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In a departure from some of my more research based articles (read: long), I wanted to write about something a little more digestible.

Human factors engineers (HFEs) often work in industries with highly complex and safety critical systems, most often aerospace, military, and medical. There are many attributes that are certainly helpful in this career, such as being analytical, observant, open-minded, and perceptive. However, there is one trait that I think is often undervalued and maybe even forgotten. Though it may seem odd for an engineer to say this, I want to explain why I think empathy is the most important quality for a HFE to have.

Let me say that again, I believe empathy is the most important personality trait for a human factors engineer to have.

  1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's position. Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feelings with the heart of another.

That may sound weird for an engineer to say. Imagine if the same statement was said by a software engineer or a mechanical engineer, people would wonder what they are talking about and maybe even question their technical skills.

However for HFEs, empathy is not only necessary it is is critical to our success. For all the technical work we do, the foundation of it all is understanding the user, being their representative, and anticipating how they will act — in essence, knowing them better than they know themselves.

Part of our responsibilities include ensuring the device will be used in a safe and effective manner. How can we do this if we do not understand the user? Can we effectively design a device if we do not step into the user's shoes and understand how they would use it? Do the users have physical, cognitive, intellectual or developmental disabilities that need to be considered during the design? Will the device be used during day-to-day life when the user could become distracted or sidetracked? What are the pain points that need to be addressed: Ease of use? Cost? Time?

Designing for everyday use is just half of the battle though; we also need to design systems to work during extreme corner cases. Will the user be able to use the system under extreme cognitive load or high stress? How will the user react when the nuclear reactor is damaged or when the airplane has engine failure? What happens in the emergency room when the patient is coding and the nurse has to remember how to use the defibrillator: take to long to set the device and the patient can die, but set the device incorrectly and the patient can also die.

Understanding how the user will react and act is crucial for designing systems that can be utilized safely and effectively in all types of situations.

However, there are other reason besides safety and efficacy for why empathy is necessary. It goes back to a discussion I brought up here, discussing how our job as defined by the FDA, to ensure safety and efficacy, is necessary but not sufficient. We aim to design systems that are enjoyable to use. Clients want a system or device that has a user experience that builds brand loyalty and increases market share. There is a fine line, and a not so fine distinction, between the system that forces you to adapt to it and those that work seamlessly and integrate into our lives.

This line is best navigated through understanding who is using the system and how it is being used. Sure you can do user interviews, conduct ethnographic studies, and map user journeys, but those are only part of the picture. If you are unable to understand, and I mean truly internalize what users say, mean, and experience, it will be impossible to truly design a system for them.

To help understand some of the unique aspects each user brings to the table and why empathy is critical, this is an interesting video that demonstrates some of the underlying thoughts a patient might have as they are going through a hospital system. These types of inputs are not necessary when designing a system that works or is merely safe and effective. However, understanding these thoughts are crucial when we aim to create a solution that is meant to address each individuals' needs in a way that seems unique, organic, and enjoyable.


The truth is, we are not engineers. We are reverse engineers. With empathy, we can anticipate what people will want and need and we can then reverse engineer those wants and needs into design solutions.

What is the real skill of a human factors engineer? We do not need great CAD skills to create the next generation of surgical robotics, definitely don't need to know how to create the architecture that supports the worlds first global push-to-talk satellite phone, and wouldn't even know where to start with designing a radio that transmits from inside the body.

Our skill is in identifying user needs.

Our skill is internalizing what users want and need.

Our skill is understanding the importance of those wants and needs.

Our skill is in anticipating the future.

Our skill is understanding people better than they understand themselves.

Our skill is to combine all of those elements into an integrated and custom solution that meets the needs of the users.

To meet that goal, there is no better skill than empathy.

Ben Zwillinger

Ben is a Human Factors Engineer. He has a background in psychology and neuroscience.