From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Are You Communicating Ergonomically?

If the driver of an automobile is told “right here,” does that mean the driver should turn right at this location or does that mean the driver has already reached the desired location?  If a sign in a shopping center reads “public restrooms next left” does that mean the restrooms are in the next shop on the left or down the next hallway on the left?


It’s not just what you say that counts, but how you say it that matters, too. Whether it’s communication among co-workers, instructing employees or helping customers, communication that is received the way it was intended is vital to the success of every business. And it’s another aspect of ergonomics –“communication ergonomics.”


What is Communication Ergonomics

Tonya Smith-Jackson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Human Factors Engineering at Virginia Tech, and founder and director of the school’s Assessment and Cognitive Ergonomics Lab, supplies the following definition of communication ergonomics:

A specialty area that identifies and/or applies factors that support or undermine communication in shared tasks, such as communication protocols in aviation, military, and distributed work environments.  Communication ergonomists also examine information systems and protocols for distributed communication.


“Basically, it’s the design of information in a way that fits people.  You have to design [the message] so that it communicates to the receiver,” said Smith-Jackson.  “You’re designing the transmission of the meaning, from the source. . . so the receiver and sender are in tune with one another, like pilots talking to control towers,” she continues.


Smith-Jackson offers the transportation scenario for a good reason: it’s traditionally been one of the focuses of communication ergonomics.  Ensuring that pilots can communicate with command centers, control towers and air traffic controllers is essential to safety.  Developing common terms and styles used for road and traffic signs helps ensure comprehension regardless of the driver’s whereabouts.


“There’s a reason for saying things like

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-02-09.