What makes a good human factors engineer? Five critical skills

Recently, the head of a college human factors program asked for my perspective on the human factors (and user experience) skills valued in industry. Here are five critical qualities that emerged from our discussion, in no particular order:

Systems thinking

Making sense of complexity requires identifying relationships, patterns, feedback loops, and causality. Systems thinkers excel at identifying emergent properties of systems and are thus suited to analyses such as safety, cybersecurity, and process, where outcomes may not be obvious from simply looking at sum of the parts.

Systems thinkers often explain things in metaphor and tend to be talented at explaining complex concepts as simply as possible1. People who use the word “holistic” appropriately might be systems thinkers2, though people who use it incorrectly are most certainly not.

Systems thinking can be practiced through studies of emergent behavior such as accident reports and through the use of tools that try to capture emergent behavior such as the Systems Theoretic Process Analysis (STPA) and the Human Factors Analysis Classification System (HFACS).

For the human factors engineer, systems thinking is valuable for understanding complex human-technology relationships that can impact system success, especially those factors beyond the technological components such as organizational influences and supporting systems.

User empathy

Human factors engineers solve problems for users and stakeholders other than themselves, necessitating deep understanding of their needs and motivations.

Empathy is developed by paying attention to users and their behaviors, asking good questions, actively listening, and maximizing opportunities to put oneself in their shoes. Tools such as personas and user journeys can help, but only if effectively applied and carried forward to inform the design effort.

This is probably the most critical skill on this list, and the hardest to train.

Breadth of technical knowledge

Human factors engineers interface with many other technical experts during the system development effort. An established technical background, whether gained through experience or formal education, enhances credibility, collaboration, and problem-solving capabilities. Personally, I gained a great deal of knowledge over time and on-the-job simply by being curious. Many others start in other technical fields and find that this foundation is useful in a human factors context. For this reason, human factors makes a great minor degree, certificate, and/or second career for someone with other technical expertise.


Strong communication skills are essential for any technical role. Effective communicators apply empathy to understand their audience and craft their message to best achieve their objectives. There are many useful strategies to ensure communications are impactful, such as like Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) and the Pyramid Principle. It’s also important to have good visual design to ensure content is easy to read. My best tip is just to carefully review your communications, or ask a peer to do so, to ensure the message is clear and coherent.

Systems engineering basics

Understanding systems engineering processes, tools, methodologies, and stakeholders helps the human factors engineer better integrate, advocate, and influence across multidisciplinary teams. An effective HFE identifies:

  • the requirements, deliverables, work scope, and analyses where they can add value
  • schedule constraints and drivers that affect when activities can and should occur
  • processes, methodologies, and tools they can leverage in their work
  • key internal and customer stakeholders they should build relationships with

Systems engineering training and certifications are helpful for the human factors engineer, though many of these skills are simply gained from on-the-job experience.

What other skills and qualities are important for human factors engineers? Do you disagree with anything in the list? Add your thoughts below!


  1. but not simpler.
  2. or might be uniquely talented business developers