Human factors is the scientific discipline that studies how people interact with devices, products, and systems. It is an applied field where behavioral science, engineering, and other disciplines come together to develop the principles that help assure that devices and systems are usable by the people who are meant to use them. The field approaches design with the "user" as its focal point. Human factors practitioners bring expert knowledge concerning the characteristics of human beings that are important for the design of devices and systems of many kinds. The discipline contributes to endeavors as complex as space exploration and to products as simple as a toothbrush. In the field of transportation engineering, there have been numerous important contributions from human factors, but these are not always self-evident. Sight distance requirements, workzone layouts, sign placement and spacing criteria, dimensions for road markings, color specifications, sign letter fonts and icons, signal timing - these and many more standards and practices have been shaped by human factors evaluation. As applied to highway safety, human factors is concerned with the design of the roadway and operating environment and the vehicle. The three primary components of the highway transportation system - the roadway, the vehicle, and the road user - all must be compatible with one another. Engineers can design roadways, traffic control devices, and vehicles, but they cannot design the road user. They can design for the road user. Human factors provides an objective basis for doing this. It is based on measured behavior and capabilities rather than assumptions or trial-and-error.

U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) 

This definition is found on their website:

The study of human factors examines how humans interact with machines and other people (pilots, air traffic controllers, or design and acquisition personnel) and determines whether procedures and regulations take into account human abilities and limitations.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 

This definition may be found on their website.  

Human factors (HF) is the study of how people use technology. It involves the interaction of human abilities, expectations, and limitations, with work environments and system design. The term "human factors engineering" (HFE) refers to the application of human factors principles to the design of devices and systems. It is often interchanged with the terms "human engineering," "usability engineering," or "ergonomics."

The goal of HFE is to design devices that users accept willingly and operate safely in realistic conditions. In medical applications, HFE helps improve human performance and reduce the risks associated with use error.

In many cases, HFE focuses on the device user interface (also called the UI or the man-machine interface). The user interface includes all components and accessories necessary to operate and properly maintain the device, including the controls, displays, software, logic of operation, labels, and instructions.

National Research Council 

Karl Kroemer prepared this definition (previously posted but no longer available at www.nsc.org)

Ergonomics is the study of human characteristics for the appropriate design of the living and working environment. Ergonomic researchers strive to learn about human characteristics (capabilities, limitations, motivations, and desires) so that this knowledge can be used to adapt a human-made environment to the people involved. This knowledge may affect complex technical systems or work tasks, equipment, and workstations, or the tools and utensils used at work, at home, or during leisure times. Hence, ergonomics is human-centered, transdisciplinary, and application-oriented.

The goals of ergonomics range from the basic aim of making work safe through increasing human efficiency to the purpose of creating human well-being. The National Research Council (1983) stated that human factors engineering can be defined as the application of scientific principles, methods, and data drawn from a variety of disciplines to the development of engineering systems in which people play a significant role. We measure successful application by improved productivity, efficiency, safety, and acceptance of the resultant system design. The disciplines that can be applied to a particular problem include psychology, cognitive science, physiology, biomechanics, applied physical anthropology, and industrial and systems engineering. The systems range from the use of a simple tool by a consumer to multiperson-sociotechnical systems. They typically include both technological and human components.

The National Research Council (1983) said: "Human Factors specialists are united by a singular perspective on the system design process: that design begins with an understanding of the user's role in overall system performance and that systems exist to serve their users, whether they are consumers, system operators, production workers, or maintenance crews. This user-oriented design philosophy acknowledges human variability as a design parameter."

Occupational Safety and Health Administration 

This definition comes from their website.  

What is an "ergonomic injury"? Input from the recent ergonomics forums demonstrated to OSHA that there are a wide variety of opinions on how the Agency should define an ergonomic injury and that the definition adopted by OSHA depends on the context. Ergonomic injuries are often described by the term "musculoskeletal disorders" or "MSDs." This is the term of art in scientific literature that refers collectively to a group of injuries and illnesses that affect the musculoskeletal system; there is no single diagnosis for MSDs. As OSHA develops guidance material for specific industries, the agency may narrow the definition as appropriate to address the specific workplace hazards covered. OSHA will work closely with stakeholders to develop definitions for MSDs as part of its overall effort to develop guidance materials.

