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Human factors and applied psychology

How come I can't open the medicine bottle? Which nob turns off the stove and which way do I turn it? Why are ATM machines so hard to operate? These seemingly unrelated questions also fall under the general heading of human factors or applied psyc...

How come I can't open the medicine bottle?

Which nob turns off the stove and which way do I turn it?

Why are ATM machines so hard to operate?

These seemingly unrelated questions also fall under the general heading of human factors or applied psychology. This can also be referred to as engineering psychology or ergonomics.

While not a new area of study by any means, advances in technology over the past few years (even the past year) has lead to an increase in how products are designed and how we function (or try to function) in a more technologically-advanced society. Essentially, how are humans factored into the equation of how systems, products and services are set-up, executed and accomplished?


Some would argue that the technological advances are coming too fast and society has not adequately caught up (e.g., how many of you still cannot program your VCR?). Others would argue that society is adapting too slowly to the rapid advances in technology and that, as a result, society is doomed.

Whatever perspective you endorse, there is a great need in our society to ensure that the end user (the human) can successfully open the medicine bottle, turn on (or off) the correct burner element on the stove, or operate the ATM. Speed and accuracy are also prime areas of concern, but as the old maxim states, haste makes waste. Being too fast and making a lot of mistakes (taking three tries to master the ATM) is not ideal, nor is taking a lot of time to open a medicine bottle.

There needs to be a middle ground where the human is successful and the technology works as planned. Actually, mistakes are good as they often times result in improvements to the product or system in mind. These revisions also take into account an important aspect of human factors and that is individual differences. Consider adjustable seats in automobiles. Many accidents happened because seats were not adjustable so the small framed person (or the large framed person) could not adjust the seat to their desired level. This results in awkward product operation and, in turn, raises the risk of an accident.

The ultimate goal of human factors and applied psychology are to make the environment (whatever that may be) as user friendly and as efficient as possible with minimal room for error and maximum design and use. These are lofty goals, but human factors and applied psychology are two of the fastest growth industries worldwide.

One critical example is how we can adapt and modify the environment for the expected increase in that segment of the population over the age of 65. Consider the automobile. Next to adolescents, individuals over the age of 65 have more accidents per mile driven. One not so practical solution would be to not allow people over 65 to drive. A better solution would be to modify the automobile to be able to accommodate for the age-related changes in attention, pattern recognition and perception that are needed to successfully drive a car but that show decline as we age. All major auto manufacturers are now modifying their cars to be able to accommodate the over 65 driver. It is not just driving that is being modified. Home builders are also taking note of the human factors needed to make a house "safe" for all involved. This could mean better lighting, less steep stairs and a host of other modifications that make the individual able to operate successfully in the environment.

What is human

factors/applied psychology?

As mentioned, human factors and applied psychology aim to increase the overall effectiveness of the human-machine interaction. The three questions that opened this article relate to this human-machine interaction. What is the best design for the nobs on the stove to ensure that any user can successfully turn on the correct burner. Likewise, what are the ideal characteristics of an ATM machine to ensure that people will use them and continue to use them? Although these are important goals, a visit to www.baddesigns.com tells otherwise.


This Web site shows actual products that fail to allow for the human to successfully navigate in the environment. Some are funny; others are potentially life threatening, suggesting the immediacy of ensuring a good fit between the human and the machine. As mentioned, errors are helpful in this area and new(er) products presumably take advantage of this issue.

Consider the keypad on the modern day telephone. The buttons are located in such a place so as to make the user dial (or punch) a phone number with as few errors as possible. This also is a financial issue as well. If it takes five seconds to dial a number for phone prototype No. 1 and eight seconds to dial the same number for phone prototype No. 2, money can be saved (and more calls made) with the design that takes the least amount of time to operate.

Trial and error are very common in human factors and applied psychology specifically to ensure that empirical data gathered from the typical user goes into design updates and product replacement. If a product is not saving time and/or money, it is usually discarded (e.g., how many of you still use a rotary phone?).

Human factors/

applied psychology today

Although human factors and applied psychology have actually had a long history, only recently has this area of study been considered relevant. With the increasing numbers of adults over the age of 65, companies exist today that are devoted exclusively to making the environment more user friendly.

Safety has also become a main interest of the human factors industry, especially since it is the human that causes the vast majority of errors that result in lack of safety. The human-machine system is comprised of many components including how we process information, how we control that information, as well as the displays and controls of the operating system. New products now interact with the human and provide feedback, much like the car that warns the driver of upcoming traffic, the microwave that prompts the user to set the defrost level 5 degrees higher, or the stereo system that adjusts the noise and light level of a room to be in line with the number of people in the room at that time.

Human-machine interaction will become increasingly more common and increasingly more complex in the decades to come and those interested and knowledgeable in human factors and applied psychology will be in high demand. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. Those involved in human factors and applied psychology are supposed to make our lives interacting with machines safer and more productive.

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