August 5, 2021

Don’t Forget the Human Factors and Ergonomics in Product Development

Rapid advances in engineering, technology and our own understanding of human biology…
Avatar Dr. Hassan Rashidi

Rapid advances in engineering, technology and our own understanding of human biology and perception have created a golden era of product innovation. As our design tools have grown more sophisticated, product development cycles have grown shorter, product development costs have decreased, and entrepreneurship is growing across many product categories as startups can now access cloud-based technologies that allow them to compete with larger enterprises. Most importantly, consumer expectations have matured and grown increasingly selective towards the many options presented by the marketplace.

However, despite the opportunities and high expectations of so many startups seeking to design products for widespread consumer use, only a small percentage of products gain a critical mass of users and eventually achieve mass adoption. There are numerous reasons why startups can fail from a business perspective, but if we focus only on the design of the product, we still can find several common sources of failure. Through root cause analysis, you may find that not understanding the importance of human factors and ergonomics in product design can ultimately lead to a lackluster user experience and thus an unsuccessful product.

Don’t Forget the Human

Human factors and ergonomics in product design are about including human physical abilities, biomechanics, and   cognitive functions in the design considerations. It is sadly common for teams to prioritize product features instead of ensuring their product comfortably fits the human body and offers a convenient, enjoyable experience. Your company may have designed a chair that offers more bells & whistles than other comparable products, but if users experience discomfort after sitting on your chair for an hour, the extra features built into the chair won’t matter.

Other types of products that have historically prioritized biomechanics and comfort include automotive seats, shoes, mattresses, pillows, and eyeglasses. The new wave of high-tech devices, including smartphones and more recently wearable devices, are now re-earning  the same lessons. Any product intended for prolonged physical contact must prioritize biomechanics and comfort – and for wearables, cosmetic aesthetics – to have any chance of success in the marketplace.

The aesthetics of a product will appeal to a different set of human factors, namely emotional and cognitive functions. The way people process visual information can create an instant emotional response, and the emotional effect of a well-designed product can greatly influence the cognitive decision-making that goes into a purchase. Again, this is particularly true for wearable devices, which can affect how we are perceived by other people much like our clothing or our haircut. So, it’s no surprise that bulky, feature-laden smartwatches have struggled to find a market despite the high-tech features they offer, and any sort of “smart glasses” or headset that offers augmented reality (AR) functionality will require substantial investment in design aesthetics before anyone beyond bleeding-edge tech adopters will consider wearing them. When it comes to the product appearance and look, shape, color, etc., human cognitive functions, perceptions, and feelings are very important factors that you cannot afford to avoid.

Simplify, and Add Lightness

Beyond the look and feel of a product, basic usability must put human needs first with a focus on simplicity. In many examples, adding unnecessary features to a product becomes ‘subtraction by addition’ – the product loses its simplicity, and gains features that add no real value, only complexity. Aside from adding cost to the purchase price, these superfluous features could interfere with the core functions of the product and lead to malfunctions, or make future repairs or upgrades more expensive and complex. Simplicity of design is a key consideration for product success, and it is better to keep it simple. The features and functions of the product should be intuitive, and should be based on the real needs of the users.

A key aspect of high-tech product simplicity is based on good user interface design. Selecting the best mechanical interfaces and/or digital interfaces has a big impact in mass adoption of a product, and an overly complicated user interface (UI) built to manage fancy features and complex functions can easily be the difference between product failure or success.

A good designer considers different aspects of product design. Products must fit the human body and optimize human performance and cognitive functions. Human physical abilities, ergonomic movements, and human perceptual functions should be among key considerations in product design. Design for excellence (DFX) or “Design for X” is a systematic approach used to meet different design requirements where “X” is a variable design objective. For example, design for “manufacturability,” design for “serviceability,” and design for “sustainability” are used to optimize those aspects of a product’s design.  Engineers should apply these same design guidelines to design for human factors (e.g., “ergonomics”) when keeping end-users in mind.

These considerations increase the value of product and make it more useable throughout its life cycle. These are very important factors for mass adoption of a product as well as for creating a good brand. Human factors and ergonomics are increasingly becoming important to increase brand recognition and ensure user retention.

Product success from a mass adoption perspective is multifactorial, but physical and cognitive ergonomics are certainly some of the main factors that determine success or failure. Designers focused on technology and feature simply cannot lose sight of guiding their guiding principles: products should fit the human body to provide comfort and convenience, and product aesthetics create desire from potential customers. This increases the mass adoption of the product if the other aspects of product design are fulfilled well. It is important to note that product aesthetics are not limited to physical aesthetics, they extend through the user interface as well. If you can master the art of simplifying something complex, you’re on the path to success.

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