Definitions from Industry

Medical Device and Design Industry magazine 

Barry Beith prepared this definition for MDDI (found here)

Human factors focuses on system usability and designing system interfaces to optimize the users' ability to accomplish their tasks error-free in a reasonable time and, therefore, to accept the system as a useful tool. The discipline is rooted in understanding how people use tools, products, and systems to accomplish desired tasks, and it seeks to eliminate or, at least, manage the human errors that sometimes do occur.

Human factors engineering is an applied science that takes research about human abilities, limitations, behaviors, and processes and uses this knowledge as a basis for the design of tools, products, and systems. Applying human factors principles leads to designs that are safer, more acceptable, more comfortable, and more effective for accomplishing their given tasks. Human factors engineering is often considered synonymous with other terms such as ergonomics, human engineering, human factors, usability engineering, and user-centered design. It is a multidisciplinary field in which individuals trained in human factors come from such diverse backgrounds as engineering, psychology, computer science, anthropology, and informational sciences. Specialists apply findings and principles from a range of disciplines including cognitive psychology, organizational psychology, industrial engineering, anthropometrics, biomechanics, motor skills, perception, and specific engineering areas such as vibration and noise.

CETENA (The Italian Ship Research Company) 

This definition is found on their website.  

Ergonomics is the study of human performance and its application to the design of technological systems. The goal of this activity is to enhance productivity, safety, convenience and quality of life. Example topics include models and theories of human performance, design and analytical methodology, human-computer interface issues, environmental and work design, and physical and mental workload assessment. Human factors engineering requires input from disciplines ranging from psychology and environmental medicine to statistics.

Human Factors MD 

This definition is found on their website:

Human factors engineering is the application of what we know about human capabilities and limitations to the design of equipment and devices in order to enable more productive, safe, and effective use.

Known also as usability engineering, cognitive ergonomics, or user-centered design, human factors is a marriage of psychology and engineering: the application of a scientific body of knowledge about human strengths and weaknesses to the design of technology.

Computer Ergonomics for Elementary School (CergoS) 

This definition comes from their website:

Ergonomics and human factors use knowledge of human abilities and limitations to design systems, organizations, jobs, machines, tools, and consumer products for safe, efficient, and comfortable human use.

Definitions from Open Sources


The following definition of human factors is found on Wikipedia:

"Human factors" is a term used mainly in the United States. Variants include "human factors engineering", an extension of an earlier phrase, "human engineering". In Europe and the rest of the world, the term "ergonomics" is more prevalent.

"Human factors" is an umbrella term for several areas of research that include human performance, technology, design, and human-computer interaction. It is a profession that focuses on how people interact with products, tools, procedures, and any processes likely to be encountered in the modern world.

Human factors practitioners can come from a variety of backgrounds; though predominantly they are Psychologists (Cognitive, Perceptual, and Experimental) and Engineers. Designers (Industrial, Interaction, and Graphic), Anthropologists, and Computer Scientists also contribute. Whereas ergonomics tends to focus on the anthropometrics for optimal human-machine interaction, human factors is more focused on the cognitive and perceptual factors.

Areas of interest for human factors practitioners may include the following: workload, fatigue, situational awareness, usability, user interface, learnability, attention, vigilance, human performance, control and display design, stress, visualization of data, individual differences, aging, accessibility, shift work, work in extreme environments, and human error.

Simply put, human factors involves working to make the environment function in a way that seems natural to people. Although the terms "human factors" and "ergonomics" have only been widely known in recent times, the field's origin is in the design and use of aircraft during World War II to improve aviation safety.

The following definition of ergonomics is found on their website:

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance (definition adopted by the International Ergonomics Association in 2000).

Ergonomists contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people (IEA, 2000).