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Design Firm Combines Human Factors, Research, and Design to Emphasize the Human Element

Industrial Design Services

Not only demographics, but the end-users' habits and patterns, are analyzed by the company's multidisciplinary design team.

More and more these days, the designing of products--whether for consumers or the commercial marketplace--is handled by design firms outside the high-rise halls of the large OEMs. One design firm that performs this initial task in the production chain, HumanCentric, located in Cary, North Carolina, is the quintessence of the modern design company, one that offers human factors, research, and design under one roof.

HumanCentric's CEO says that his company's biggest strength is its highly-skilled, talented staff, but also a certain versatility and diversity that many firms don't exhibit. "Our company is unique in the sense that the philosophy in the company is truly to integrate design and research," says Barry Beith, CEO of HumanCentric. "With most design companies, that's not true. If you think about design companies, they are primarily focusing on design, even though they have some researchers on staff. There are other companies in which you would find just the opposite, where they are primarily researchers but have just a few designers on staff."

The design process is initiated at HumanCentric by understanding the product's users and gathering their needs and wants and requisites, using research and other time-tested techniques. "Say, for example, we've been asked to design a GPS navigation system; one of the first things we would have to do is look at the market and find things that have been done well and/or poorly," explains Corinna Proctor, HumanCentric's manager and senior specialist in the Human Factors Division.  "We would then want to go out and find people that were using or not using these products, get the reasons behind it to understand why, as well as what the limitations and design challenges are. Then we would start brainstorming the next generation of what this product could be like.

"This is the point where our multidisciplinary teams get together to be exploratory and design for the 'what if' of 2010," she continued.  "We have to take into consideration where the technologies are going. Maybe the designs are almost there, but they're really hard to use.  For example, some claim touch screens don't provide sufficient haptic feedback, or they aren't ideal for older users."

Proctor says that one of the very first things the staff wants to understand in detail is the target audience for the intended product. "We may need to do a lot of research initially to get up to speed very quickly on existing research the client might have, so we can understand the basic attributes of their end-users," says Proctor. "This includes all demographics, age ranges, or restrictions. Understanding the end-user is one of our key tenets in the process. There are a number of different techniques that can be triggered for user research. One would be observational research, where you might go out into the field and observe people in the intended environment of usage--simply as a researcher noticing habits and patterns of the user."

Usability Testing Brings Prospective End-users Into Contact With a Model or Prototype

Another type of research, according to Proctor, is testing in the company's usability labs. This occurs when intended users of a specific demographic area are invited to interact with a particular prototype or "beauty model," so their thoughts and feelings can be recorded. It's a good format for the company's clients because they can watch what's going on anonymously from an observation room. The design firm also performs journaling studies to tap into the day-to-day habits of prospective end-users. "We really don't have the availability to shadow a nurse in their daily routine, so in these cases, we will ask them to do a journaling study, which is keeping a journal over a period of time, maybe three or four weeks," Proctor explains. "And we have them check in with us on a weekly basis to see how things are going."

HumanCentric started its evolution in Monterey, California, operating as a commercial product design office for a company called Monterey Technologies, which handled mostly government contracts. Barry Beith and his wife, Danna Beith, joined them by opening an east coast office in Cary, North Carolina in 1990. After three years, his wife left to start another company and then, in 2000, 14 staff members got together to start their own company--HumanCentric.

"The term HumanCentric was actually used by a friend of mine who works at IBM as a human factors specialist; he allowed me to use the name," Beith affirms. "What it refers to is a process for designing things by focusing on the human being, as opposed to focusing on the code or the hardware, or on the engineering aspect. There was a grand old man in the field named Etienne Grandjean, who wrote a book years ago called Fitting the Task to the Man. The point was that our perspective on the development of products needs to be HumanCentric, meaning we have to see from the user out. And we have to design everything around the user to work the way they need it to and want it to."

HumanCentric creates customized teams to apply the company's design and research processes to any given challenge. "We like to create our teams based around a process that we have that usually involves a human factors specialist, a graphic designer or industrial designer, and an engineer and design researcher," according to Daniel Hamilton, HumanCentric's principal designer. "This combination of team members allows us to have a variety of perspectives on a particular issue. We work on so many different types of projects here that we can't apply the same exact process to every problem, so every team is customized for each particular challenge."

Staff Design Engineer Bridges Design and Manufacturing

Although most of the staff is made up of industrial, graphic and interaction designers, and human factors specialists, the firm does have a design engineer on staff who is a bridge between the design process and the product manufacturer. Most clients, however, have their own manufacturing engineers on staff, or they enlist the help of engineers at the manufacturing plant.  The design firm has a CNC milling machine on site that it uses to convert 3D data into prototypes, concept models, or beauty models. The difference between a beauty model and a prototype is that a prototype functions almost like the real product. The beauty models have some of the specific details, but are not a refined design.

"Our engineer is involved in the design process, and really understands our original intentions compared to the bigger picture, and can explain what our intentions are to the manufacturers," Andy Hamilton, an industrial designer at HumanCentric, confirms. "Often, when a client comes to us, they already have an existing relationship with a manufacturing company that has certain materials and processes that they are comfortable working with. Of course, we always try to pick materials that will enhance the product that we're developing, as well as being sustainable."

