Want to know why Human Factors matter in design?

The costs of work-related illness are comparable to those of all cancers combined.

The costs of work-related illness are comparable to those of all cancers combined.

Here’s a simple – and rather scary – demonstration of just how important Human Factors are in design: the costs of work-related ill health is equivalent to the costs of all cancers combined.

The World Health Organization reports that work related injury and disease costs 4% to 5% of the total global domestic product, and 2.2 million people die from work related causes every year.

Lots of people put up with horribly designed products because they don’t realize just how much damage they’re causing themselves.  Sometimes the harm accumulates slowly over months or years – there’s no particular point where one might say “Oww! That’s not right!”  (So-called repetitive strain injuries.) Other times, it’s just plain stupidity (like using the bucket of a front end loader to lift a ladder that’s not tied off to anything to reach the top of a structure).  In any case, the costs arising are huge, as is shown in the chart.

And this is just for cases that lead to injury and illness.  It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the lost productivity from products that are just horribly designed but don’t hurt people.

That’s where design comes in.  Based on the scientific knowledge from ergonomics and human factors, and simple observation of how people do things, it is possible to identify all kinds of circumstances where products were just not designed for humans.

How not to cut concrete.

How not to cut concrete.

It’s relatively easy to imagine cases like this one.  The equipment used – a concrete cutter – was obviously not designed for human use.  Look at the placement of the blade (relative to where a person would normally stand) and look at the horrible posture the operator must assume to do the job.  Now imagine doing this kind of work day in and day out for months if not years.

I’ve also written previously of another rather egregious case of poor HF design.

But it’s not just heavy industrial equipment that suffers from poor Human Factors consideration.

Why is every surface of my smartphone so smooth that it’s constantly slipping through my fingers – decreasing my attention to my environment and increasing the odds of walking into something, like an oncoming bus?  Why aren’t light switches visible in the dark – increasing the risk of tripping and hurting myself because I can’t find the switch and decide to stumble around in the dark?

Modern furniture? Or medieval torture device?

How could this chair win any kind of design prize?  (I mean no necessary disrespect to the student designer here – I do mean disrespect to his or her instructors.)  Think of what your spine would endure.  Think of what would happen if you leaned a little to the right or left.  No effort is made to follow the natural contours of human bone and muscle. And what’s with that gap in the middle of the seat?  (This image was taken by me at the 2014 Toronto Interior Design Show. The chair comes from the University of Alberta.)

I’ve found hundreds of other instances of designs that will just plain hurt people.

It’s time we stopped thinking of design as art, or as just preparing for manufacture. Design is about people, and without putting Human Factors into design, we’ll just have more inhuman design.


Leigh, J.P., Markowitz, S.B., Fahs, M., Shin, C., & Landrigan, P.J. (1997). Occupational injury and illness in the united states. Estimates of costs, morbidity, and mortality. Arch Intern Med, 157(14), 1557-1568.

Leigh, J.P. (2011). Economic burden of occupational injury and illness in the united states. Milbank Quarterly, 89(4), 728-772. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2011.00648.x


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