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The Synergy between Human Factors and Technical Communication
2003, Q3 (September 19, 2008)
By Meredith Blackwelder

On June 12, 2003, Dr. Barry Beith, President of the Carolina Chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) http://www.hfes.org, shared his thoughts with STC Carolina members on the synergy between human factors and technical communication. At the center of both is the end user.

During his presentation, Dr. Beith defined human factors as the study, design, and evaluation of human-computer systems. He explained that his field sets out to study how far a system can go in doing what it is supposed to do. Drawing from his education in ergonomics, human factors, and applied experimental psychology, he explained that human factors is focused on the optimization of human-computer systems by focusing on the user's cognition and perception - the neck up -, as opposed to ergonomics, which focuses on the user's physiology - the neck down.

Human factors, Dr. Beith explained, can be perceived as four distinct areas:
  • A perspective that is centered on the human
  • A science that applies human performance research data
  • A discipline that is connected to the design of the real world and exists to make products safer and easier to use
  • A process-a full integration team process- from concept to maintenance to end-of-life

The human factors specialist and the technical communicator find themselves making similar decisions or weighing similar issues. For example:
  • Often, it is difficult to decide when to use symbols versus words. Sometimes you cannot shortcut and use pictures because pictures do not convey enough information.
  • There are many challenges in explaining extremely high-tech concepts and products at a level that everyone can understand. What do you do when you just cannot write at a sixth grade reading level- the concepts just can't be broken down any more simply?
  • It is difficult for users to know what procedures to use at the right time. Both human factors specialists and technical communicators make sure that users do not get confused.

Areas that employ both human factors specialists and technical communicators include:
  • Web and internet information development
  • Medical informatics and systems, such as patient information and telemedical applications
  • Procedure writing
  • Video teleconferencing
  • Testing and evaluation procedures

Dr. Beith gave our members a buffet of food for thought. His opinion that the single most important challenge for human factors today is the design of easy-to-use healthcare and medical systems made me think about the future of technical communication. I began to wonder if the challenges human factors specialists face could be eased with help from technical communicators and how we can work side-by-side. Maybe the next big area for technical communicators will be in healthcare and medical systems. After all, I am now convinced that each of these disciplines extends to the other.

Meredith Blackwelder is President of STC Carolina. She can be reached at mblackw at earthlink dot net. End of article.

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