From Ergonomics to Experience: Applying Human Factors Analysis to Technology Planning

— by Craig Park, FSMPS, Assoc. AIA

The application of human factors design principles and techniques is an indispensable tool for the architectural planning process. It helps improve user experience and increases the assurance that the resulting spatial and technology solutions effectively reflect client needs. Nowhere is a stronger case to be made for including a human-factors approach than in audiovisual technology-enabled facilities programming and planning.

In his seminal research on the topic, Dr. John E. Harrigan[1] noted that the application of behavioral science and human factors techniques improve the identification of user expectations and requirements, which is vital to the successful implementation of architectural programs.[2]

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln observed, “Human factors analysis is primarily concerned with the application, theory, principles, data, and methods to design spaces and systems to optimize human well-being and overall performance. Further, at the spatial design level, human factors refer to workplace layout and design, working postures, materials handling, line of sight, repetitive movements, and safety.”[3]

Relative to technology, applying human factors design considerations to the analysis, design, verification, and evaluation of systems’ effectiveness supports goals for improving user experience. These factors apply to all interactions, collaborations, and communications — internally and externally — during their day-to-day engagements. In the post-coronavirus era, concerns and anxiety about workplace, classroom, or healthcare facilities safety will likely weigh large on the planning and programming discussions for new facilities.

The laws of physics govern many aspects of technology planning. In our work, we study how light and sound behave in physical environments. We design based on image luminosity and reflectivity and sound transmission and sound reflection. These factors impact human sensory performance (e.g., visual acuity and aural perception — how we see and hear) and are factual and measurable. How we engage with technology through device interaction (e.g., the study of human-computer interaction or HCI) is a well-researched behavioral science. These factors are documented and indisputable, as much as some designers would like them to bend them to an alternate reality.

The UNL study noted, “Through the repeated application of the [human factors] cycle of analysis of these three components — the design, operability, and maintainability of the work, facility, and technology — facilities are improved to better meet the needs of the user.[4]

These human factors apply equally to workplace design, learning space, health science facilities, and larger cultural, transportation, and engagement facilities. Extending that review to user expectations for more specialized task-training, media production, cohort interaction (huddle/team), and circulation spaces provide essential data points in the programming process.

IN PLANNING & PROGRAMMING

Human factors-focused programming provides insight into the vital information needed to design an environment to meet user expectations best. This process is the avoidance of incompatibilities between the designer’s preconceived ideas and the reality of the user’s style and behavior. Technology consultants, working with the architectural and interior design team, bring important data, background, and design input and options to this conversation.

In this context, discussions about the selection and placement of communication systems, including room dimensions, environmental systems (e.g., power, heating and cooling, lighting, and shading), and furnishings. These factors are developed only after obtaining a detailed analysis of user activity. Direct observation of how the client functions in present facilities and in-depth interviews with key personnel to establish future requirements define expectations. Additional indirect analysis of historical data on room usage and technology cycles provide essential data.

Human factors analysis also considers the matter of traffic flow and spatial adjacency. The internal circulation that is not encumbered by poorly placed equipment and furniture means greater efficiency for space activities. Convenient adjacency and access from the meeting space to support facilities (e.g., equipment rooms, breakout/huddle rooms, resource center, lounge, etc.) should be identified early and incorporated into overall facilities planning.

Simple and common design elements of symmetry, proportion, balance, alignment, and perspective and color are all critical when integrating technology into the layout of room elevations and ceiling plans. Users may not notice these factors objectively, but they will subjectively, and the annoyance factor of misalignment can negatively impact an otherwise positive architectural experience.

FACTORS IN DESIGN DEVELOPMENT

Beyond the program — in addition to correctly identifying primary and secondary functions of the space and the number of individuals using it — successful planning for technology-enhanced facilities considers the flow of movement, seating configurations, environmental conditions, and specific communication modes.

These, in turn, affect such decisions as the size and placement of information display screens, choice of display technologies, application of both voices (speech) and program (soundtrack) audio reinforcement systems, options for recording, distributing, and archiving content, and choices to be made regarding the user interface for technology control.

Other environmental factors affect perception, comfort, and ability to communicate. Lighting, of course, is a most important consideration for areas that include audiovisual systems. We recommend reviewing specified light levels at the seated or writing surface level in a meeting or training space. Lighting for subjects on camera, in a videoconference, and media production environments require a specialized analysis.

OH SAY, CAN YOU SEE?

A prime concern for the technology designer is providing good sightlines to the display screen. Determining image size is a function of viewing distance and the display resolution and is a critical factor in how well a presentation space works for the occupants. Ideally, the final decision on room dimensions — length and width to ceiling height — occurs after the visualization factors are considered, rather than vice versa, as is too often the case.

Human factors analysis frequently reveals a user preference for brighter images (projected or flat screen). This analysis facilitates note-taking, audience interaction, and allows the presenter to maintain eye contact rapport with the audience in a well-lit room. The advent of cost-effective, large direct-view display systems permits the presenter to quickly point out details on the screen without causing a bothersome shadow from a ceiling-mounted projector’s lamp output.

