Human Factors and Ergonomics

Human Factors and Ergonomics

Human factors refers to ergonomics (from Greek "work" plus "economics," meaning efficient work), the proper design of keyboards, workstations, and mice so that they are "user friendly" to eye and mind—and physically less stressful on the user's body. The design process is generally carried out through usability tests during product development.

The discipline of human factors originated in training and development efforts during World War II. Submarine navigation and weapons systems were called "man-machine systems," meaning they involved human as well as machine "factors." For example, human factors referred to how navigators operated dials, levers, dashboards, and instrument panels, and machine factors referred to how switchboards, in turn, controlled submarines, planes, and computerized anti-aircraft gunnery. Today ergonomics is an important part of computer manufacturing as well as of the design of work stations. By extension it sometimes refers to interface design as well.



Alphonse Chapanis et al.: Applied Experimental Psychology: Human Factors in Engineering Design.


"Human Factors Society of America" founded; later renamed "Human Factors and Ergonomics Society." See:


Wesley Woodson: Human Factors Design Handbook.


Gavriel Salvendy (ed.): Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics.


Jack Adams: Human Factors Engineering.


Thomas O'Brien and S. Charlton (editors): Handbook of Human Factors Testing and Evaluation.


Christopher Wickens, Sallie Gordon, and Yili Liu: An Introduction to Human Factors Engineering.

Human Performance Technology

Human performance technology (HPT) is not as forbidding as it sounds. The term refers to the "science of improving human performance," and embraces a broad systems model for improving the performance of individuals, groups, and organizations. It is practiced by the professional organization ISPI (International Society for Performance Improvement), whose model can be seen as a specific version of what is generally called "performance improvement." Originating in the behaviorism of the late 1950s, HPT originally referred to "behavioral" engineering, but has since been broadened to include cognitive (mental) dimensions as well.

For a generalized, high-level version of the model, see the section on Performance Improvement and Performance Consulting, in particular the seven factors driving organizational performance. For the latest version of the official HPT model itself, go to the ISPI Web site at The HPT methodology is perhaps best understood through its history. Here is a rapid chronology of the movement:



The National Society for Programmed Instruction (NSPI) is founded, taking its name from the 1950s vogue for the teaching machines and programmed instruction of the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. Later, following the trends (and employing an economy of acronym), the organization eventually becomes the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).


Thomas Gilbert (1927–1995), a student of Skinner's and father of the human performance movement, begins offering his first workshops in "performance improvement."


Geary Rummler, a leader in the human performance improvement movement, helps design Kepner Tregoe's "performance system" consulting practice (see 1990).


Tom Gilbert: Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. This is the book resulting from Gilbert's earlier workshops in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite a difficult style, the book, which describes a behavioral-engineering model for performance improvement, has become a guiding academic work of the HPT movement. Gilbert defines performance very concretely as the "accomplishments" of a particular behavior, not the behavior itself. Workplace results are what count, not the activities that get us there. Gilbert also inaugurates gap analysis—the analysis of the "performance improvement potential" (PIP) of an individual—as the spread (or performance differential) between exemplary and average performers. Gilbert's work still stands as a powerfully pragmatic model for any performance consultant.


Geary Rummler (with Alan Brache): Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart. A superb systematic study of performance improvement techniques, on the three levels of organization, process, and performer/job. The book is rich in theoretical insights as well as practical examples. Rummler is one of the masters in the performance improvement movement. This is must-reading for anyone who is a performance consultant.


Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps (eds.): The Handbook of Human Performance Technology. An 800-page tome by various hands, sponsored by ISPI. A veritable summa of the HPT movement, from its 1960s behaviorist roots (articles by Gilbert, Harless, and Mager) through its 1990s cognitive and performance consulting phases (Rummler and others). Difficult going for beginners, but extremely valuable for advanced practitioners. Often cited as the bible of HPT.


Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps: Telling Ain't Training. A book on how and why we learn, and how to make learning stick.


ISPI launches an official certification process for HPT practitioners.

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"If we make people's pay contingent on their performance, tell them clearly what we expect of them (and whether they have delivered it), and give them clear instruction when they need it—they will rise to exemplary levels of performance."

—Tom Gilbert, 1992

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See also Behaviorism Cognitivism