Human Factors in Product Design: Begin with the End (User) in Mind

by Michael Paloian, President, Integrated Design Systems

How many times have you used a tool, appliance or vehicle and wondered why it was so uncomfortable or difficult to use? Conversely, how often have you taken notice of how easy it was to operate a remote control device, operate a power tool or interact with the dashboard of your rental car?

It’s human nature to remember the bad experiences, but not to take notice of the good ones. That is unless they are exceptionally pleasurable. That’s because human factors are subjective, and are an essential design consideration for most products to be used or assembled by a person.

Reality is where a Product Encounters Many Human Factors

“Human Factors” is a specific area of expertise that specializes in optimizing the interaction of humans with a device or product. It evolved from the military shortly after the Second World War to improve the performance of pilots. It’s the real-world point of reality where the person meets the product.

Human factors are as much a part of the design as strength of materials, moldability or function. If a product such as a chair, utility cart, kayak or even a collapsible pallet is designed without considering human factors, the product could be a major failure.

What’s more, Human Factor design considerations are not limited to ergonomics (physiological parameters). These also account for psychological, cultural and perceptual factors that ultimately influence how a product is used.

These considerations are so important they can sometimes determine the difference between life and death. For example, certain products may rely on color and shape to suggest immediate response during an emergency. The shape may be required for colored blind individuals. Organizing a display panel with properly spaced keys in easily recognized, functional groups improves operation and safety. This is especially true for equipment such as molding machines, CNC machines and other dangerous equipment that could cause death if improperly operated.

Human factors are a required design consideration for most internationally distributed products, especially those sold in Germany and Europe. Many countries have adopted stringent and specific design regulations for hundreds of products ranging from medical devices to office furniture. Depending upon the product, the requirements could range from specifications of a few dimensions to comprehensive documents. Improvements to safety, efficiency and reducing fatigue are the benefits of human factor design.

In product design, numerous parameters are influenced by human factors. Overall product weight might be an important consideration. If minimal weight is desired, optional methods may provide an advantage over sheet metal or fiberglass.

In other circumstances, properly located handgrips could improve transport and placement of a portable device. Handgrip design should provide adequate hand clearance and provide a comfortable size and shape. In some cases, additional clearances must be provided for gloves. Parting lines and tool quality are additional design factors that could significantly influence the comfort of something as “simple” as a handgrip.

When you are developing your next product concept, begin with the end user in mind. Consider who will be using it, assembling it and servicing it. Somewhere in the life of that product, a person will interact with it and will judge it based on your design.

You should never underestimate the importance of human factors in product design. Products that are designed to be safe and easy to use will limit your exposure to lawsuits and years of litigation. What’s more, they will improve product performance, maximize safety and influence consumer/buyer appeal.