September 1, 2006 Human-factors engineers -- whose training includes psychology -- specialize in testing products for usability, for example checking whether a copying machine's legs get in the way, or measuring how much force it takes to open a coffee canister. The engineers can then suggest design changes, which benefit all users but especially those with disabilities or conditions such as arthritis.
ATLANTA -- There's a field based on psychology and engineering called human factors. Its mission? To determine how easy -- or hard -- it is for you to use everyday products.
James Johnson spends every day problem solving a trick to help him type or use his cell phone.
"I have some little tools that make things easier for me to do the day-to-day work," he says. In June 1998, Johnson broke his neck while diving into a pool. Among his injuries, he has no finger function.
Today, Johnson helps human factors engineer Brad Fain test products at Georgia Tech Research Institute's Human Systems Engineering Branch in Atlanta.
"We do a checklist evaluation when we do a test for military programs. We do a checklist evaluation when we test for a coffee can," Fain tells DBIS.
These tests will determine if these products meet government standards and the requirements from the Arthritis Foundation. First, product testing looks at how people adapt to using the product. Next, task analysis identifies what someone will do with the item. Then, a requirements checklist shows what users need for the task.
"We tailor that down to the individual product being tested," Fain says. "So we might only have nine or 10 for a coffee canister, but we might have 250 for a copier."
Next, functional requirements testing. This device shows how much force is required to open a product. Then, it's on to consumer testing. When Johnson approaches the copying machine, the copier legs get in the way, and the drawers are hard to open.
The last step? Fain offers design suggestions.
Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act requires equipment to be accessible to those with disabilities. Consumer product manufacturers want the Arthritis Foundation's Ease-Of-Use Commendation because it sets their product apart from others.
BACKGROUND: Brad Fain and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access spend a good deal of their lab hours testing and understanding a wide range of consumer products to evaluate how easy they are to use for people with disabilities. They can then recommend design improvements to improve that usability. Specifically, they employ a "human factors" design and engineering approach that focuses on the interface between humans and machines. To date they've studied everything from photocopiers, ATM machines, cell phones, and televisions, to medicine bottles, printers and scanners.
ABOUT UNIVERSAL DESIGN: Fain's team recruits volunteer participants of disabled people from the local community. Those participants perform a series of tasks with the products being tested and their performance is monitored by the researchers and compared to a standardized evaluation checklist -- more than 400 in all, collected in a comprehensive database called the Accessibility Assistant. The result is objective data about how easy the product is to use that enable Fain and his colleague to make useful design recommendations. It's called "universal design," intended to make a product accessible to as many different types of users as possible. For example, a cell phone might be created for the hard of hearing, which would also be useful for anyone trying to carry on a cell phone conversation in a noisy environment. Similarly, a cell phone designed for the blind would also be useful for people whose visual attention is focused elsewhere, such as while driving a car.
WHY IT'S NEEDED: Starting in 2001, federal agencies that purchase electronic and information technology equipment have to consider accessibility in their purchasing decisions. There are also nonprofit organizations like the Arthritis Foundation that sponsor research to determine a product's ease of use for arthritic patients, who often have mobility problems and difficulty grasping and lifting, as well as reduced sensation.
HUMAN FACTORS SCIENCE: This is a branch of science that strives to design the job to fit the worker, rather than the other way around. In the modern office, it most commonly relates to the physical stresses placed on joints, muscles, nerves, tendons, bones, even hearing and eyesight, along with other environmental factors that can adversely affect comfort and health. Ergonomics deals with the interaction of technology and work environments with the human body, and involves such things as anatomy, physiology, and psychology in the design of chairs, desks, computer accessories, the design of car controls and instruments – in short, any kind of product that could help relieve potential repetitive strain from a given job or task.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.