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Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Career in Human Factors Psychology?

Have you ever thought to yourself - Hey, I could design that gadget better! Why didn't they design it like this?...

If you often have thoughts like this or have an interest in optimizing human experience with products and technology, you may be interested in HUMAN FACTORS PSYCHOLOGY.

Human Factors Psychologists work to design products in a way that takes into account our knowledge of cognition and perception. They apply their knowledge of these areas to optimally design product shape, function, usability, look, and feel. Human Factors psychologists work to foresee potential product misuse and to provide consumers with the best possible experiences with human-made products. They may work in settings such as research,education, industry, and more (e.g., Department of Defense).

Read what one human factors psychologist has to say about his career and the advice that he gives aspiring interaction designers below:

"Lawrence Najjar, PhD, Interaction Designer, TandemSeven
“A Career in Human Factors Psychology”

I design software so that it is easy to use.

My job has a lot of different names – human factors engineer, usability specialist, information architect, user experience architect, engineering psychologist. The name that seems to be the best match right now is “interaction designer.”

I got a masters degree in engineering psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology. My first job was for a government contractor outside of Washington, DC. I designed a software and hardware user interface to help government analysts translate intercepted foreign language audio messages into English text. I talked to a user representative and wrote detailed specifications that described how I wanted the user interface to work.

My next job was with IBM. I helped design the user interface for the next generation of US air traffic controllers. I observed and talked to air traffic controllers around the country. One lesson I learned is that you can’t count on users to tell you what to design. The final project cost $3.5 billion so air traffic controllers could have had almost any user interface they wanted. The few users with opinions only asked for the new system to work faster than their current system. After the user analysis phase, I performed tradeoff studies and designed a customized keyboard, selected a new trackball, designed the audio alerts, worked on the design of new digital flight strips, helped with the ergonomics of the workstation, and designed an efficient layout of workstations in the en-route centers.

After that project, I moved to the commercial side of IBM in Atlanta and mostly did usability tests of software products. The software was designed by programmers rather than people like me who focused on the needs of the prospective users. It showed. I asked representative users to perform typical tasks using early versions of software. I listed the many problems the users had, rated the usability severity, and suggested design solutions. The problem was, we were evaluating software that was about to be released and it was too late to make the major changes the users needed. So, my recommendations were mostly ignored. Very frustrating.

I took a buy-out package from IBM and went back to Georgia Tech to get my Ph.D. It was supposed to take two years, but it took five-and-a-half. I worked part-time on-campus at the Georgia Tech Research Institute writing design requirements for highway traffic management center operators, performing an accessibility evaluation on an advanced photocopier, and designing and evaluating a wearable computer user interface for poultry plant quality inspectors. For the wearable computer, we used a head-mounted display, simple voice recognition, ear-protecting headphones with speakers for audio feedback, and a very simple application that I designed. Our prototype worked perfectly in a test-run in an actual plant.
Then the World Wide Web happened and I wanted to be part of that user interface revolution. I got into a couple of Web design firms and worked on AOL’s online annual report, Home Depot’s first e-commerce store, the redesign of NASCAR.com, and a wide variety of other projects. The dot-com boom went bust, my company died, and I was laid off. I could not get a permanent, full-time job for 18 months.

The job I finally did get was in another city. I moved to Austin to work at BMC Software, a company that made company-wide, system management products for mainframe computers. I designed graphical user interfaces for a couple of mainframe products and wrote accessibility user interface design guidelines for our desktop-based Java application developers. But it was clear the company did not value ease of use and they laid me off along with half the usability staff.

My current job is with a 40-person design consulting firm called TandemSeven. The world has gone Web. So I mostly design portals for company intranets and complex, browser-based applications. My clients include Abbott Laboratories, Campbell Soup Company, Girl Scouts of America, and Orbitz Worldwide. I get to use my years of experience to work smart and fast. I do a wide variety of work – writing proposals, presenting proposals to prospective clients, learning a new domain, interviewing users to identify their needs, creating personas that describe users with representative needs, writing prioritized design requirements, working with clients, performing iterative user interface design, conducting quick usability evaluations, and writing detailed design specifications. The projects last several months and each one is different. I feel like I’m using a lot of my brain.

If you’re interested in this career field, here is my advice:
• Love the field. You should enjoy making the complex simple and being both creative and organized.
• Get a masters degree in psychology. The technology keeps changing but the people stay the same. If you understand how people sense, perceive, and think you can make technology easier to use.
• Get some experience. Make it obvious you can do the work. Design a Web site for the department, a class project, a charity, or yourself. Get part-time work or a summer internship at the kind of place you want to work at later.
• Work where you’re valued. Work someplace where ease of use is essential for the organization to make money, save money, or save lives, and everyone knows it.
• Do work that is innovative, tightly tied to users, hard to replace, and is so valued that customers actually pay more for the product that you help produce.

A career in interaction design may be right for you if the more you learn about it, the more you think “Wow. That is so cool.”

Other online resources:
A general site about this subarea of psychology
Human Factors in Aviation

Special thanks to Lawrence Najjar for contributing this to "Insider's Guide to the Psychology Major", Wegenek and Buskist, APA Publishing (2010)


  1. Interested in interaction design? I have more papers at http://www.lawrence-najjar.com/lawrence_pubs.html

    Lawrence Najjar

  2. Do you actually write codes and do programming as a part of your job? Do you have to be an engineer or designer to be in this field? Or a person with a human factors psuchology can be in this role?

  3. to be a human factor psychologist one need to be good in communication and creativity. but this quality is not presence for everyone. i have completed my bachelor degree in political science and doing job in a company as chief designer as i am a good designer but i did not take any course in design before. it comes naturally in my mind.

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