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Early Foundations of Usability

In 1857, having observed the beginnings of work adaptations in industry, the Polish scientist Wojciech Jastrzebowski provided the first known use of the term "ergonomics", derived from Greek roots meaning "the laws of work."

In about the 1920s, work such as Frank and Lillian Gilbreth's "time motion studies," popularly known as "efficiency studies," emerged, moving this science into a visible and practical realm. The Gilbreths' efforts focused primarily on adapting human activities and processes to the work (Christensen, 1987), with Lillian Gilbreth later making significant inroads for General Electric into more efficient designs for kitchens and household appliances (Cowan, 1987). The concept of efficient design developed into a profession in the 1950s, in part with the support of the United States Department of Defense (Christensen, 1987). As the field matured, it split into two areas of knowledge and approach: (1) cognitive ergonomics, covering "human behavior and attributes," such as "decision making process, organization design, human perception relative to design" (Ergoweb, Inc., 2005, no page number); and (2) industrial ergonomics, covering the physical interactions of humans and workplace design, such as human ranges of strength for lifting, tolerance of repetitive movement both for the sake of efficiency of work and safety of workers, and length of reach of the human arm for best design with respect to where equipment elements were placed and human movements performed (Ergoweb, Inc., 2005).

In the 1940s, engineering psychology emerged as a separate discipline, the initial focus of which was post-World War II aviation human factors. The field was solidified by the publication of the textbook Applied Experimental Psychology (Chapanis, Garner, & Morgan, 1949), based on lectures presented in preceding years at the Naval Postgraduate School. This marked the continuing, intense application of cognitive psychology to aviation human factors, focusing not only on flight displays and the ergonomics sometimes called "knob-ology," but also on flight missions, control principles, and the measurement of pilot behavior.

Driven by war casualties that were identified as being caused by "human error," the United States Department of Defense began funding efforts to account for human error in aviation design and implementation. This type of cognitive design made its way into general product design, and the field of human factors psychology, alternately known as engineering psychology or applied experimental psychology, took root as central to creating tools with which humans would interact.


Next: From Ergonomics to Usability



Special copyright notice: This page © Laura Faulkner, PhD, 2006. All rights reserved. It is not covered under the site-wide copyright. For use of content on this page, contact Usability BoK Editors.


Related Links

Chapanis, A., Garner, W. R., & Morgan, T. (1949). Applied experimental psychology: Human factors in engineering design. New York: Wiley.

Christensen, J. M. (1987). The human factors profession. In G. Salvendy (Ed.), Handbook of human factors (pp. 3-15). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Cowan, R. S. (1987). Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth. In G. Sicherman, C. H. Green, I. Kantrov & H. Walker (Eds.), Notable American women: The modern period (pp. 271-273). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Ergoweb, Inc. (2005). History of ergonomics. Retrieved February 18, 2005, from


Sources and contributors: 
Laura Faulkner, PhD.
Released: 2009-06
© 2010 Usability Professionals Association