Having worked on both the client and consultancy side of Human Factors engineering, Lumbani Munthali, a Senior Human Factors Consultant at Rebus, reflects on the opportunities and the challenges which both sides offer.
Human Factors (HF) as a discipline holds indispensable importance in a range of sectors and not least within the worlds of healthcare, medical devices and combination products. Professionals in these fields play a pivotal role in enhancing the usability, safety and overall user experience of the end product.
It’s not uncommon for an HF engineer to be the glue on a long-term project while engineers, designers and even project managers may come and go. The dynamics and responsibilities of this profession can vary significantly depending on whether an HF engineer is working for a consultancy or directly within the client organisation. Making the move from a client organisation to a consultancy six months ago provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the aspects that HF engineers may inadvertently overlook (and, dare I say, take for granted) when operating on either side of the consultant/client divide, specifically within the healthcare field.
Scope and breadth of projects
Working for a consultancy exposes HF engineers to a wide range of projects spanning medical devices, combination products, and pharmaceuticals. One day the focus may be on dissecting the user interface of a surgical robot and the next on designing a study for an insulin pump. No two days are the same and this variety and breadth of experience allows consultants to apply their skills to different challenges, ensuring they stay at the forefront of industry. Yet, with this diversity, one can take for granted the opportunity to develop a more intricate understanding of a single product. On the client side, attention hones in on internal initiatives, fostering an intricate understanding of the company’s products and pipeline. However, this deep dive may limit exposure to emerging industry trends and alternative methodologies experienced elsewhere.
During project work, the consultant can take the skills and knowledge learned from completed client projects and tailor them to suit the unique challenges of their most recent clients. On the client side, communication revolves around detailed knowledge of the project and product ensuring a successful collaboration. This often culminates in a study where the consultant is juggling the participant(s), study materials, a raft of pre-determined questions and tasks to complete, all within a timeframe previously agreed upon with the client. Meanwhile the client is on the other side of the mirror with additional questions and areas of interest they’d like probed, whilst simultaneously fielding questions from colleagues watching remotely, all of whom have specific objectives they are interested in exploring.
Budgetary constraints and resource allocation
Consultancies typically work on fixed price programmes of work or on a time and materials basis. This requires effective resource allocation and efficient management of budgets whilst delivering high-quality outcomes within specified constraints. Avoiding scope creep requires pragmatism, diplomacy, and client approval before diversions are taken from the agreed scope of work.
Within a client organisation HF engineers may not have direct control over budgets and resource allocation but are typically given an overall HF budget and allowable spend within each phase of the project. They can advocate for necessary resources and allocate them according to the project’s specific needs without the need for external approval. However, internal stakeholders often need to approve transactions.
Organisational culture, client relationships and team dynamics
Being a successful consultant relies on forging strong relationships with clients on a project-by-project basis. This requires time to successfully navigate various organisational departments and collaborate with different teams. This dynamic allows for fresh perspectives, diverse collaborations and exposure to different organisational cultures. But this also means that consultants must frequently adapt to new companies, different ways of working, and diverse client expectations. Consultants, more often than not, work on multiple projects at a time, meaning they may need to adapt to different clients multiple times within a week and sometimes within a day! While this brings exposure to different perspectives, it can pose challenges in terms of cultural alignment.
HF engineers within a client organisation experience a more stable work environment with established relationships within set teams that may last years. They work closely with colleagues in their team and internal stakeholders, developing a shared understanding of company culture, collaboration and specific product development processes. This stability fosters a sense of familiarity, but there might be a lack of exposure to alternative viewpoints and approaches, especially if they’re consistently working with a limited number of external companies.
I’ve found that the variety of client interactions in consultancy work provides a wealth of experience, while the stability of client-side relationships fosters a deep understanding of internal processes and long-term product goals. Adapting to varying client cultures and recalibrating the approach taken to fit differing work environments is a key asset.
Project ownership and decision-making authority
Consultants often influence projects but for the most part don’t have the final say in decision-making with regards to the product. They provide recommendations based on their expertise but the ultimate decisions sit firmly with the client. This dynamic can be both liberating and challenging, as consultants need to navigate differing opinions and priorities. As consultants don’t often live with a product from concept to submission, they are often not exposed to the ultimate fruits of their labours once studies are complete and final reports have been approved. It’s rare that a consultant receives updates on the progression of a project once it’s left their hands.
Working client side grants HF engineers a greater degree of ownership and decision-making authority. They can contribute to shaping the direction of projects, from early design phases to validation. Consultants may take for granted the autonomy and flexibility they have in proposing solutions, while client-side engineers might overlook the responsibility and accountability that comes with project ownership. With that in mind, consultants may find themselves more willing to craft recommendations that not only address commercial concerns but also challenge the status quo. They are frequently navigating the delicate balance between commercial sensitivity and pushing the boundaries of comfort zones, as they are not mere observers but catalysts for transformative change. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein popularised the Nudge theory in their book, and HF consultants often find themselves employing that concept to influence clients to explore unchartered territories.
Consultants contribute valuable insights and recommendations, but the long-term impact may be less tangible. Moving from one project to another often means the implementation and sustained success of a consultant’s recommendations are in the hands of the client. When working directly within a client organisation, you not only have the opportunity to make decisions with regards to the product, but also to witness and protect the long-term impact of those decisions. Client-side HF engineers can track the iterations on designs and actively contribute to the organisational knowledge base over time.
Consultants sometimes have the experience of working with a client across the complete design and developmental life of a product, in which case they are lucky enough to bear witness to the recommendations that are implemented. HF consultants may underappreciate the lasting impact of their contributions if, or when, brought in for a portion of a project. Whereas an HF engineer working client side may take for granted the impact of their work and the decisions they are responsible for.
The transition from working as an HF engineer on the client side to working within a consultancy is marked by layers of complexity and trade-offs. Having experienced both realms within the last 12 months, where I’ve had to adapt, learn and evolve professionally, I’m trying to keep a keen awareness of the unseen dynamics at play. Having an understanding and appreciation of the intricacies of each role allows me to thrive and thoroughly enjoy life as a consultant.
I’ve been able to successfully navigate this transition, making meaningful contributions to the enhancements of healthcare products and ultimately improving the overall user experience in the ever-evolving field of HF. I’ve achieved this by recognising and appreciating the unique opportunities and challenges offered on both sides of the mirrored glass.
My advice for anyone working within HF on either side would be to empathise with each other and embrace the power of open dialogue and communication to better understand the bigger picture and matters at hand.
Written by Lumbani Munthali, Senior Human Factors Consultant at Rebus.