Today’s Degree in Human Factors and Ergonomics: Seven Courses Students Will Encounter
Today’s degree programs in human factors and ergonomics offer students a top-notch education in the study of the human mind and body and they affect design, products, and services.
Typically, there is a distinction made between human factors and ergonomics. The former tends to deal with the psychological aspects of design while the latter is most often associated with the physical components of design.
So, let’s say you’re evaluating a case study in which a new smartphone app is being developed. A human factors psychologist might be responsible for the aspects of the app that involve it being user-friendly and intuitive, pleasing to the eye, and enjoyable to use.
The physical aspects of the app – how users interact with the interface – might instead be the responsibility of an ergonomics specialist. Where buttons are located and how a person utilizes the app (i.e., via taps, swipes, or both) could be components that an ergonomics specialist oversees.
Of course, to have a career in the human factors or ergonomics space, you’ll first need to get a degree.
While degree programs in this field vary somewhat from one school to the next and from one level to the next (i.e., bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate), there are some classes that are highly common. The list below will give you some insight into a handful of the most common classes that might be required to get a degree in human factors and ergonomics.
Perspectives in Learning, Perception, and Cognition
At the root of nearly all areas of human psyche are the components of learning, perception, and cognition. As a result, you’ll need a deep understanding of these concepts if you are to have a successful career in human factors and ergonomics.
This course takes the concepts of learning, perception, and cognition and explores the various theories and perspectives that underlie their study.
For example, you might study the five primary psychological perspectives of learning, which include:
- Behaviorism – which espouses that we behave the way we behave because of our interactions with the environment.
- Constructivism – which is the idea that we learn and behave the way we do because of past experiences.
- Connectivism – which posits that learning, perception, and cognition are influenced by the connections we make with other people and by the connections we make socially, at work, and in life in general.
- Cognitive – which explains that human behavior is the result of the way we think.
- Humanism – which theorizes that we are all striving for self-actualization, and that functioning within a hierarchy of needs influences the way in which we learn, perceive, and think.
Naturally, understanding the various ways in which the processes of learning, perception, and thought unfold will help you be a better human factors and ergonomics psychologist. These courses will help you see that there are different factors at play in each of these areas and that these factors might be different from one person to the next. This, in turn, will help you design better products, services, or systems that enhance people’s lives.
Virtual Reality and 3D Interaction
Virtual reality and three-dimensional worlds and interactions are becoming increasingly common in consumer products and services. As a result, students in this degree program would be crippled without becoming familiar with this virtual realm.
In a virtual reality and 3D interaction class, you might explore the following topics:
- How virtual reality works
- Creating virtual reality apps
- Computer graphics
- Computer programming
- Animation and digital design
- Human-computer interaction
In other words, this course is much more focused on the actual design and development of virtual reality systems than on the psychological or physiological interactions people have with virtual reality systems. While human factors and ergonomics are certainly a large part of virtual reality, this course is often more of a computer programming class than it is a psychology class.
What’s more, this course will help you understand how virtual reality worlds are designed. For example, when developing an app, your focus might be on developing buttons and menus that are easy to use. But in virtual reality, users can’t just interact with the system using buttons and menus – they also input their natural body movements.
So, this means that courses like this will help you understand the concepts and technologies that allow these complex interactions to take place. A bonus of taking a course like this is that you will get to experience all types of virtual reality and likely even design your own virtual reality world!
Anthropometrics, Size, and Fit
Anthropometrics, size, and fit is often a required course that explores the human body and how its unique qualities and physical parameters go on to affect the products and services born to the markets each and every day.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “anthropometrics”, as defined more concisely by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is “the science that defines physical measures of a person’s size, form, and functional capacities.” This information, according to the NIOSH, is then applied to further understand “the interaction of workers with tasks, tools, machines, vehicles, and personal protective equipment — especially to determine the degree of protection against dangerous exposures, whether chronic or acute.”
In other words, by taking this course, you’ll have a better understanding of how to design everything from products to tools to workspaces that people can interact within a manner that is both safe and effective.
For example, you might explore anthropometrics in the context of clothing design. You’ll learn about the human form, how to quantify body sizes and other variations, and techniques used to get the proper fit with clothing.
This is but one example, of course. You might also apply anthropometrics to the design of an airplane lavatory to ensure that it offers enough space for people of many different body sizes to move around as they need to.
As yet another example, you might apply anthropometrics as it relates to the design of a vehicle’s interior space. More specifically, you might assist in the layout of buttons and controls so they are easy to reach and manipulate for the vehicle’s driver.