The multifaceted design company works in both the hardware and software realms, and will create software prototypes when necessary.

"Take, for example, the graphical user interface on the GPS navigation device that we talked about," Corinna Proctor suggests. "We would help a client identify the best menu structure, canceling strategy, and a way to lay out the commands and functions. We could also create the graphical assets, the look and feel, the color, and the icons. And then we might create a full model of the actual device itself."

In addition, remote usability testing is available to test computer software technology. In these cases, software can be tested from a HumanCentric test lab via the internet at a site thousands of miles away. "We can see what keystrokes they are hitting, what mouse movements they are utilizing, and talk to them while they are doing it," says Beith.  

The design firm operates end-user studies out of the company's two usability labs--one a larger facility and the other, a single-person room. The larger lab is available for testing prospective products with multiple work stations, and is available for test users to interact with each other. The work stations can be used for either hardware or software testing. "The primary purpose of our labs is to allow us to have a controlled setting to observe and interact with users of specific types of products and to better understand their experiences with the products, whether their experiences are negative or positive, and why," Beith explains. "And we want to draw conclusions about existing products, competitors' products, or new proposed products. In some cases, we might be using a prototype or beauty model."

Usability testing begins when a client's product or a competitor's product is brought into one of the labs. A test administrator will sit down with the test user to complete a number of tasks with the product, whether it's a piece of hardware or the software interface.  While the end-user is performing these tasks, video and audio recordings are being made of how they act or what they say. Errors are recorded after the performance of a task, and the time to complete a given task is also recorded. "We'll interact with them verbally after they complete a task by asking questions or having them fill out a set of rating scales," Beith continues. "There are some protocols referred to as 'talk aloud protocols' in which the person actually talks out loud about what they're doing, thinking, and how they like or don't like what they are seeing. But the labs are only complementary to what is more important, and that is whenever possible to go out into the field to a real situation and observe and interact with people doing real jobs with real products."

Creative Drawing is Still Major Component of Excellent Designs

HumanCentric uses a large collection of high-tech software to accomplish design and research functions for new products. However, the CEO and his designers believe that the traditional design processes, like the ability to brainstorm and draw, are still the prerequisites to an excellent design.

"The software is a bridge between the designers and the engineers," Beith insists. "The flow is better when you're doing something naturally, like drawing, rather than through software or a machine. I've been very much persuaded over the years that designers need to draw what comes out of the right side of their brain. The ability to iterate designs is far more expressive through drawing than through computer tools. What we really pride ourselves on is the ability of each and every one of our designers to create that way, and then turn them from a visual design into a specification that the engineering world can understand." 

"Our software allows us to improve our workflows and get a product to market faster," says Daniel Hamilton. "But I still believe that 95 percent of any design problem is addressed through the approach to the issue and 5 percent is addressed through technical means, like using software. It's really how we approach each problem that gives us unique solutions."

Product design and user interface design, in conjunction with human factors research and ergonomic research, work together to create an overall design concept. According to the company's CEO, ergonomics are the laws of physical work that relate to the worker, whereas human factors deal with intellectual functioning. User interface design issues, he says, reflect things like mental load, workflow, and mental models of the devices that we use.

"Ergonomics grew out of industrial engineering and the Taylor and Gilbreth work at the turn of the century; human factors grew out of WWII and basically dealt with human technology issues," Beith explains.

"I associate product design with hardware design and ergonomics," Beith continues. "Ergonomics I think of as a 'neck down' physical science in which human beings are asked to physically interact with tools and products. Ergonomics traditionally deals with things like lower back problems and carpal tunnel injuries from physically interacting with hardware. Human factors, on the other hand, we tend to think of more now in a 'neck up' situation, where it deals with higher- order cognitive functioning. When you're dealing with the physical aspects of a product, take a cell phone for example, the most important aspects of the cell phone are its weight, its shape, which relate to the hand. An ergonomist really needs to physiologically, metrically, and bio-mechanically understand how the human hand works. And how the human being uses the phone before the industrial designer can design the ideal form for the human hand."

Product Safety a Major Concern With Medical Devices and Tools

When medical devices and surgical tools are designed at HumanCentric, product safety is always the paramount priority. With this in mind, all kinds of safety measures are built into the final product to ensure a high level of safety. "Very specifically, usable and safe products are not only mandated and dictated and watched for by governments in certain industries, but they can also result in less training time, fewer support calls, less need for help-lines all over the place, and less need for in-depth instruction manuals," according to Proctor. "Therefore, if the product is well-designed, less customer support is necessary."

One instance of this diligence with a critical product design is a medical infusion pump--for Hospira, a medical equipment company--that took several years to perfect.  "Classically, IV (intravenous) pumps have been error-prone and hard to learn because the hardware and technology that the pumps used to be made from is not that clear-cut," says Proctor. "In the past, there have not been built-in software mechanisms to prevent user errors. So these were some of Hospira's missions as they embarked on this project to make a world class, next generation, safe infusion pump."

