• Marissa Forbes

Human Factor Design vs. Experience Design: Can they coexist?

Spoiler! Not only can Human Factor Design and Experience Design coexist, they are codependent.

I’ve spent the last several years focused on the concept of experience design; building out an innovation-based operating model I call OpenXD. The foundation of OpenXD is the idea that all work — personal and professional alike — should be predicated on the development or improvement of a human experience.

Recently, a colleague suggested I learn more about human factor design. His description of the concept raised questions for me regarding my construct of experience design and how the two are related. Are they the same? Are they at odds? I immediately embarked on a research journey that led me to the answer above. Allow me to explain.

What is human factor design?

Human factor design is a psychological and physiological design method utilized for the engineering of products and services, as well as processes and systems. When done well, human error is reduced, productivity is increased, and safety is enhanced. Its obvious application is in the field of occupational health and safety, but it branches out to many disciplines and industries.

There are three research dimensions associated with human factor design (and ergonomics) — physical, cognitive, and organizational — and they date back to at least the 5th century BC in Greece. Ancient workplaces and tools were designed with the human factor in mind. Elements such as proximity and hand size were considered when constructing work areas and the tools to be used within them.

Major advances in the field occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries — also having to do with workplace efficiencies. However, there wasn’t yet a focus on the human experience. It was about getting more done with as little damage to the human resource as possible. It wasn’t for sake of the human; it was for sake of continuing production.

Today, there is an understanding that the human resource is more than an organic machine. People are emotional, needs-based assets with limitless potential. Their feelings and senses are as important, if not more, than efficiencies. Human factor design stops short of considering all necessary elements of designing for people.

What is experience design?

Experience design is concerned with understanding a person’s journey through a process, and how that person interprets the experience(s) they have on that journey. The process could be selecting a piece of clothing at a local store. If the store owners were thinking about the customer’s journey, they may consider elements such as the smell and temperature in the store, visual display of the clothing, and the lighting in the dressing room. All of these elements impact the emotional response the customer has to this experience, which could be positive, neutral, or negative. In improving this experience, the store owners may collect data on customer preferences or study customer behavior to understand where the opportunities are to better meet the customer’s needs. Both the store owners and customer have the same desire — for the customer to find the article of clothing they are looking for and gladly purchase it. The more positive the experience, the more likely both parties will be satisfied.

Until about 2016, experience design was almost always associated with user experience, meaning user interfaces in technology applications, or product handling. The late 20th century was a sort of limbo state where human factor design was still king, but we intuitively knew something was missing. We called it ‘experience’, but we didn’t know what to do with it yet.

Now, since 2016, a trend in organizational strategy planning has emerged. Strategic plans now have a heightened focus on the customer and how they interact with the company. Journey mapping and touch-point evaluation have gained popularity in efforts to understand what people do and want, and how their behaviors and expectations align with their emotional experiences. This next-level form of research picks up where human factor design leaves off.

How does human factor design and experience design come together?

The example of the clothing store above, does not address the human factor design elements. If the store owners were to interject those elements, they may also consider factors such as the number of clothing hooks on the wall and door in the dressing room, the location of the checkout counter and the traffic flow through the store, or the location of sale information. Aren’t all the design elements important, though? It certainly feels that way to me.

Experiences are how we interact with the world. They inform our decisions, and help us grow and achieve our goals. The technology, products, and services we leverage are tools within our experiences — they help us navigate the world in which live and work. Designing better tools and better experiences go hand-in-hand.

Having worked on both technology implementation projects and customer journey projects, it’s apparent to me that we can rarely separate human factor design and experience design in our modern world. In doing so, we lose value in the work and the outcome. Without human factor design, we lose practicality and efficiency. Without experience design, we lose the emotional connection.

There is a fine line between the two design concepts. So fine in fact, that I think they’ve secretly been working together all along. We just didn’t see it before. The emphasis was heavily weighted to one side, and now it’s balancing out creating a new model for designing the world around us. I’ll continue to call this new model Experience Design — it’s simple, and I see it as all-encompassing. Regardless of what you call it, keep in mind that people are complicated creatures, and in a world where people are the nucleus, the future must be designed for them… us.