When Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in the Netherlands revamped its men’s restrooms, the architects installed small, Euro-style urinals: a surefire way to throw urine off target. To solve this problem, the black outline of a fly was etched in the porcelain near each urinal’s drain. Users’ aim improved and spillage was reduced by 80%. “They try to power blast it away,” says Sanjay Saint, MD, hospitalist and professor of internal medicine at the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center, University of Michigan. “By the time they might realize that the fly isn’t going anywhere, the men are done and walking away.”
It’s a guy thing, sure. It also is an example of a human factors intervention. “Science teaches us that implementing a design for a machine or device that elicits an instinctive reaction from someone using it is a clear-cut way to avoid error,” Dr. Saint explains.
What It Is and Why It’s Important
Human factors (HF), or human factors engineering (HFE), also sometimes called usability engineering or systems-based practice, refers to the study of human abilities and characteristics as they affect the design and smooth operation of equipment, systems, and jobs.1 HF is the basic science underlying much of patient safety practice. For instance, the current recommendation that hospitals standardize equipment, such as ventilators, programmable IV pumps, and defibrillators, is an example of making tasks human friendly. The use of cognitive psychology and biomechanics to develop and improve software and hand tools are another example of HF principles.
In general, HF examines the component tasks of an activity in terms of three factorial domains: physical and environmental factors, cognitive factors (skill demands and mental workload), and organizational factors. Each task is assessed in terms of necessary interactions of the individual and work environment, the device/system design, and associated team dynamics.
HF use in healthcare is not new; for roughly four decades HF researchers have emphasized the key role of HF in safe medical design, healthcare facility operations, and patient safety processes. HF helps organizations deepen analyses of adverse events and develop effective solutions.2 HF is used in the design of labeling, warnings or alarms, software programs, information displays, paper forms, process and activity flow, workplace design, cognitive aids, decision support systems, and policies and protocols.