Applying Human Factors Principles to Human Factors Reports

A panda eats, shoots and leaves.

This classic example of how the addition of a comma can change a panda from a peaceful herbivore to a potentially murderous mammal is one many of us will have heard of. But what’s this got to do with Human Factors?

The reason that HF is important is because it can help ensure that products and systems are designed to be useful and usable by the intended audience. This often entails optimising communication of a system’s status or simplifying messages and instructions so they are easy to comprehend.

How often do we, as an industry, apply these same basic principles to the way we report or communicate the findings from our research? Over the last few years I have been involved in both writing and reviewing numerous human factors reports for medical device work, both as a vendor and a client. There are a wide range of styles and approaches; that’s understandable, we are all different after all. This article aims to explore the benefits of applying human factors thinking to human factors reports.

Amongst our first steps in a new Human Factors engineering project is usually to define our product’s end-users, what training levels they have and how they will use the product. What happens if we apply that mind set to HF reports:

Who will read the report?

Readers of HF reports often include other HF professionals, project managers, engineers, designers and risk managers. So try asking yourself these questions: Will the readers have an existing understanding of the work we have done? Will they have a working knowledge of the product we have been testing? Or might they be completely naïve and need leading through our report? Providing simple clear structure, with a page layout that is easy to navigate, is essential. This allows the uninitiated to be told a story and the experienced to skip to the heart of the matter.

Why will they read it?

What does each reader want to get from your report? Some users will be very interested in the precise details of the test methodology and results whilst others need a quick summary. Providing a useful and usable executive summary that provides a suitable overview can be very helpful here, allowing the main document to provide more detailed content to the data hungry reader.

When do they need it?

This is an important consideration and, again, each reader will probably have different needs. For example, a product manager might just need to know whether concept A or B should be progressed to the next stage and the sooner they know that the better. A risk manager on the other hand may need all the detail and want to spend time combing through use errors to identify what actions need to be taken to improve the usability and safety of the device. Sometimes, an interim summary delivered quickly before the detailed report can be appreciated by certain readers.

How do they want it?

We’ve been focusing on reports but often a presentation is more powerful to communicate the results of a usability study, especially if it contains audio or video from the study showing real users involved with real use errors. Delivering the message to a wider team in this way can be very effective and, if delivered face to face, can often be a great way to spark discussion on key findings.

Whatever method you choose it’s important that the information is communicated in a way that is concise, meaningful and appropriate for regulatory submission. Here are some additional thoughts on sharing content.

Be consistent: If you’re describing a specific device part or on-screen button, establish a label for it and stick to it – use the same terms throughout the report. Some readers may not be very familiar with the specifics of the device, I strongly recommend adding an annotated diagram or photograph picking out and labelling key features of the user interface.

Use plain English: I know there are always complicated names for drugs, devices and indications but where possible use a simple word rather than writing a document that reads like a thesaurus has been thrown at it.

Remove doubt: A sentence like the following can leave the reader having to make assumptions: ‘Participant 3 stated that they were unsure of the next step, so the moderator provided guidance on the correct action and they were able to complete the task’. Who was able to complete the task, the moderator? We might well assume that it was the participant, but the sentence allows for misinterpretation. A clearer statement might be ‘Participant 3 stated that they were unsure of the next step, so the moderator provided guidance on the correct action. After this intervention, the participant was able to successfully complete the task’.  

Check the correct word: The complexity of the English language allows for some beautiful wordplay in the right hands. However, there are pitfalls for all of us to fall into if we don’t check. You might be surprised to hear that I commonly see these mixed up: discreet and discrete, principal and principle, affect and effect, advice and advise, practise and practice. It’s worth noting here that there are obviously differences between UK and US spellings so double check and as I stated above be consistent.

As human factors experts we are expected to apply scientific rigour to our study design and implementation. The same should go for our reports. First and foremost, HF reports should be clear and leave no room for interpretation. It may feel like a sentence scans poorly when compared to non-academic writing but removing doubt is vital. The need for absolute clarity is key here.

So in summary, don’t reserve your Human Factors core principles, knowledge and experience only  to the design and execution of studies. What use is a study if its, sometimes complex, findings can’t be communicated effectively to your target audience? Use this knowledge as a platform to leverage your HF reports to the next level of precision, accuracy and clarity.

Author: Chris White, Co-Founder

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