Methods for testing human factors

Until recently, methods used to evaluate human factors and ergonomics ranged from simple questionnaires to more complex and expensive usability labs.

Some of the more common human factors evaluation methods are listed below:

  • Ethnographic analysis: Using methods derived from ethnography, this process focuses on observing the uses of technology in a practical environment. It is a qualitative and observational method that focuses on “real-world” experience and pressures, and the usage of technology or environments in the workplace. The process is best used early in the design process.
  • Focus Groups are another form of qualitative research in which one individual will facilitate discussion and elicit opinions about the technology or process under investigation. This can be on a one-to-one interview basis, or in a group session. Can be used to gain a large quantity of deep qualitative data, though due to the small sample size, can be subject to a higher degree of individual bias. Can be used at any point in the design process, as it is largely dependent on the exact questions to be pursued, and the structure of the group. Can be extremely costly.
  • Iterative design: Also known as prototyping, the iterative design process seeks to involve users at several stages of design, to correct problems as they emerge. As prototypes emerge from the design process, these are subjected to other forms of analysis as outlined in this article, and the results are then taken and incorporated into the new design. Trends among users are analyzed, and products redesigned. This can become a costly process, and needs to be done as soon as possible in the design process before designs become too concrete.
  • Meta-analysis: A supplementary technique used to examine a wide body of already existing data or literature to derive trends or form hypotheses to aid design decisions. As part of a literature survey, a meta-analysis can be performed to discern a collective trend from individual variables.
  • Subjects-in-tandem: Two subjects are asked to work concurrently on a series of tasks while vocalizing their analytical observations. The technique is also known as “Co-Discovery” as participants tend to feed off of each other’s comments to generate a richer set of observations than is often possible with the participants separately. This is observed by the researcher, and can be used to discover usability difficulties.
  • Surveys and questionnaires: A commonly used technique outside of human factors as well, surveys and questionnaires have an advantage in that they can be administered to a large group of people for relatively low cost, enabling the researcher to gain a large amount of data. The validity of the data obtained is, however, always in question, as the questions must be written and interpreted correctly, and are, by definition, subjective. Those who actually respond are in effect self-selecting as well, widening the gap between the sample and the population further.
  • Task analysis: A process with roots in activity theory, task analysis is a way of systematically describing human interaction with a system or process to understand how to match the demands of the system or process to human capabilities. The complexity of this process is generally proportional to the complexity of the task being analyzed, and so can vary in cost and time involvement. It is a qualitative and observational process. Best used early in the design process.
  • Think aloud protocol: Also known as “concurrent verbal protocol”, this is the process of asking a user to execute a series of tasks or use technology, while continuously verbalizing their thoughts so that a researcher can gain insights as to the users’ analytical process. Can be useful for finding design flaws that do not affect task performance, but may have a negative cognitive effect on the user. Also useful for utilizing experts to better understand procedural knowledge of the task in question. Less expensive than focus groups, but tends to be more specific and subjective.
  • User analysis: This process is based around designing for the attributes of the intended user or operator, establishing the characteristics that define them, creating a persona for the user. Best done at the outset of the design process, a user analysis will attempt to predict the most common users, and the characteristics that they would be assumed to have in common. This can be problematic if the design concept does not match the actual user, or if the identified are too vague to make clear design decisions from. This process is, however, usually quite inexpensive, and commonly used.
  • “Wizard of Oz”: This is a comparatively uncommon technique but has seen some use in mobile devices. Based upon the Wizard of Oz experiment, this technique involves an operator who remotely controls the operation of a device to imitate the response of an actual computer program. It has the advantage of producing a highly changeable set of reactions, but can be quite costly and difficult to undertake.
  • Methods analysis is the process of studying the tasks a worker completes using a step-by-step investigation. Each task in broken down into smaller steps until each motion the worker performs is described. Doing so enables you to see exactly where repetitive or straining tasks occur.
  • Time studies determine the time required for a worker to complete each task. Time studies are often used to analyze cyclical jobs. They are considered “event based” studies because time measurements are triggered by the occurrence of predetermined events.
  • Work sampling is a method in which the job is sampled at random intervals to determine the proportion of total time spent on a particular task. It provides insight into how often workers are performing tasks which might cause strain on their bodies.
  • Predetermined time systems are methods for analyzing the time spent by workers on a particular task.
  • Cognitive walkthrough: This method is a usability inspection method in which the evaluators can apply user perspective to task scenarios to identify design problems. As applied to macroergonomics, evaluators are able to analyze the usability of work system designs to identify how well a work system is organized and how well the workflow is integrated.
  • Kansei method: This is a method that transforms consumer’s responses to new products into design specifications. As applied to macroergonomics, this method can translate employee’s responses to changes to a work system into design specifications.
  • High Integration of Technology, Organization, and People (HITOP): This is a manual procedure done step-by-step to apply technological change to the workplace. It allows managers to be more aware of the human and organizational aspects of their technology plans, allowing them to efficiently integrate technology in these contexts.
  • Top modeler: This model helps manufacturing companies identify the organizational changes needed when new technologies are being considered for their process.
  • Computer-integrated Manufacturing, Organization, and People System Design (CIMOP): This model allows for evaluating computer-integrated manufacturing, organization, and people system design based on knowledge of the system.
  • Anthropotechnology: This method considers analysis and design modification of systems for the efficient transfer of technology from one culture to another.
  • Systems analysis tool (SAT): This is a method to conduct systematic trade-off evaluations of work-system intervention alternatives.
  • Macroergonomic analysis of structure (MAS): This method analyzes the structure of work systems according to their compatibility with unique sociotechnical aspects.
  • Macroergonomic analysis and design (MEAD): This method assesses work-system processes by using a ten-step process.
  • Virtual manufacturing and response surface methodology (VMRSM): This method uses computerized tools and statistical analysis for workstation design.