I have always been struck by the complexity of cockpit controls. Aviation specialists are always on the hunt for ways to reduce cognitive overload on pilots to reduce human error.

That being said, air crash investigations have proven in a number of incidents that labelling, controls interactivity, affordances and other interface design issues impact on how pilots operate.

So, I have few questions:

  1. How do human factor specialists and user experience designers differ (or not) when it comes to designing for avionics?

  2. If user experience design skills are so different from human factor skills, wouldn't they be required when designing avionics?

  3. If they are not so different has anyone came across a situation where user experience skills were utilised within the aviation industry?

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    $\begingroup$ related: Why are the cockpit controls of airplanes so complicated? Most important thing to take away there is that there are conventions already in place and rule number 1 of UX is to change as little as possible with the new iteration. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ User interface design is too young to have had a meaningful contribution, and in reality workload is so light in normal operation that pilots will likely be 'out of the loop' when something goes wrong. The trend is to reduce automation again. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ I am not very familiar with the User Experience field, to me it seems it is a subdomain of Human Factors and kind of a buzzword lately. I can't answer your questions 1) and 2). If 3) is looking for design choice in (visual) interfaces that reduce probability of misinterpretations there are lots of examples. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ Human factors and user experience are intertwined. I don't think you can really pitch one up against the other. $\endgroup$
    – usernumber
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf I disagree with a few things in your comment. User interface design has been studied for a while. See www4.lu.se/upload/Trafikflyghogskolan/… "Normal operations" include selecting the correct flight plan in the autopilot. Also, the phrase "user interface" does not exclusively refer to computer interfaces, so automation is not key. In short, user interface design can very well have had a meaningful contribution. $\endgroup$
    – usernumber
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 18:46

4 Answers 4


My thesis, which I wrote so long ago that I no longer recall the title, was a complete redesign of the Boeing 747 cockpit from a human factors and usability point of view.

My designs, which were submitted to Boeing at the time, likely helped create the foundation for the modern glass fly-by-wire cockpit.

At the time, glass cockpits did not exist (the term refers to the glass in the CRT monitors that were eventually used within the cockpit, later replaced by LCD displays). Fly-by-wire, which is the concept of replacing conventional flight controls with an electronic interface, was in its infancy.

I remember working tirelessly to create a comprehensive new human interface for pilots that would minimize errors and improve safety.

My research was based in the cognitive sciences, which consisted of university coursework in human physiology, neuroanatomy (rudimentary at the time), psychology, statistics, engineering, computer science, mathematics, linguistics, neural networks (the very first ones), and artificial intelligence. It was a rigorous and diverse education.

I spent hours and hours watching films of pilots performing a vast array of different procedures. Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they were not. When they were not, it often resulted in serious consequences. I spent long nights listening to hour after hour of dialog between air traffic controllers and pilots. I studied detailed accident and near-accident reports. I also interviewed pilots and spent a fair amount of time inside commercial cockpits, between flights, gathering essential data.

One of the challenges that I vividly recall was reducing complexity for pilots, while keeping the tasks difficult enough so they would stay engaged to their tasks and not fall asleep or become distracted.

The most rewarding part of developing my thesis was converting the cockpit from what I called a control-based center to a task-based center. Up until that time, most controls available to pilots were designed to directly impact a flight control surface such as the rudder. There were some rudimentary "intelligent" controls to perform basic horizontal and vertical navigation (but nothing that integrated the two!).

I designed a new system that was based on high level tasks that the pilot would need to perform. No longer were ailerons, elevators, flaps, and thrust the focus. Instead, I changed the focus of the cockpit to center on essential tasks such as taking off, landing, route planning, communications, and traffic and weather avoidance.

During this work, I learned that I had to seamlessly integrate my human factors engineering and user experience design skills. In my opinion, and from my personal experience, they always need to be.

Whenever I fly, I ask to take a look at the cockpit after we land. It's a joy to see the evolution of my designs. Whether I was the originator of these designs or one of many human factors engineers who came up with them at the same time, I will never know. But similarities of the current designs to what I proposed in my thesis many years ago gives me a little insight into a possible answer to that question.

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    $\begingroup$ Was that through UW's HCDE program? I know they work with the Boeing Flight Deck Concept Center. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ Hey I am researching on this topic for a series about UX in critical areas. Would you open for a quick? jon@uitogether (dotcom) (broken up to avoid spam) $\endgroup$
    – jonshariat
    Commented Jul 5, 2022 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @jonshariat Hi Jon. It looks like your sentence got truncated or mangled. What I see is "Would you open for a quick?", which, well, is probably not what you meant to write! $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 5, 2022 at 22:06

1- My understanding is that the terms are related, but have different appliations. User experience is more about how the interface is perceived, and whether the users find it easy to learn/use. This has come into focus as computers become more and more a part of our daily lives. Human factors for aviation focuses more on the fact that there is a direct relationship between the user experience of the pilots and safety of flight. Human factors also looks into how easy it is to make mistakes, and how easy it is to see and process the required information.

2- Knowledge of user experience certainly would be useful in avionics, since the end goal is to provide control and information to the crew.

3- I'm not sure how closely it relates to user experience, but while NASA was running tests with their 737, they tested various ideas for the avionics. Chapter 3 discusses different methods of controlling the airplane as well as HUD and electronic display technology. Chapter 7 discusses the use of a touch interface for a datalink to ATC. It is interesting to note that even when some technologies were rated very highly by the crews in the program, various obstacles kept some of them from being applied further.


Human factors, (cognitive) ergonomics or human-computer interaction have long been a concern in aviation. There are several different approaches (and, in particular, a few distinct national traditions) but, no matter how you want to call that field, there is a lot of attention, resources and research devoted to the interaction between human operators and their flying machines.

“User experience” or “UX design” has now become a rather broad catch-phrase but originally it was mostly meant in opposition to usability engineering and its narrow focus on effectiveness and efficiency. User experience is broader in that it devotes more attention to subjective enjoyment and other intangible factors and also on design (as opposed to assessment and incremental changes), all very interesting aspects of HCI but possibly less relevant to aviation.

Usability engineering in turn developed out of human factors (and to some extent in opposition to it as well), quickly focusing on lightweight approaches (“discount usability”), precisely because it was difficult to get as many resources for these concerns outside of traditional industrial domains like power plant control rooms and, yes, aviation (thus closing the loop).

Depending on how you choose to look at it, “user experience” has therefore played a role in human factors all along or is a new(ish) field that grew out of traditional human factors.

Beside the naming issues and history, there are a few major differences between, say, your average website and a cockpit (e.g. users' expertise level, regulatory constraints and company culture) so even if UX design, usability engineering, human factors and cognitive ergonomics are arguably conceptually related, it might be difficult to switch careers or make meaningful contributions to the other field(s) if you have a background in one of them.


I suspect cockpits for complex aircraft like airliners are improving with regards to human factors due to glass cockpits which help to group information most important to the pilot in one place.

Just compare pictures of the 707 and 787 cockpits. Glass avionics make a huge difference.

With regards to specific avionics companies, I imagine they do have consultants when designing the interface. When it comes to avionics, I'm quie a fan of Garmin. All their devices from avionics to bike GPSs are well designed and intuitive to use. And given how Garmin releases products besides avionics to the general public, I'm sure they know thing of two about good interface design.

  • $\begingroup$ This answer seems to consist entirely of supposition. We're looking for something more fact-based and verifiable, wherever possible. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 7:37

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