Editor’s note: Barry H. Beith, Ph.D., is founder and president of HumanCentric Technologies. The Human Factor is a regular feature in LTW.
_______________________________________________________________________________________An ancient Zen question that has, as many have, reverberated down the ages, asks “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

While I am Methodist by upbringing and confused by nature, I have not ever tripped over the answer but I have on occasion realized that the question and its answer are related to my belief that most true creativity, innovation, and “aha” experiences come at the boundaries and the intersections between disciplines, or to beat the analogy soundly, the meeting point of two different hands.

I realized long ago that to create applause, one must take two very different hands, in fact mirror imaged, and slam them together forcefully. Left with only one hand, or trying to applaud by moving two hands in the same direction will never generate the effect.

To put such Zen understanding into the context and focus of The Human Factor, I go back to one of my first experiences as a human factors professional.

I consulted for a while with Xerox in Henrietta, NY and was fortunate enough to work in a department defined by a visionary named Arnold Wasserman. Mr. Wasserman was a design and development guru who envisioned the complementary natures of design and research in general and industrial design and human factors in particular. He created a department of over 100 professionals by intermixing designers made up of both Industrial designers and graphic designers with HF practitioners, he intermingled them in a cubicle open office area, and he let the interactions, confrontations, fireworks, and synergies happen.

Research Yin and Design Yang

Running the risk of carrying the Zen analogy way too far, I observed the many distinctive and undeniable differences between designers and researchers. Designers are by their nature, inductive, right-brained, expansionists who, driven by visual and motoric senses and servos, and buoyed by emotional commitment to their work create incessantly.

Researchers are, in stark contrast, deductive, left-brained, data-driven believers in the application of “Occam’s Razor”, which is that principle that says that the simplest answer representing a set of questions is the correct one. Researchers live and die by the various hypotheses that encompass the question to be answered and the ’emotionless” truth that the data reveal about those hypotheses.

So here we go, we have two diametrically different types of people seeking the perfect combination of form and function.

Oh My God!!!

The last thing the designer wants is some geeky Edison wanna-be spoiling the color palette or the perfect skin curvature. And the researcher, they would prefers to choke eating their own data before surrendering to the clearly emotionally unstable, ego-driven proclivities of the “how can you be a designer, when you can’t even draw” set. So armed with their pens and Alias software on the hand, and their stop watches and goniometers on the other, the battle is joined.

The two factions, research as represented by human factors researchers on the one hand, and design, represented by traditional industrial and graphic designers on the other, wade into battle. They shout, they gnash, they plead, they curse, and they ultimately create. From the smoke and fire, the dust and ash, the two very different peoples meld together into an act of innovation, enlightenment, and the perfect blend of form AND function.

It is the very difference between these two disciplines that allows for the rising of the Phoenix, something born again that neither faction could foresee, neither skill set could define, and, most importantly, discipline could produce alone.

What Human Factors Brings to Industrial Design

Designers are broad in their vision. They are trained to produce a range of representations of that which they are trying to create. They bring many skills to bear from freehand sketching to alias renderings to CNC machine models to “beauty” models. They are taught to feel the design in a very personal and emotional way. Where their talent can wander astray and fail to support the best outcome is when their emotional bonding doesn’t embrace the best functional design alternative.

This is because sometimes the determination of the best operational interface or functional design requires an understanding not of the obvious such as visual cues, but the subtleties of operational interaction.

This is where human factors principles and test and evaluation activities can assist the designers in either selecting the best design based on a broader range of design factors or discover the best compromise among the options. The goal is for the researchers to assist designers in designing something that is” as pleasing to the mind as it is to the eye.”

What Industrial Design Brings to Human Factors

Human Factors researchers focus on human behavior as it is influenced by design requirements or design constraints. All design is intended to affect human behavior in some form or fashion whether it is to inhibit, facilitate, control, manipulate, or mold behavior.

Human factors research through observation, testing, evaluation, contextual inquiry, task analysis, or any number of other techniques can determine any number of best ways to design effective and efficient interfaces both soft and hard in nature to improve performance, safety, efficiency, acceptance, or a large number of other criteria for success. Designers, both industrial and graphic, can enhance the results of human factors efforts in two ways.

First designers can help researchers to convey their results and ideas in a very visual manner that facilitates the understanding and acceptance of the conclusions and recommendations. Too often good human factors work is overshadowed by the poor presentation of it to the client.

Second, designers can help researchers “package” good functional design in a way that is “as pleasing to the eye as it is to the mind.”

Integrated Synergy

Together, however difficult and angst-filled the process, human factors researchers and designers produce a better product together than they do separately. The bottom line is that while designers can design something that looks great, it often doesn’t work worth a darn (ergo, you look mauuuvelous!) Researchers, on the other hand, produce some of the finest working but ugly stuff in the world. One has only to look at military equipment to know I speak the truth.

Together, these disciplines can discover the best of both worlds or the compromises necessary in our inherently imperfect world. A wonderful example of what research and design can do together, but neither does well alone, is the identification and design of “affordances” in everyday products.

Affordances are design elements that facilitate positive human behaviors that may or may not be related to the activities and behaviors at hand but have a beneficial influence during some activity. For example, placing information displays or turn indications in mirrors on surface vehicles and discovering that this encourages drivers to look into their mirrors more often and thus changes for the better their visual scan practices during certain driving phases. Or one of the latest examples wherein electric toothbrushes for children play musical tunes that last for the recommended optimal brushing time (two minutes) to encourage children to brush for that long because they enjoy hearing the music.

Research and Design, human factors and industrial design are truly a reason for applause when they can work together. The synergism of these disciplines can work creative and innovative magic in almost any product domain. It is through this synergism that product developers can truly evoke the applause of their intended audience.

HumanCentric Technologies: www.humancentrictech.com