A New Term: Human Performance Specialists

The professionals you call to help people become more effective.

Posted Nov 10, 2016

I am a human factors practitioner. I’ve been a member of a human factors society for about 40 years, and I’ve attended almost all of its annual conferences.

What is human factors? That’s exactly the problem. 

Most people have never heard of it. According to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society website, it is a scientific discipline trying to understand how people interact with other elements of a system. It tries to create designs that optimize human well-being and overall system performance. Got it? That’s one of the official definitions, and frankly, it doesn’t seem particularly clear or compelling.

It shouldn’t be this hard. A discipline concerned with making things usable should not be putting out a description that means nothing to most people.

In fact, we all wrestle with human factors issues throughout the day, every time we frustratingly pull a door that needs to be pushed, or spend way too long trying to navigate a confusing website, or try to figure out how to turn the lights on in a rental car after it has gotten dark and we can’t see the dashboard, or try to follow the directions, written in 8-point font, for a medication we are taking.

Here are some stories — evidence for the need to re-imagine ourselves.  One story I heard, at a human factors conference, involved nurses who initially recoiled when told they would be working with a human factors consultant, but then, once it was explained, responded that this was something they wrestled with all the time, trying to make it easier for themselves and their patients to operate different kinds of equipment.  A second story comes from a medical innovation center: Someone pitched the director with the idea of standing up a new human factors group.  “Great idea,” he responded. “What is human factors?”  (They now have one of the most admired human factors programs in the healthcare industry.)

A highly experienced professional told me she never introduces herself as a human factors expert, because it just draws a blank. She simply explains that she is a researcher.

So we need a new name — a name that lets people quickly understand what the profession is all about. Not a name we have to hide from or apologize for. The field of Human Factors has selected a name that people on the inside appreciate, but my argument is that this isn’t about us — it’s about the people who need our help.

And we need more than a name makeover. I think we also need a clearer focus for our efforts. True, we are a scientific community, and our journals take great pains to emphasize their scientific rigor.  But as a practitioner, I don’t think our goal is to do good science. It is to find ways for people to perform their work and activities more successfully.

I propose the term “Human Performance Specialist” to describe what we do: help boost performance.   And I propose two subgroups, those working on mental performance such as decision making (notice that I don’t use “cognitive” performance, which is also part of the jargon of the field), and those working on physical performance, such as the mechanics of lifting objects without injuring yourself.

Elite sports coaches are a good example of Human Performance Specialists. They have to improve the mechanics of the athletes — their physical performance — and also their mental performance — their ability to make very difficult judgments and decisions under extreme time pressure. 

In an earlier essay, I described nine levers for better decisions. These levers can guide our work as Human Performance Specialists. The levers are: clarifying goals (especially when working with wicked problems); structuring the decisions, providing training, developing checklists and procedure guides, offering incentives, applying principles of behavioral engineering, selecting good people, using information technology, and designing better organizations. As Human Performance Specialists, we can prepare ourselves to use all of these levers in order to help people and teams live up to their potential. Let’s get started.