Providing visual acuity is a crucial factor in the design of technology-enabled space. The continued evolution of display technologies to the current 1080p to 4K (and soon 8K) resolution display options offer the designer and user numerous alternatives for information presentation. Adding interactive “touch control” overlay to the screen system allows single and multiple users to interact with the data directly.

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

The physics of light and sound share similar rules. Spaces where dialogue and interaction are encouraged, will require acoustic analysis for sound absorption (i.e., noise coefficient). We combine this analysis with consideration for appropriate sound reverberation time to improve intelligibility. Noise from adjacent areas may also prove distracting to those within the room. Sound isolation detailing — with the proper combination of absorptive and reflective surfaces — supports the users’ needs for aural quality and clarity and reduces disruptions for both speech reinforcement and soundtrack/program playback.

Providing optimal aural clarity is equally important and cannot be over-stressed. Combined with good acoustic design, this often means including a low-level distributed speech reinforcement system results are natural-sounding, clear, and intelligible speech. The speaker distribution pattern is also a function of physics. Each loudspeaker’s distribution pattern determines spacing and location, using simple calculations during the design process.

With the popularity of open-plan and benching-style officing, the concern for minimizing distractions and improving speech privacy has increased. The science behind using diffuse sound masking systems (often incorrectly referred to as “white noise”) to create an ambient acoustic environment that supports those goals is well proven. However, sound masking is not a bandage for failure to address architectural acoustics and sound isolation details in the design process.

Sound masking is a very useful tool for the design of open-plan environments. Sound masking uses above-ceiling loudspeakers, absorptive surfaces, solid surfaces as visual barriers between workstations, and the contribution of HVAC system noise.

Introducing diffuse sound energy in the speech frequencies (500-2,000 Hz) reduces clarity of “sibilants” (how we perceive speech patterns). Sound masking, when designed and installed correctly, minimizes distractions and improves the perception of speech privacy.

THE USER INTERFACE

Each client’s style and individual preference should influence the design of the operational graphical user interface (GUI) for the facility. The presenters may be more comfortable having minimal contact with electronic technology, opting for a simplified control option.

The answer is usually somewhere in between. The advent of programmable touchscreens, simple touch software interfaces — like those found on our phones, in our cars, or our homes — provide the user with a range of options.

Though still in development for large AV systems\ “conversational control” — with the advent of voice assistance from Apple (Siri), Google (OK, Google), and Amazon (Alexa) — predicts the next level of user control. Think, “Alexa, launch my Q3 Results PowerPoint” or “Siri, connect us to Zoom Room #3 in Los Angeles.” Similarly, studies are underway to employ gesture-based motion sensor control (pioneered by Microsoft’s “Kinect” and Nintendo’s “Wii” gaming systems), which may provide a control alternative in the likely post-coronavirus limited-touch facilities scenario. It is the designer’s responsibility to determine the most appropriate user interface for the application as part of the human factors analysis.

WHY OPTIMIZE THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Technology is essential, often frustrating, and effective planning is too often intimidating because it evolves so quickly. However, applying human factors to technology design remains critical to the success of contemporary interaction spaces.

A recent survey by a major international technology company found that even in their conference rooms — more than 3,000, spread out over the world — connecting to the room’s audiovisual and IT system wasted 10+ minutes of every meeting. Combine that with systems not correctly designed or interfaced with human factors of lighting, acoustics, or furnishings. Multiply that by the average of 3-4 people per site, and 3-4 meetings every day, every week. The resulting negative impact on experience and productivity is more than consequential, and fortunately, avoidable.

Many user perception issues can be alleviated when designers apply human factors analysis to technology planning through self-study or by engaging a qualified consultant early in the programming process.

As we enter an era of new and improved communication technologies (e.g., 5G, Wi-Fi6, Li-Fi, GPON, etc.), the importance of correlating human factors and expectations with the promise of new, faster, and more ubiquitous connectivity becomes even more critical.

As Dr. Harrigan noted in his book, “Clients always profit from advice given early in the building project. The most important characteristic of the human factors methods and applications is their flexibility.[5] The opportunities and problems associated with creating perfected environments and the considerations justify human factors research.”[6]

I studied with Dr. Horrigan as an undergrad and applied his teachings to my practice ever since. My convictions about his focus on the experiential programming process have only grown stronger in the intervening years.  Establishing human factors criteria for user experience focused on technology planning on function, performance, and quality of service early in the process provides a clear roadmap to positive user experience and improved connection, communication, and collaboration.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Craig Park FSMPS, Assoc. AIA is a principal consultant at NV5 Engineering & Technology. He is based in Charleston SC and leads the Southeast Region technology practice group. Reach Craig at 843.699.0010

[1] Former Cal Poly SLO School of Architecture professor and my career advisor when I was a student there

[2] Harrigan, John, “Human Factors Information Taxonomy: Fundamental Human Factors Applications for  Architectural Programs” Sage Journals (1974)

[3] Hendrikse; McSweeney; Hof; Atkinson; Miller; Connor; Poblete; Meyer; O’Connor; and, Heber, “Effectively Including Human Factors in the Design of New Facilities” (2002); University of Nebraska-Lincoln for the United States Department of Transportation — Publications & Papers

[4] Ibid.

[5] Harrigan, John, “Human Factors Information Taxonomy…,” Page 245.

[6] Ibid., Page 29.

Contact NV5