I'm currently taking a online course on "Human Factors in Educational Technology". In the course, we are placed in groups and as a group we are tasks with developing a website being mindful of human factors in the process.
In seeking a better understanding of the difference between usability and human factors, I took a look at our textbook – The Handbook of Human Factors in Web Design (2005) edited by Proctor and Vu (sorry folks, this reference is not in the public domain). The last two chapters showed some promise in clarifying these ideas for me: chapter 37: Determining the value of human factors in web design by Bertus & Bertus, and chapter 38: State of the art of web usability guidelines by Mariage et al.
Bertus & Bertus state that "the human factors professional are called by many different titles: human factors professional, usability engineers, interface designers, and usability testers. Regardless of their title, though, the goal is the same: to improve interface designs for human use." (p.679). OK, so that answers that – from a pragmatic perspective, human factors and usability are the same thing!
That now has me wondering, is the ultimate goal of the course to increase our ability to improve interface design for human use – and in that case – to improve the learner experience in distance education? Bertus & Bertus go on to say "The people who are developing the applications are the least capable of making them usable for customers." (Leon, 2001 as cited by Bertus & Burtus, 2005). Oh-boy are we in trouble! Good thing the course requires that the various teams provide each other feedback – but it also has me wondering if the teams one team should design while another develops – now that would be a real challenge for assessment!
In the Miriage et al article, they say "although only designers trained with usability actually produce quality pages" (p.690). I do wonder, however, if the tools available today make it easier to create pages that follow solid design principles – they certainly make it easier to create pages that don't! I did a lot of reading about usability when back in 2002, in the early days of web design. I think the rules have changed now, but one lesson I learned was that if you do not have "the gift" for design, then you need to stick to very basic rules for web design – that is, don't try to get too creative.
One area where I agree with Bertus & Bertus is when they say "One of the greatest challenges that a human factors professional will face in a corporation is the idea that usability is just common sense and, therefore, that any developer should be capable of designing a highly usable interface." (p.680). What struct me about that is that the same thing can be said about instructional design – and I've said it many times – it is frustrating to be in a profession where your value is not understood. So many people think that they can develop training, but really have no sense what good instructional design means!
Bertus, E., & Bertus, M. (2005). Determining the value of human factors in web design. In R. W. Proctor & K.-P. L. Vu (Eds.), Handbook of human factors in web design (pp. 679-687). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Mariage, C., Vamderdonckt, J., & Pribeanu, C. (2005). State of the art of web usability guidelines. In R. W. Proctor & K.-P. L. Vu (Eds.), Handbook of human factors in web design (pp. 688 – 700). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.