Human Factors in Design
Consider Human Factors from the Start
In a fast-paced world where product development cycles are getting shorter and projects experience intense competitive pressure, companies are under budget constraints and are looking for new and novel ways to utilize resources smartly. In order to deliver results fast and efficiently, consumer goods companies do not have the time to go through lengthy and costly ergonomic research cycles. In this paradigm it’s crucial to consider human factors at the beginning of development where it can be done cost-effectively.
3D Alone is Not the Solution
Fast prototyping early in the design phase allows for testing on how devices interact with the human anatomy. Clay, foam, paper-board and wooden models help to study and evaluate the user-product symbioses; prototyping, observation and iteration are a must to create human centric designs. But with the prevalence of ever more powerful 3D and presentation software, even designers are pressured to take human factor shortcuts.
To save time, proof-of-concept prototyping is cancelled and design decisions are made based on three dimensional images and computer models. While 3D software can be a great tool to evaluate design, it cannot replace the tactile interaction of early prototyping and if human interaction is not tested, it will lead to surprises later in a project. Or worse, it results in the launch of goods that are not user-centric.
Observation is Key
From the onset I would like to be clear that designers are not ergonomists or anthropologists and we should not be in charge of clinical ergonomics research or study; we are simply not qualified to do so. But it is a designer’s responsibility to apply human factor principles wherever possible. We must combine the vast collective of human factor and anthropological data available to us with prototyping, observation and iteration to design human-centric products. The degree of study needed highly depends on the existing know-how of a design team on a particular project and the novelty of an application or innovation.
Timing is Everything
Early prototyping is a must! For example, after 28 years of experience in computer mice design, we know input device human factors through-and-through. Also hand human factor findings have not changed that much in the last two decades but, being hand-held devices, we still start every mouse project with a thorough foam modeling exercise.
We like to emphasize that 3D software is a powerful and sophisticated tool. However, it should be blended with quick prototyping and iteration to tweak applied human factors. When everything is done virtually, prototyping will only happen much later in the development when it may be too costly or too late to make human factor related modifications.
The counter argument is 3D printing, but in many ways that is already too late in the design process as it does not have the same value as making multiple quick proof-of-concept iterations. Don’t understand me wrong, 3D printing is also a valuable tool but it should complement quick prototyping rather than replace it.
The User/ Product Symbiosis
During the early modeling phase, designers must look at the user/product symbiosis so as to optimize this interaction. They must apply their understanding of human capabilities and limitations into product design. The goals are to create products that:
• Are safe to use
• Perform effectively
• Have optimized usability
• Create a positive user experience
Following are some examples that show the importance of early human factor study.
20 years ago, CRE8 started working on in-the-ear headsets and we quickly realized that human ears come in many shapes and sizes. There was substantial anthropological data available on ear sizes but the information was not detailed enough for the design of in-the-ear headsets. We took it up on ourselves to create a database of silicone ears that represent archetype ear models. This allows us, early on in a project, to study prototypes and iterations on different representative ear types.
Unlike most projects, every mouse project at CRE8 starts with a foam modeling phase. Normally we use proof-of-concept models to support our concept proposals but in hand-held projects we turn this upside down and our visualizations are there to support the foam models. Why? It is imperative that clients can ‘feel’ human factors in combination with visual concepts so that they can evaluate comfort as well as appeal from the start of a project.
Omni VR Treadmill
When designing and engineering the Omni, an omnidirectional treadmill that creates a more immersive VR experience, we realized that human factors were a challenge. Being a gaming device, we needed to design a product that is both safe for adults and children to use. Also, the Omni experience is at its coolest when playing physically active games so we had to study how different directional forces are applied on the unit. Omni being the first of its kind, we had only a few reference products that we could use for evaluation, so we needed to implement an extensive prototyping, testing and iteration phase to guarantee that the product was safe for a wide group of users.
So, when people evaluate a product, they will judge it on both usability and appeal. Creating a gorgeous 3D rendering means nothing if everything ‘beautiful’ does not follow proper human centric thinking. And while designers are not ergonomists it must become second nature to implement applied human factor principles through observation, prototyping and iteration.