Human Factors Studies During Covid-19

The 2020 Human Factors and Ergonomics in Healthcare (HFES) conference took place online this summer. The event was postponed from earlier in the year and transformed from an in-person to an online event due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The effects of the pandemic were ever-present in this conference, from the postponement and how the conference was ultimately held to what was and became the focus of many talks.  Below are some of what struck us and insights related to our participation:

Human factors specialists are observing the huge implications for healthcare workers, devices, personal equipment, and facilities that arise with COVID-19. The unique way this specific disease spreads, the sheer number of patients, the scarcity of some equipment, and the evolution of the knowledge about the disease make for unique HF challenges that are changing all the time. Entire wings of hospitals are being cordoned off, which may mean supplies and traffic need to be relocated and changed. These things may now need to happen in a hallway, or perhaps in a room that can be dedicated to the functional need.  For example: a PPE changing, storage, and cleaning area, or more trash receptacles for discarded PPE Facility administrators would do well to consult human factors specialists in tackling the problem, but the likelihood of this when budgets are stressed is low.

COVID-19 not only presents new human factors challenges for healthcare practitioners but it also greatly affects the way we as product developers do in-person human factors studies. When approaching a study these days, we first have to establish if we can or even should conduct in-person testing. If the study can work in person, a COVID safety protocol is absolutely necessary for both researchers and subjects. Research facilities may have their own standards, but study practitioners and clients need to work together to establish measures all parties are with. As always, do not forget your subjects. What are the factors that will ensure their attendance, full participation, and safety? Do you need to recruit differently and exclude more vulnerable populations?  If so, how will this affect your results? In addition, what can be done to make the subject FEEL safer in the study? Medical-related research can already be stressful if subjects are sharing about their malady, and that can be heightened by the additional measures necessitated by COVID. Can you make the environment more welcoming in addition to putting safety measures in place? Maybe adding more colors to the PPE, bright or, transparent masks, welcoming looking sanitizer bottles, a full summary of what to expect when they come to the facility, etc… Any way you do this, COVID-19 adds significantly to your preparations and costs.

While some studies can still be carried out in person, many efforts now need to go online. This again presents unique challenges. Most of us HF practitioners have done some kind of remote testing, but during COVID, we need to do even more, and many of those tests are ones we would have done in person in the past. This necessitates an extra level of preparation and planning. For example, if you need to see what your subject is doing, what can you see from a webcam, or do you need to send additional support equipment to your subjects so you have multiple views or higher resolution. If sending equipment, how can you ensure setup is correct, can all of your subjects even do this? As with in-person testing during these months, what can you do as researchers to ensure your subjects are relaxed enough to provide the quality of feedback you need? Extra planning time, high attention to logistics and dry runs will help to ensure your remote test proceeds smoothly.

It is an interesting time to be working and thinking about human factors, in an era that is continually evolving and presenting new challenges. It is rare for our professional work to overlap with something that is so overwhelmingly present in our lives.

It was exciting to see how practitioners are actively helping in the pandemic. We at Key Tech, while not on the front lines, are working on COVID-19 related projects and our human factors knowledge is useful and informed by the experiences presented at HFES 2020.

To brainstorm your next development or design project, contact us at or 410-385-0200.







Josh Hartl

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