Typical outcomes for a course like this include:
- Demonstrate the ability to conduct research, read relevant studies, analyze data, and report on that data.
- Demonstrate the ability to understand the relationship between size and fit as it pertains to many different applications for consumers and people in the workforce.
- Demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between technology and the design of products, services, tools, and the like, and how those things impact anthropometrics.
To take this class at the undergraduate level, you’ll usually need to have already taken a statistics course. This is because of the research component; understanding statistics is essential for conducting research.
Behavioral Decision Theory
The human decision-making process has long vexed scientists, psychologists, general doctors, and many others. What are the factors that all come together to ultimately form a person’s “decision” to do or not do something? Are these factors the same in all people? What happens at a biological level when decisions are processed and then finalized?
These are just some of the essential questions that you’ll examine in a behavioral decision theory. In addition to attempting to understand why other people make the decisions they do, you’ll also explore how people influence others to make decisions. It’s important to know why some people are able to direct the decision-making of others as this is a prime quality of people that become leaders.
Other topics of study include:
- Choice architecture
- Consumer behavior
- Human biases
- Forecasting outcome decisions
This class is a fascinating study of behavior and usually includes lectures, class discussions, and case studies. Through these different methods of learning, you’ll gain skills related to making better decisions for yourself, influencing the decisions that others make, and how to apply behavioral decision theory in a workplace environment.
New Product Development
As the name of this course suggests, new product development specifically covers the ins and outs of modern new product development processes.
In this course, students will learn all about the various components of the development process such as generation, idea screening, and concept testing. In most studies of the discipline, and as covered well by the Huffington Post article “8 Step Process Perfects New Product Development”, there are eight, distinct steps to most organized new product development approaches today. In addition to the three steps listed above, this includes:
- Business analytics
- Marketability tests
- Technicalities and product development
- Post-launch review and perfect pricing
These factors are critically important to understand because it helps inform you about one of the most important processes a business can undertake – product development.
Of course, developing new products means that an enormous amount of risk is taken on by companies. To help minimize that risk, human factors psychologists and ergonomics specialists try to understand consumer behavior in order to develop products and services that will sell.
Obviously, this is a business-oriented course, rather than a psychology-based course. This is the norm for human factors and ergonomics degree programs – there is a strong mix of business and psychology courses that you’ll be required to complete.
Graphic design is an important class to take because it reveals the methods used to entice consumers to buy products.
Whether it’s the logo of a company, the font used in marketing materials, or the color scheme a business uses, these decisions can make or break the success of a business. If you get them right, you can help a business expand its reach to consumers and drive profits upward. Get them wrong, though, and you might have a logo that’s unreadable or printed marketing materials that don’t catch consumers’ attention.
But graphic design isn’t about learning how to design pretty things. Instead, you’ll gain skills related to:
- Web design
- Budget management
- Computer-aided design
- Photoshop & Illustrator
- How to work as part of a team
So where does this class fit into the overall human factors and ergonomics discussion?
Just like the layout of switches and buttons on a piece of machinery is important, so too is the layout of things like logos, posters, book covers, and so forth. Whereas the layout of buttons in an airplane cockpit needs to be intuitive for the safety of the people on board the plane, the layout of graphic design needs to be intuitive for consumers to understand what the product is or to get excited about a product or service.
A final common course in human factors and ergonomics degree programs is occupational safety.
As the name implies, these courses focus on what can and should be done to improve the safety of people in the workplace. While most people might think of occupational safety in terms of dangerous jobs, like construction, the need for occupational safety exists in every manner and type of career.
Courses in occupational safety often explore the following topics:
- Industrial hygiene
- Injury prevention
- Nursing theory
- Behavioral science
Within the context of these topics, occupational safety courses explore frameworks within which occupational safety, public health, and prevention principles can be applied in the workplace.
Additionally, as part of this course, you’ll be tasked with recognizing health hazards and safety issues in the workplace, understanding health promotion procedures, and understanding the role of occupational health professionals in applying proper safety protocols to ensure the safest work environment possible.
Like many of the other courses on this list, this class is usually a mixture of lectures, class discussions, and research projects. Additionally, students typically visit local businesses to observe occupational safety protocols at work in the real world.
Becoming a Human Factors or Ergonomics Specialist
Today’s human factors and ergonomics degree programs are a sure way to prepare for any number of excellent career opportunities that rely on this kind of valuable knowledge. The above-mentioned courses are some of those that students can expect to run into on the path to degree completion. For more detailed information on human factors and ergonomics degree required courses, you are encouraged to contact your school’s guidance department directly.
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Updated June 2021