What is Human Systems Integration?

by Trish Mathis

I get upset when things don’t work. Cars breaking down, computers and cell phones going haywire, household appliances malfunctioning—life’s technical challenges can really frustrate me. For the most part though, these occurrences are mere nuisances. But imagine a crew of firefighters deep in a tunnel at the scene of a subway fire. Engulfed in hazy smoke, they slowly make their way to the stopped subway train filled with trapped, panicked passengers who are desperate for help. Now imagine that the firefighters can’t radio EMS personnel maneuvering simultaneously though the tunnel, or police officers coordinating the rescue effort above ground, or any other first responders on scene: The recently upgraded firefighter communications equipment cannot interact with the older communications system still used by most responders. A technological incompatibility has left the firefighters unable to contact anybody, and in turn nobody can contact them. Instead of simple aggravation, we now have potential injury and loss of life.

38853352Fortunately, the field of human systems integration exists to help prevent such disasters. Professionals in this discipline are trained to look at the whole picture—not only the task of interest but also the people who are involved and the tools they use—to make sure everything functions together properly, without failure, without confusion, without complicated training. Human systems professionals understand our strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to guide design processes. They create objects and spaces that complement us rather than constrain us; they anticipate problems and devise solutions; they implement changes in response to evolving needs; they evaluate progress and recognize success.

But most of all they mitigate risk by creating safe, efficient operators and reliable environments. Although the field of human systems integration is young, its practitioners are ambitious. Their goal is nothing less than to have harmonious systems of people, tasks, and tools. Think about it: a world that we can navigate instinctively, with items that are easy to use and don’t break down and that work together? I know I’d like that. I’m sure the people on that subway train would too.


Boehm-Davis, D. A., Durso, F. T., & Lee, J. D. (Eds.). (2015). APA handbook of human systems integration. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4311517.aspx

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