Final Five

Q&A with Katie Allanson, human factors engineer, Ford Motor Company


Katie Allanson works hard to design cars that will be user-friendly for up to 97 percent of the global driving population. She does that by ensuring that human factors is applied or considered in the design process, keeping overall usability and satisfaction at a high level. 

What inspired you to study automotive ergonomics?

I studied at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario, which has strong ergonomics and automotive engineering programs. The location of the school in the heart of the North American automotive industry gave me unparalleled access to not only manufacturing, supplier and engineering facilities but also to professionals working in the field. After finding myself repeatedly studying automotive environments for classroom assignments, I started to see this as something I could do long term.

How does the idea of ‘designing for all’ impact your design process?

Designing for all, or inclusive design, really has no impact on our design process since it is something that Ford committed to doing a long time ago. We have solid design specifications that we apply across the board for every Ford and Lincoln vehicle. You can think of them like rules for design, and they have been very well socialized outside of ergonomics. These rules ensure that our products are usable and enjoyable for those who might experience trouble with a task or feature, which in the end makes it better for all users. My biggest challenge is … keeping ahead of consumer trends and desires for in-vehicle technology.

How do you apply human factors into automotive ergonomics?

Human factors and ergonomics are often used interchangeably. In the automotive industry, human factors is more often seen as the side that works with human-machine interface and the design, form and behavior of in-vehicle technology. Human factors principles play a huge role in the design of a good user interface. Things that are considered include color contrast between the background and text (or buttons), the number and the size of buttons on the screen, how individual features are grouped/categorized, how legible the text is and how much information is included in the display.

When you started working in the field 15 years ago, you were one of the only women. How did that affect your career goals?

In my [graduating] class alone, almost half of those who specialized in ergonomics were female. Fast forward to 2016, and it’s not surprising to see that half of my current group is female. The fact that I graduated with so many other women may explain why I never felt that I was on a different level than my male colleagues or that I had to work harder to define myself. Never once did I feel that I was at an advantage or disadvantage over males of the same age or experience level. I also benefitted from the strong female role models. I was taught from a very young age to never let my gender hold me back or prevent me from doing something.

What advice would you give other women starting out in this field?

First, don’t limit your career because you think you’d like to have a family someday. You can be a good parent and a productive professional if you work for the right company. Second, draw from your own experiences and share them. Third, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Fourth, never stop learning. Fifth, don’t turn down a role in a manufacturing facility. Sixth, be open to new ideas and technology. Finally, don’t limit where you think you might want to work because of the location.