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The Human-Centered Philosophy That Transcends

30+ years of making experiences more intuitive, natural, and delightful—Ed Halpern of AbbVie on carrying a human-centered ethos across contexts and questions.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

dscout: How did you get started with human factors research?

Ed Halpern: My first role after college was at a newspaper, and I really loved the hands-on production of it all. I'm talking rub-on letters, physical cut-and-paste, really working with a medium to create a product. That interest in production led me to a field called "instructional systems technology," in which I ultimately earned my Ph.D.

It was an eclectic field then, very multi-disciplinary, drawing some sociology, anthropology, psychology—all with the intention of making education better. This encompassed everything from instructor training to course design, all with the intention of making the educational content stick.

I landed at Bell Labs helping onboard a wide swath of folks—engineers, computer scientists—to a complex network switch. I mean this was complex stuff, but the principles I gleaned from instructional design helped me break it up, align it to my stakeholders' styles, and we made a lot of progress. At the end of this massive undertaking, my manager said, "Wow, this is great work. We need you to do 'human factors.'"

And was that the first time you'd heard of "human factors?"

Yes and the most surprising thing was the inversion that human factors—good human factors work—requires compared to instructional design. Specifically, around training: With instructional design, you want to get people to learn how to do things, and in human factors you want them not to have to learn very much because you want the systems to do all the thinking, all the work, so they don't have to. In a way, I'm a turncoat on my original training and profession.

Human factors fails when a person requires extensive training to engage with and effectively use a system. The system should anticipate user needs and expectations, and be designed to work with, not against. It's all about removing barriers.

Ed Halpern

And so I used all the same techniques, but instead of using it on educational programs, I used it on technologies to make them accessible to people, especially people who aren't super techie. And what has kept me interested in human factors is the different technologies under development and being able to apply the trade or the craft or the research to these different technologies... and that's why I've been doing it for 30 years.

I don't know how anybody could stay with anything this long, but every couple of years it seems like it's changed because I work on a different kind of product that I haven't worked with before. So what interested me in education was I got to work with all these professors and students in different academic disciplines so I learned about many academic disciplines, and now I learn about new technologies. To be honest with you, I feel really lucky because I know so many people who hate their job. There have been ups and downs in my career, but I really love what I do and so again that's what got me started and that's what kept me interested.

You're now working in the healthcare delivery space [with AbbVie]. What new considerations or practices have you developed since?

It's similar in many ways. I'm working to make technologies——user friendly, effective, safe, and easy to use. We work with engineering teams, quality assurance, and regulators much more closely to ensure that safety and effectiveness are the primary goals of any project.

"...from human factors your point of view, you demonstrate safety through usability. So when we do all of our research, we look for ways in which people make mistakes through user testing and we take those results and feed it back [to stakeholder teams] for design improvement considerations."

Ed Halpern

Those [engineers] are all the brilliant scientists. I'm not a brilliant scientist. I'm just a techie hack.

But the medication has to get delivered. So how does it get delivered? Well, it could be through a syringe, an auto-injector, a patch pump, a larger electro-mechanical pump, or oral pills (one or many). We're concerned about making sure they get the right dose or amount at the right time.

These delivery technologies are like vehicles—vehicles for getting the medication or molecule into the body. Solving with those constraints and considerations is where the fun and challenge of human factors comes into play.

But like any system, it requires an input, and that input is usually a human. Humans, I don't need to remind you, are very unpredictable, which adds complexity to any project we work on. So our work is very observational in that we observe how prospective users of the system would use the product under simulated use conditions. The results data are often pass/fail, especially with delivery of medicine.

We're interested in exploring the "Why?" behind a user decision. And unlike in technology, where a product owner might just ship something, our risk analysis always comes first, which means the human factors scientist at a place like AbbVie is always iterating, always replicating, until the data reach a certain level of precision and reliability

What questions might someone ask themselves to determine if the human factors research world is a good fit for them? There are so many role iterations of "human-centered researcher" out there...

Maybe you're super techie and you're an engineer and you really just can't wait to sit in a room by yourself and kind of figure out how to build technology.

But maybe you're kind of interested in technology, and this would be someone like me, but you're not that technically savvy. You really want to be able to work with systems to make them easy to use. That would draw someone if they say: gee, I know I really like technology and I want to help build good technology that's usable for people, accessible for people, then human factors would be a really good match.

You might have someone else who's maybe even more into physical stuff, even physical education, and they're looking at how does the body physiology interact with devices? And they might not care about the psychology at all. Maybe they only care about physiology.

I mean, chair design, someone who's designing chairs so that you don't get a bad back, someone who has all those kinds of physical things, you don't even think about the fact that there are engineers who are kind of figuring this stuff out, even like the shape and curvature of a mouse. How does it conform to your hands so that it's the least strain on your hand and wrist, to prevent the carpal tunnel syndrome.

So again, if people are interested in safety and people are interested in making technology accessible to people, people are interested in solving problems, I think it's fair game.

"...anytime you use any kind of technology [and] you're puzzling over, how does it work? How does the thing tell me what I need to do in order to be successful? That's one vector and it's kind of the cognitive psychology side or behavioral psychology side. The other vector is physical capability. You have to interact and think physically [if you want to work in human factors]."

Ed Halpern

How has—and is—the area of human factors evolving and what do you think is its future, especially as UX continues to gain influence?

The sizing and form factors of technology is both a great boon for innovation and doing interesting work, but it's also a challenge for human factors researchers specifically. Remember from a human factors point of view, if you've got something really small and it's complex, how do you interact with it?

I mean, if you have a tiny little hearing aid and you want to do all this customizable programming of your hearing aid, how would you do that? There's no display. There's maybe a tiny button and maybe the button can emit some kind of beep, so now you're dealing with this really constrained set of capabilities, but you want this thing to do all this stuff. So maybe you have to think about another way to get it to do this stuff, for example, maybe you would want to design an external controller or a smart phone app.

This is something that we could spend a lot of time just puzzling over. I think human factors researchers will continue to work to make devices that are ever-shrinking—a device that’s still enjoyable to use and is effective in whatever it's designed to do.

"Really great human factors is invisible. You don't notice something that's really well-designed unless it looks cool. If it's easy to operate, you just take it for granted that it's easy to operate. So from a business point of view, it might be saleable because you've added value to your product, because you've made it so that the experience of using your product is superior to your competitors."

Ed Halpern

But regardless of technology's miniaturization, it's still good business to keep usability and human-centeredness at the core of design decision-making, and that's where folks like human factors scientists can and will continue to play a vital role.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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