You’re a what?
Human factors engineer
First, broadly describe your work.
The company I work for designs and manufactures robotic products that are used for minimally invasive surgery. Because we work on medical devices, we have to prove to the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) that that our devices are safe and effective. One of the ways we do this is by detecting possible errors a person could make while using the device, and then trying to reduce the likelihood of that error occurring through various solutions. This is called user-error identification and risk mitigation.
My job is to improve the user experience and reduce the likelihood of harm to the patient and our users. The FDA-recognized term for my job is human factors engineer (HFE). But I could also be called a user researcher or human-centered design engineer.
More specifically, what do you do?
As a human factors engineer at a medical device company, I have to be a subject matter expert on people, their environment, and the technology at use in that environment.
What my job boils down to is identifying potential errors that a person could make while using our technology to perform surgery. I consider all the ways a nurse or surgeon could misinterpret using our products and how harm could come to a user or patient as a result. We do this primarily through user testing, which involves bringing in participants (surgeons and nurses) in order to get feedback.
For example, during a usability study I might observe the study participants misinterpreting a control, such as a button. If so, I would identify what they thought that button did and what we could do to avoid the error. Designers use this feedback to create the product in such a way that someone won’t make that mistake.
What are some of your other responsibilities?
I work with stakeholders from different teams to identify areas that require additional user feedback, write questions to ask users, and work on testing scenarios. To prepare for user testing, I create a testing protocol, which includes the questions and tasks that a participant will complete when they come in for testing. We have a limited amount of time with participants, and we need to maximize our time with them.
Where else do human factors engineers work?
Aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, agriculture, and software companies are some of the other employers of HFEs. Any place where people interact with technology, you can apply human factors engineering.
Tell me about your career path.
I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in human factors psychology. After receiving my master’s degree, I worked at a small consulting company as a user researcher in automotive, medical devices, consumer products, and online retail. I was there for about 2½ years and got a ton of varied experience.
After that, I went to a technology company. I worked as a user researcher on an automotive product aimed at reducing driver distraction. After about 8 months there, I started working at my current company.
Why are people drawn to this occupation?
One thing I always hear is that people are interested in technology and in helping people, and that resonates with me. We’re talking about complex technology, complex environments, and complex people, so there are a lot of factors we have to take into account.
Considering those different elements all together is a really fun and interesting challenge for me. It keeps me engaged with my work.
What qualities or skills do people need in this occupation?
You should be empathetic; you have to understand things from a user’s perspective. And especially when doing user interviews, you need critical-thinking skills. Someone will do something you hadn’t thought of, and you need to process that and follow up without making them shut down because they feel like they did the wrong thing.Communication skills: You need to know how to ask questions. If people look confused, or if there’s a difference between what they say and what they do, you need to recognize that and be able to ask about it. You also need to listen to what participants are saying and read between the lines of what someone is not saying. And you need to be able to write a report that isn’t too technical but meets the needs of different audiences, from an executive to an engineer, and to explain findings from a study to other teams.
What’s the most challenging part of your work?
The most challenging thing is creating a product that people like to use. You’re constantly making tradeoffs when creating a design, and part of the challenge is in knowing which tradeoffs to make.
What do you like best about it?
I’m really passionate about our company’s mission, which is to help surgeons who are helping patients. Everyone I work with is motivated to put out the best product.
I get to talk with surgical teams, which I enjoy tremendously. Surgeons and people in the medical industry are fascinating, and I respect what they do. I get to observe surgeries, which is also fascinating and not something that everyone gets to do.
Any advice for aspiring human factors engineers?
Read about the history of this area of psychology. This field goes back to World War II when specialists were working on cockpit designs, such as how someone could fit in the cockpit and reach all the controls.
Find an educational program in human factors design. It’s very rewarding work, and you can have a big impact on people’s lives.
Finally, remain coachable and have an appetite for learning.
Talk about your future career plans.
I’d like to learn how to manage people and projects. My company is good at identifying a person’s strengths and finding out how to make them stronger. I want to continue to expand my skills and become an expert on human factors within the medical device field—to lean into my strengths.
Ryan Farrell, "Human factors engineer," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2020.