Human Factors: The Intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts

February 5, 2012


Tufts University has two schools: a School of Arts & Sciences and a School of Engineering. I decided to come here in part because I wanted to keep my options open: I knew I wasn't cut out to be a mathematically-minded engineer, but I also knew that I had technological leanings that couldn't be explored if I went to a completely Liberal Arts school. If you're in that situation (and I'm sure a growing number of students are) you know how strange it is to be torn between two seemingly different worlds.

I came to Tufts planning on majoring in Biology. Of all the typical science classes you take in high school (Biology, Chemistry, Physics) I liked Bio best, and the field has a bit of technology in it as well. I told myself I would be some sort of Biomedical Engineer person making medical prostheses in a workshop somewhere. Maybe.

Then Steve Jobs died.

Like many people that day, I was speechless. I knew that it would happen someday, but when it did I found myself unprepared. I watched some old Apple keynotes and interviews with him, and then I came across his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. I had seen it before a few years back, but at the time I barely even knew I was interested in technology and I never really put much thought into what he was saying.

I watched it again:

At 8:18:

I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.

At 12:32:

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

I wasn't a Bio major anymore.

I flipped open the Tufts Handbook that night and looked at all the majors again. One of them stood out: Human Factors.

What is Human Factors / Engineering Psychology?

This definition from Popular Mechanics is the best one I've found:

Engineers build gadgets; psychologists study the human mind. Put them together and you get the field of engineering psychology -- also known as "human factors" -- which promotes easy-to-use technology designed with the strengths and limitations of its human users as priorities.

Human Factors is an umbrella term with a variety of subcategories ranging from dentistry to product design underneath it. The common thread between all of them is this: Human Factors people make stuff better. That's pretty much their job description. They think about the design of something and point out how it could be better. If the lid of your Quaker Oats container is too difficult to open then a Human Factors person is to blame. The reason USB ports are perfectly rectangular is because the USB people didn't hire an Engineering Psychologist with the foresight to see it would frustrate users a decade later.

If you're in the Human Factors field, then it's your job to sweat the details. You're a professional nitpicker who makes sure that "the human factor" (how something works, feels, or is understood by the user) is considered starting from the earliest design stages of everything from an electric toothbrush to a smartphone's user interface. In many ways it's the implementation of common sense in design, and its influence can probably be found in at least 20 different objects in the room you're sitting in right now.

Human Factors in Technology

This ad for the iPad 2 should be the manifesto of every Human Factors major out there who's interested in technology. Every word of it is perfect.

This is what we believe. Technology alone is not enough. Faster. Thinner. Lighter. Those are all good things. But when technology gets out of the way, everything becomes more delightful. Even magical. That's when you leap forward. That's when you end up with something like this.

Technology is amazing, but technology alone is truly not enough. Steve Jobs described the computer as being a "bicycle for the mind," but if the user doesn't know how to ride a bicycle then they get absolutely nothing out of it. Imagine you're sitting in the driver's seat of a classic Mustang, but you have no idea how to drive a stick-shift. In both situations you've got this incredible feat of engineering in front of you, but you're a sitting duck because you don't know how to operate them.

Engineering Psychologists working in the field of technology are the ones who constantly try to lower that barrier to entry. They're the ones who dream up a more stable bicycle wheel or automatic transmission and make sure they're implemented the right way. When "technology gets out of the way," that's when you can feel the wind blowing against your face cycling down a hill or pushing 100mph in that convertible Mustang. That's when everything becomes enjoyable, personal, and magical. That's when you get something like the iPad, and that's what Human Factors people strive to create.

"The Intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts"

After introducing the original iPad, Steve Jobs (inadvertently) defined Human Factors with regards to consumer technology by saying this:

We've always tried to be at the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts. To be able to get the best of both. To make extremely advanced products from a technology point of view, but also have them be intuitive, easy to use, fun to use, so that they really fit the users, the users dont have to come to them, they come to the user. And it's the combination of these two things that I think has let us make the kind of creative products like the iPad.

So important was this "Intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts" idea that Steve refined it and repeated it even more powerfully at the end of the iPad 2 keynote:

I've said this before, I thought it was worth repeating. It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. Nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.

It's true. The iPad is the equivalent of the first car with automatic transmission. It's enabling grandmas, grandpas, and 18-month-olds alike to actually understand and be able to use computers for the first time. Touch is the barrier-shattering input method that's going to bring extraordinary technology into more people's hands than PCs ever could, and Human Factors Psychologists/Engineers can help make that happen.

Human Factors, to me, is the marriage of Technology and Liberal Arts in consumer product design*, and it's taught in an invisible building between Tufts University's two schools: the School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering.

I won't settle.

*Design according to Steve Jobs:

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is.

It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.