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I received an email from Lois at HFES headquarters (if you don’t know her, she is one the pillars that makes our Society run), with an intriguing factoid that I thought was a good topic for discussion.

We (the HF/E community) are always debating whether there is a difference between human factors and ergonomics and explaining this to our colleagues and friends. Every time I testify, I inevitably get asked the question. Of course, it is just a question of semantics. You can define the two words however you want. You can make them different, overlapping, or identical. But what you think internally isn’t really what is important because we all practice in a real world with preconceived ideas and schema about both “human factors” and “ergonomics”.

So here is the factoid. She subscribes to Google alerts for both terms. News alerts for “ergonomics” are about pitching products. In contrast, news alerts for “human factors” are usually about science and/or the practice of the profession.

In my experience, the debate we usually have is whether we should differentiate the two terms as neck down and neck up. Neck down implies physical interactions, including psychomotor coordination, repetitive trauma, muscular fatigue, and these kinds of issues. Neck up implies cognitive and behavioral interactions, including attention, memory, decision making, and these kinds of issues. If your context includes both, then you are working on a “human factors” AND “ergonomics” project.

But Lois’ experience divides the world quite differently. And since these are Google News alerts, they represent the schema of a very different population. Journalists are choosing terms as used by the mass media readership population. So they seem to conceive of the two terms as ergonomics being a product attribute (e.g. ergonomic chairs, ergonomic mobile phones, ergonomic calendar apps) and human factors as a scientific discipline (e.g. the study of eyewitness testimony, the study of crew resource management).

I was trying to decide what implications this has. It is somewhat of an overgeneralization to say that we who practice the profession have a dichotomous conception of the field in one way and the general public has a dichotomous conception but in a totally orthogonal way. But something like this seems to be happening.

What do you think?

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