Better design products

The Power of Human Factors in Digital Product Design

May 15, 2024
8 minutes
Ferenc Boroczky
Founder and CEO of anet360

Nowadays, we're in the throes of an information revolution. Amidst all the technological advancements, it's important to remember that the most powerful, efficient, and flexible information processing and storage device on Earth is located right between our ears — the human brain.

In our daily lives — whether at work, during our routines, or in moments of relaxation — we're constantly bombarded by stimuli from our surroundings and from within ourselves.

When we begin on designing a new product, it's crucial to understand how users will interact with it. Every product, whether digital or analog, communicates with the user, sharing information that elicits reactions and prompts interaction.

But what exactly do we mean by 'information'? Information theory defines it as the reduction of uncertainty. For instance, a 'fasten seat belt' warning that activates when the car starts conveys less information, as it's an expected event. Conversely, a temperature warning light indicates a less likely event, conveying more information. This understanding is pivotal in the design process. Here, it's essential to distinguish between human factors and human-centred design:

Understanding Human Factors vs. Human-Centred Design

Human factors refer to the scientific study of how people interact with systems and products. It involves understanding the capabilities, limitations, and behaviors of humans to improve the design of systems and devices for better performance, safety, and user satisfaction. Human factors take a holistic approach, examining physical, cognitive, and social aspects of human interaction.

Human-centred design (HCD), on the other hand, is a design philosophy and process that places the user at the center of the design process. It focuses on creating solutions that meet users' needs and preferences through empathy and iterative testing. While human-centred design is informed by the insights gathered from studying human factors, it specifically emphasises designing with the user’s experience as the primary focus.

Photo by rivage on Unsplash

Despite the importance of human factors, many companies and businesses continue to design products in ways that render otherwise valuable products completely useless. Naturally, we all want to avoid that. So why is it hard to design products that people love to use and that just do what they expect them to do? The challenge lies in the complexity of human factors. Unlike machines, humans are not predictable or uniform. We have diverse needs, preferences, and limitations. What works for one person might be frustrating for another. Here are a few key principles to consider when designing digital products:

Understand your users

Before you start designing, it's essential to know who your users are. This might seem obvious, but professionals and entrepreneurs often overlook it. For example, when we started designing the first version of the Safe Urban Driver training aimed at professional HGV and LGV drivers in the UK, I spent two weeks on the roads with drivers to understand who they are, what their job entails, and to get a better picture of their lives. The results were sometimes surprising. For instance, most professional drivers don’t use smartphones because they don’t need one. They don’t check their emails or spend time on LinkedIn or other social media. Another factor is their age—the average professional HGV driver in the UK is around 45+, but I spoke to a range of drivers. Conduct user research to gather insights about their behaviours, needs, and pain points. Use tools like surveys, interviews, and observation. Create personas to represent different segments of your user base and guide your design decisions.

Simplify the user experience

A common mistake in product design is overcomplicating the user interface. User experience and UX design is two totally different thing. Don't start designing UX first. Users should be able to navigate and interact with your product intuitively. One of our guiding principles is to allow the user, not the product, to initiate and control actions. Apply the principle of Hick's Law: the time it takes for a person to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices. Simplify choices and reduce cognitive load to enhance usability.

Prioritise accessibility

Accessibility is not just about complying with standards; it's about making your product usable for everyone, including people with disabilities. Consider colour contrast, text size, screen reader compatibility, and keyboard navigation. An accessible design ensures that more people can benefit from your product. For example, when we launched the first version of our Virtual Reality Safe Urban driving training smartphone app in 2019, we added a read-aloud function. Though a small feature, it was praised by the drivers because many of them do not have English as their first language. Listening to text can be easier than reading it.

Provide feedback and adaptation

Users need feedback to understand the result of their actions. This can be visual, auditory, or haptic. For example, when a user submits a form, a confirmation message reassures them that the action was successful. Additionally, design should be adaptable. As users interact with your product, gather feedback and be willing to make iterative improvements.

Engage emotionally

People are more likely to use and recommend products that evoke positive emotions. Use design elements that create a delightful experience. This can be tricky because design, like art, is subjective. What one person likes, another might not. Our approach is not to prioritise design first, but to think about how the design can enhance communication with the user. This could be through aesthetic appeal, humorous copy, or interactive animations. Emotional engagement can transform a mundane task into a pleasurable experience.

Ethical design

While striving for efficiency and speed, it’s easy to overlook the ethical implications of design decisions. However, ethical design is critical in building trust and long-term relationships with users. Consider the following aspects:

  1. Privacy and Security - Respect user privacy and protect their data. Be transparent about what data you collect, why you collect it, and how it will be used. Implement robust security measures to safeguard user information.
  2. Avoid Dark Patterns - Dark patterns are deceptive design practices that trick users into taking actions they might not have intended, such as signing up for a subscription. Avoid these manipulative tactics and focus on creating a transparent, user-friendly experience.
  3. Inclusivity -Design for inclusivity by considering the diverse backgrounds and circumstances of your users. This includes cultural sensitivity, socioeconomic factors, and varying levels of tech literacy. An inclusive design ensures that your product can reach and benefit a broader audience.

Designing products that people love to use requires a balance between functionality, usability, and empathy. By understanding human factors and prioritising user-centered design principles, you can create digital products that are not only effective but also meaningful and enjoyable for your users. Remember, the best designs are those that serve people, enhance their lives, and respect their individuality. As designers and developers, it's our responsibility to keep the human experience at the forefront of our creations.

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Ferenc Boroczky
Founder and CEO of anet360
With more than 15 years in design and technology focused on people, I've dedicated myself to growing a business that makes a real difference. I'm the Founder and CEO of Another Set of Eyes (anet), a company my wife and I built from scratch. We've come a long way without financial backing from investors, proving our resilience and innovation and developing a high-quality, yet user-friendly software solution. Our mission is to change how organizations gather and use important information, share insights, and train their teams.

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