The Human Factors “elevator speech”

I was in the elevator with someone from our college grants office and a colleague who does research on medical devices and human factors (and is currently teaching a seminar on the topic).

She asked my colleague, “what does psychology have to do with medical equipment?”

After giving her a few sentences about the importance of understanding user capabilities and limitations, she seemed unimpressed and unconvinced 🙂

If you have a more convincing elevator speech for human factors/usability, please chime in! Peter from the daily human factor had a post on this topic last month.

8 thoughts on “The Human Factors “elevator speech””

  1. I’d be willing to bet that this is something all members of our discipline have wrestled with at one time or another in their career.

    For myself, I first try to identify what the person I’m speaking with does for a living so I can tailor my “elevator speech” accordingly. If not afforded that luxury, then I typically start with the following definition:

    “Human factors and ergonomics is a unique scientific discipline that systematically applies the knowledge of human abilities and limitations to the design of systems with the goal of optimizing the interaction between people and other system elements to enhance safety, performance, and satisfaction.”

    Admittedly, it’s a rather “clinical” definition, but I’ve found it to be a useful jumping off point for additional explanation. As I noted in a comment on “The Daily Human Factor” a few days back, I settled on it after collecting and digesting no less than 15 definitions from a variety of sources over the years. Taken together with my understanding of the discipline and my work experiences, it seems to adequately cover such a diverse discipline.

    My next step is to provide a few examples of work we do based on commonly known technology to facilitate understanding on the part of the listener.

    Finally, I spend my remaining time answering questions and, if applicable, explaining how our discipline can assist what they do.

    As you’d probably guess, it’s an ever evolving process. Moreover, with each new presentation, I tighten and hone the message in an effort to better communicate the importance of our work.

  2. To an extent it depends on your audience, but generally for elevator pitches I prefer to use metaphors rather than scientific-sounding definitions. I’ve found that by starting broader you can easily pique peoples’ curiosity while conveying confidence in the big-picture importance of what we do.

    Something like “We serve as the bridge (or diplomats) between the historically-distinct worlds of people and technology (or systems, engineering, etc). We help to explore and create a smoother transition between the two and try to ensure great experiences while understanding the limitations of both sides.” [Even this can be a lot to take in… so if there happens to be a cocktail napkin in the elevator I might draw a little picture of the worlds overlapping or with a bridge in between them.]

    Usually people will then ask for examples, which I’ll provide and along with goals of human factors. I’ve found about 4 out of 5 people show genuine interest and often eagerly suggest examples themselves of how human factors could apply. I definitely agree that it helps to explain how the field could apply to whatever it is that they do.

    Of course, some buildings are taller than others… so I guess it all depends on how long the ride is. 🙂

  3. Yes, I agree. I’m a little ashamed to admit to taking the easy way out. When asked by someone that I know I won’t have more than that 2 minute interaction with, I fall back on saying something trite about airplane cockpits… which of course has very little to do with my actual interests. I just think it’s the easiest context for people to grasp quickly.

  4. Ariel – I like the idea of using metaphors. Sometimes keeping it simple is the best policy.

    Anne – don’t feel bad. There are times I take the exact approach! 🙂

    I have a great example of an elevator speech – sans the elevator – that “sold” an individual on our discipline. I’m currently working with an architect to better incorporate human factors and ergonomics principles into the built environment. On Friday, I was at a local hospital performing interviews with imaging department staff to garner insight into what is and isn’t working in an effort to identify necessary changes. This information will be incorporated into the redesigned department in an effort to decrease medical error and increase staff performance & satisfaction, patient safety & satisfaction, etc. While interviewing a radiologist, I was asked how psychology had anything to do with redesigning the department. After a short discussion, where I was able to illustrate how our knowledge base could be applied to suggest potential changes that could make his work better, he was sold on the importance of our work. I always enjoy that type of experience!

    On a similar note, I would really like to start the discussion about making a more concerted effort to educate the public at large about the discipline – instead of us only doing so one individual at a time. I’m thinking that students, under the direction of their advisors, could leverage the use of social media to disseminate a consistent message to a larger audience. Thoughts?

  5. I think part of the challenge that we have is all the different terms that we call ourselves. For example, at the navy base that I work at people refer to themselves as Human System Engineers. Other places individuals are known as research psychologist. I think that there is a critical difference between these two domains, which I did not really think was articulated very well in the articles I posted on the blog. The critical differences, is that human system/factors engineers design systems based on user considerations and known human capabilities and limitations. In contrast, research psychologist investigate what the theoretical underpinnings of human capabilities and limitations. That is the simplest distinction that I can currently derive.
    Regarding, the outreach of the discipline (either engineer or psychologist) I know that they have the National Ergonomic Month: In addition, I know that Ron Shapiro does “Games To Explain Human Factors” but not sure if that is the best presentation of the discipline; although I don’t really know of anything else.

  6. I like to think the growing role and influence of human factors will make getting the message out there less pressing in the future, when ideally this will be done by the companies/industries that demand it, rather than the HF practitioners themselves. But certainly we’re at a time when the awareness is comparatively low to other fields. And despite the discrepancies between job titles and roles, I feel we are all more or less in the same boat when it comes to the end goals of optimizing technologies and the experiences they bring us.

    I like to picture a big time ad agency having some fun with getting the word out there on human factors. Bill-boards, slogans, t-shirts, commercials. I mean as a field its applications are endless, and the consequences of neglect so varied I think there is a ton of potential for creative and entertaining awareness (or recruiting) campaigns.

    Of course there isn’t marketing budgets often available on college campuses nor within our professional organizations. Maybe HF groups could work with advertising/marketing majors to experiment with campaigns in academic settings. Using social media and viral videos and the like could have some potential.

  7. I’m an HF student and have had so much trouble with this! When people ask what it is I study or do and “Human Factors” gets blank stares, I go pretty simple: “People in my field take what we know about the human brain and body and use that information to make things safer, more effective, efficient, and enjoyable to use. We’re designers that see through users’ eyes.”

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