HumanCentric conducted more than 15 usability studies and numerous risk assessments before the design process was completed. The pump is now on the market after being launched in the summer of 2006. And the design company was named one of the winners of a medical product design competition for the infusion pump at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society annual meeting in 2006.

One hurdle that HumanCentric had to leap over with the pump was to make sure that nurses using the device would accept it easily. The company also wanted to make sure that user data entry errors would be eliminated by using built-in safety mechanisms. FDA approvals, 510(k) approvals, human factors safety, and risk assessment all had to be kept in mind as the project was being initiated. "Some of the things that were very important from our standpoint were to make sure that the nurses were one of the first groups we went to, so we could find out how they thought, how they worked, and how they were trained," says Proctor. "And we wanted to know the vernacular and language they used, and what they thought about medication doses, injections, and medical errors."

Another medical device design came together at the design studio for a professional infant warmer. Many infant warmers in operation at the time were more like incubators and bassinets.  Birthing departments in hospitals, reportedly, were seeing a need to be able to more safely and effectively deal with newborns.  "At that time, the design firm that was putting the GE Healthcare Giraffe together was Omeda Medical in Laurel, Maryland, which was later purchased by GE Healthcare," says Beith.  "Our industrial design group was asked to come in to work with them because they didn't really have the bandwidth in industrial design that they needed. GE knew that we could bring another perspective to the project. The infant warmer is designed in such a way that it allows for the safety of the infant, but also facilitates the needs of the staff."

Not only does the Giraffe infant bed help healthcare workers access the child more easily, but the warming element can also be moved toward or away from the child so that overheating does not occur. "Case in point, the warmer has a range of height so that it can be moved up and down," says Beith. "This addresses one of the problems in the healthcare field, bending over to reach a patient or piece of equipment, which is very hard on the back."  

The final design for the infant warmer is said to have brought about many innovations that performed several new and improved tasks.  One particular innovation was successful in restricting germs in the neonatal unit. This occurred because the Giraffe was able to reduce the number of surfaces that the professionals had to touch when they were interacting with the child. To achieve this, an infrared beam with sensors was installed that gives the nursing staff bio-data feedback about the child's status. When an alarm goes off, all they have to do is pass their hands through an infrared beam to shut it off. They don't have to touch anything, which controls the transfer of germs.

Another outstanding feature designed into the infant warmer was for equipment transportation, since an infant must sometimes be transported with oxygen canisters, IVs, or other equipment. "These infant warmers can weigh as much as 500 to 600 pounds with all of this extra equipment, so we started working on a shuttle that could carry all of these canisters and would allow for battery power when it was in transit," Beith explains. "We wanted to design the cart so it would turn and maneuver easily because we couldn't power the cart itself, since the power is used to take care of the infant."

Usability Metrics Can Highlight Return on Investment

Whether it's a critical product for the medical field or one for the consumer market, the client's return on investment is always considered. The "value proposition" marketing concept--which is basically return on investment--is the sum total of benefits which a contractor promises that a customer will receive in return for the customer's monetary payment. 

"There are a few measurable, specific ways companies who we work for can go back and track market trends, buying trends to see how well a product that we helped them with does in comparison to its predecessor product, a legacy product, or competitor's product," says Proctor. "Some traditional metrics that suggest the ROI for usability include higher sales purchasing data (increases), fewer technical support calls, fewer purchasing returns, reduced need for in-depth training, reductions in data entry errors, and so on. Some companies track these metrics and compare them from product to product and can attribute differences to improvements in usability and product design."

The multitude of user-unfriendly products in the marketplace is the reason that human factors interaction is so important in the design process. "Yes, there are unfriendly consumer products everywhere!" says Daniel Hamilton. "This reminds me of a story where Corinna and I were traveling for business and had to rent a car. We got into the car, started the engine, and could not figure out how to turn the radio on. It was such a simple, basic task, but the radio was covered with so many features, functions, and complexity that the simple task of turning it on was daunting. We encounter these types of problems every day."

HumanCentric's CEO offers several examples of why the company stresses human factors so heavily in its design work. "Let me give you an example you encounter every day," says Beith. "After all of these decades of producing personal computers, does it make sense to turn off your computer with a button that says 'start'?" Beith noticed another example of user unfriendliness after acquiring a BlackBerry® smartphone a few months ago. "I recently took my first airplane flight with the BlackBerry," he recalled. "I couldn't turn off my BlackBerry because I didn't know how; I couldn't find a button that would allow me to turn it off. There was an icon located just below screen level that I had to scroll down to in order to turn it off. Later, I also didn't know how to turn it back on."

User interface design, now used to design the screens for personal computer software and interactive websites, was not given much importance until personal computers came along. "As long as you had enough room for the buttons and displays, you just put them anywhere," says Beith. "The best example of that we found back in the 1970s when Three Mile Island opened up the nuclear industry and we found that control rooms were an utter and complete mess. Because engineers had a tendency to put displays and controls wherever there was room. There was no logical flow as to how they were actually used."

For more on HumanCentric, visit

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