Arup Thoughts: Consider ‘people factors’ early

Assets, such as buildings, don’t work in isolation; people use and operate them. So people need to be considered and engaged upfront in their design, and throughout the operations process.


The science of people factors can help prevent costly – sometimes fatal – mistakes, and improve performance. Courtesy: Arup

Assets, such as buildings, don't work in isolation; people use and operate them. So people need to be considered and engaged upfront in their design, and throughout the operations process. This is what the scientific discipline of "people factors" does, and it's something that I think should be applied much more widely.

People factors have to be considered to meet legislation covering safety, occupational health, and human factors standards. This is because many large-scale disasters have a human component to their causes. For example, the King's Cross fire disaster in 1987 was attributed to a number of factors including lack of maintenance and complacent attitudes toward fire.

But people factors can also provide positive outcomes by enhancing resilience and improving the efficiency and performance of both design and operations. On a small scale, considering the usability of a computer has been shown by Jakob Nielsen to provide a return on investment of between 200 and 500%—from a 6% budget investment. So just think about the value you could gain by considering people factors in the design of something like an entire station!

The approach is based on a robust understanding of different skills including physical ergonomics, cognitive psychology, human-machine interactions, and organizational behavior. Indeed, there are some basic psychological principles you can use to guide any design-principles that are rooted in human behavior and psychology.

Have you ever seen a design and really loved or hated it, but couldn't put your finger on why? It may be explained by visceral reactions. This is your "old brain" —a part of the brain that processes subconscious thoughts and is linked to the central nervous system, which guides deep-rooted behavior. This old brain drives our preferences for things, such as bright colors that are reminiscence of fruit back when we were hunter-gatherers. Importantly, this is something that's consistent across all cultures, genders, and demographics.

Similarly, you make decisions all the time. But have you ever taken a step back to look at what drives this decision-making behavior? Humans are driven to conserve energy wherever possible, and when we're making decisions, we all effectively do a mini cost-benefit analysis by rating the difficulty of the task in relation to the perceived reward.

This is relevant to the design of transport interchanges, offices, and procedures, such as emergency evacuations of buildings. Any design should make it easy for people to work in the right way and behave in the right way, such as using the correct exit, and harder for them not to. This is particularly important in high-hazard industries, such as oil and gas, nuclear, and aviation.

By linking to and complementing traditional design disciplines, such as engineering and architecture, the science of people factors can help prevent costly mistakes and improve performance. Surely, that's a benefit worth having.

-Kate Fairhall is a chartered occupational psychologist/human-factors consultant in Arup's operations consulting group. This article originally appeared on Arup Thoughts. Arup is a CFE Media content partner.

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