Human Factors Careers: How to Pursue a Career Path in Human Factors Engineering.
I was conducting a formative Human Factors (HF) study earlier this year with one of our Pharma clients. After one of the sessions, a study participant pulled me aside to ask what this discipline was called, what a Human Factors career entails, how to enter the profession, and what to study in school. This got me thinking about how I would help others who want to understand the ins and outs of Human Factors careers.
So, how can someone study Human Factors Engineering (HFE) and establish a career as an HF professional? This article will review the steps of pursuing human factors careers.
Academic Pathways to a Career in Human Factors
A career in Human Factors does not necessarily require a degree in HF. In fact, many excellent HF professionals do not have a degree in HF. For example, taking cognitive psychology courses has helped me develop my capabilities and provide sound design input. Understanding how the brain works along with human capabilities and limitations and the theory behind them enriches the design input you provide. The early feedback you give when assessing design concepts, and the understanding of where users will excel when using your product and where they will struggle .
Some universities do have a formal Human Factors bachelor’s degree. But for those who do not, students should pursue majors in disciplines that provide valuable insights into human behavior, people’s lives, and system design. Psychology courses comprehensively understand human performance, cognition, and behavior. Engineering courses, particularly those in systems engineering or industrial engineering around design/product design, expose students to the intricacies of designing and analyzing complex systems. UI/UX courses help students learn to hone in on the user experience, comprehend the theoretical constructions around UI design, and understand how to design for the user and optimize a design through usability studies. Cognitive and neurosciences, an interdisciplinary field that studies the mind and its processes, are also highly relevant to human factors careers.
Master’s Degree and Doctorate Programs
Human Factors is a discipline that extensively examines the intricate relationship between individuals and the systems they interact with. Consequently, the significance of a comprehensive education in this field cannot be emphasized enough. While many of the following are offered at the bachelorette level, with post-graduate studies, students can focus their studies in HF and conduct more in-depth research (because there is funding to support their work). Let’s go deeper into the essential elements of advanced degrees that are needed for human factors careers:
1. Research Methodologies: Empirical research is a cornerstone of human factors. Advanced degrees give students a comprehensive understanding of qualitative and quantitative user research methods, empowering them to design experiments, collect data, and make well-informed decisions based on empirical evidence. Proficiency in these skills is crucial, as the iterative design process thrives on continuous feedback and validation.
2. User Interface Design: In the era of growing digital systems, the design of their interfaces holds immense importance in facilitating efficient human-computer interactions. Computer science and user experience courses impart knowledge about user-centered design principles, heuristic evaluations, and prototyping. By learning these skills, students acquire the ability to develop interfaces that are not only intuitive and user-friendly but also align with the cognitive and perceptual capabilities of the intended users.
3. System Safety: Ensuring safety is of utmost importance, particularly in critical to critical systems such as transportation, medical devices, or industrial machinery. Courses on system safety foster a proactive approach to assessing risks, analyzing hazards, and preventing accidents. They emphasize the design of systems that minimize the potential for human error and effectively mitigate the consequences if errors occur.
4. Biomechanics: Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the intricate physical interactions between humans and their environment is paramount. Biomechanics courses delve deep into the scientific study of human motion, analyzing the forces exerted by muscles and gravity and the profound impact these forces impose on the skeletal structure. This invaluable knowledge plays a pivotal role in the design of ergonomic workspaces, tools, and equipment that effectively minimize the risk of physical strain or injury.
5. Cognitive Engineering: Human beings are not solely physical entities; they possess intricate cognitive processes that profoundly impact their interactions with systems. The field of cognitive engineering explores various domains, including memory, attention, decision-making, and perception. With this valuable knowledge, experts can skillfully design systems that align seamlessly with human cognitive capacities and constraints, resulting in more seamless and efficient interactions. Essentially, the curriculum components in advanced human factors degrees equip graduates with the skills to expertly design, evaluate, and implement systems, products, and environments that align with human capabilities and limitations.
Networking: The Importance and How to Do It in HF
I love it when students reach out to me because it helps them to hear from someone who is currently practicing with years of experience in the field. And it gives me an advantage in my work life because I have a pool of candidates to recruit from. Of course, one of the other significant questions I get asked when it comes to human factors careers is what to do and where to go next. This is where I cannot emphasize networking enough when it comes to human factors careers, which begs another question: What are good ways to network? I suggest the following to build your network and meet people who can support your career endeavors and those you can help, too!
1) Attend Conferences and Workshops: Human factors engineering conferences, workshops, and webinars offer invaluable opportunities to network with industry professionals and peers. Take part in events such as the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) Annual Meeting and other relevant conferences. Engage in discussions, attend presentations, and participate in workshops to connect with like-minded individuals and establish valuable connections for future work experience opportunities.
2) Join Professional Organizations: Being a member of relevant organizations such as HFES, the International Ergonomics Association (IEA), or other regional human factors associations can provide valuable networking opportunities. These organizations frequently organize local and national events, webinars, and online forums, enabling professionals like you to engage with peers, exchange experiences, and seek expert advice.
3) Utilize Social Media: Leverage LinkedIn to connect with people you’d like to chat with and learn from. Look at industry practitioners’ academic and career trajectories to understand where you can take HF and see what may interest you. Engage in discussions, follow industry thought leaders, and connect with professionals in your field by joining human factors engineering groups and forums.
4) Seek Mentorship: Securing a mentor with extensive human factors engineering experience can bestow priceless guidance and profound insights. Consider reaching out to esteemed professors, senior colleagues, or admired professionals. A mentor can furnish invaluable career counsel, assist in navigating challenges, and facilitate introductions within their professional network. Furthermore, these mentorships often offer more than career advice and possible job opportunities to life in general — other people out there are in the same life stage or can relate to you outside of jobs and careers and offer support in different ways, too!
5) Informational Interviews: Contact esteemed professionals and express interest in conducting informational interviews. These personalized discussions offer valuable opportunities to gather insights into their career trajectory, gain industry knowledge, and potentially establish avenues for collaboration or work experience recommendations. Additionally, informational interviews can help people who may be already in their careers but want to play a more proactive role in product development and user experience. These professionals sometimes come to us from quality, product surveillance, complaints, or another function who see first-hand how the user experience can be enhanced and want to join HF to play more of a proactive role in improving product design and user experience by leveraging their expertise in the quality/complaint handling role.
HFE Internships and Entry-Level Opportunities
For students coming out of school and exploring human factors careers, take advantage of internships and co-ops in HF and explore the rotational programs many sizble medical device manufacturers offer. This will allow you to try out many functions like quality, regulatory, usability engineering, marketing, and HF. In fact, this is how some of my team members came to work at THRIVE — they did a rotation in HFE and loved it so much that they decided to join our team!
To find the right internship and entry-level opportunities, consider networking (refer to the networking section above for more specifics), industry events, and university placement.
If you would like to learn more about how to prepare and pursue a career in Human Factors, reach out to me. I am always happy to share lessons learned, my experience, and information with others so that they can find a fulfilling career.
HUMAN FACTORS ENGINEERING AT THRIVE
THRIVE’s Human Factors professionals have decades of experience applying Human Factors to products ranging from medical devices used by specialized healthcare professionals in clinical environments to combination products used by laypeople in the home.
If it’s your first time applying to Human Factors and you need a comprehensive end-to-end Human Factors program, we’ll scope out the program and conduct the activities on your behalf, leaving you time and resources to focus elsewhere. If you’re a resource-constrained HFE professional, we’ll provide the teamwork, collaboration, and support to help you meet your goals. Or, if you want a final sanity check to ensure you’ve met the latest and greatest expectations, we’ll do that, too.
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