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Design a Brain-Friendly Workplace with Cognitive Ergonomics

In 1979, disaster struck the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. It started with a mechanical failure—one that could have been fixed.¹ But workers made several big mistakes. Initially, they didn’t even recognize the situation’s severity, because the plant’s emergency warning system was confusing and unclear

Nadia Mokadem

And when they did try to intervene, things got even more confusing. The switches, valves, and buttons that controlled the plant were difficult to read, and it was impossible to tell what each one did.³ The controls were also inconsistent: one lever was operated by pulling it up, while the other needed to be pushed down.⁴

The final consensus was that human error worsened the situation at Three Mile Island.⁵ We often think of human error as something inevitable and unavoidable. But according to cognitive ergonomics, this isn’t the case. Design, layout, and structure shape our performance and productivity. Let’s explore what cognitive ergonomics tells us about maximizing workplace brainpower and preventing mistakes.

Defining Cognitive Ergonomics

You’ve probably heard of ergonomics before. Classical ergonomics focuses on physical comfort and preventing injury in the workplace.⁶ It asks questions like, Does your office chair offer good back support? Is your keyboard positioned to prevent wrist strain?

In contrast, cognitive ergonomics focuses on outcomes.⁷ Does the workplace design maximize productivity? Does it minimize distractions and ensure optimal focus? Are tools and procedures intuitive to use, or are they prone to usage errors?

Cognitive ergonomics is especially relevant in our modern world. Thanks to technology, many jobs today are much less physically demanding than they used to be.⁸ And because we’re no longer so limited by how much our bodies can do, productivity becomes a question of how efficient our minds are.⁹ Building mental endurance is the big challenge of modern workplace design.¹⁰

Let’s examine two aspects of work, and how cognitive ergonomics relates to them.

Daniel Chekalov / Unsplash

Reducing Distractions

To execute a task, two cognitive processes must happen. First, we must receive input in the form of stimuli.¹¹ For example, a computer programmer notices an error message displayed on the screen, or a pilot observes a signal on the radar screen. Next, we must process input and decide how to act.¹² The programmer might decide to modify their code; the pilot might change their flight course.

What does this have to do with cognitive ergonomics? It’s simple. To optimize cognitive processing, workplaces need to minimize distraction and maximize focus. If our work environment is full of distractions and disruptions, we might not even notice errors. And we certainly won’t be able to focus on generating solutions.

Chris Leipelt / Unsplash

Here’s how to build a high-focus workplace.

  • Identify the type of task being performed. A routine task is familiar and simple: it doesn’t use up our full attentional capacity.¹³ A complex task is challenging and unfamiliar: it requires our full attention.¹⁴

  • If tasks are routine: Focus is maximized when we can fill our unused attentional capacity.¹⁵ Create sources of stimulation: play music, hang up artwork, sit near a window.¹⁶

  • If tasks are complex: Focus is maximized when we eliminate sources of potential distraction.¹⁷ Create work spaces that minimize ambient stimuli. Sit in a low foot-traffic area, and place visual barriers between you and your surroundings.¹⁸

With new technology entering our workplaces, we face more noise, distraction, and informational overload than ever.¹⁹ Actively structuring work spaces to enhance focus is more essential than ever.

Preventing Human Error

In a Finnish study, researchers found that 94% of fatal accidents on the job resulted from human error.²⁰ Medical errors by doctors and nurses harm over 1.5 million patients every year.²¹ As the employees at Three Mile Island learned, mistakes in the workplace can have real, severe consequences.

Error reduction is essential for boosting productivity and success—even for those of us who don’t work with nuclear reactors. This is where design and engineering come into play. Employees are less prone to error if their technology and tools are intuitive, straightforward, and reliable.

Daniel McCullough / Unsplash

So what do error-preventing designs look like? Here are a few guidelines.

  • Recognizable: Controls and buttons, whether real or digital, should have an intuitive layout.²² This means using familiar spatial layouts. For example, the “volume up” and “volume down” controls should be right next to each other.²³ And a remote control for any sort of device should resemble a TV remote—that’s what we’re used to using.²⁴

  • Predictable reaction: Controls and tools should respond in a consistent way.²⁵ Think of the Three Mile Island example. The power plant would have been much less error-prone if all its levers were coordinated to operate in the same direction.²⁶

  • Sensory response: Tools and programs should provide feedback when the user completes a task.²⁷ This confirms that the program did what the user expected it to.²⁸ Effective feedback can use any of the five senses. For example, a website displays a green check mark when a customer successfully places an order. A cell phone vibrates when it’s turned to silent mode.

Yassine Khalfalli / Unsplash


Cognitive ergonomics is a growing area of research. As technology takes on new tasks and forms in our workplaces, we can use this research to ensure that accuracy, productivity, and performance always come first.


  1. White, C. M. (2008). Ergonomics: What Is It? Clearing Away the Confusion. The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, 24-27.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Hollnagel, E. (1997). Cognitive Ergonomics: It's All in the Mind. Ergonomics, 40(10), 1170-1182. doi:10.1080/001401397187685

  7. Ibid.

  8. Keamy, L., & Smith, P. (1999). Creating Workplaces Where People Can Think: Cognitive Ergonomics. Performance Improvement, 38(1), 10-15. doi:10.1002/pfi.4140380103

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Kalakoski, V. (2019). Cognitive Ergonomics is a Matter of Cognitive Factors. CEUR Workshop Proceedings, 46-51.

  20. Lukander, J., Kalakoski, V., & Huotilainen, M. (2012). Improving Effectiveness and Well-Being in Knowledge Work Through Cognitive Ergonomics. ECCE '12: Proceedings of the 30th European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics, D5-D8. doi:10.1145/2448136.2448181

  21. Thomas, L., Donohue-Porter, P., & Fishbein, J. S. (2017). Impact of Interruptions, Distractions, and Cognitive Load on Procedure Failures and Medication Administration Errors. Journal of Nursing Care Quality, 32(4), 309-317. doi:10.1097/NCQ.0000000000000256

  22. Andersen, H. P., Holm, H., & Rose, S. (2012). Cognitive Ergonomics: Making It Simple. Hearing Review, 19(2), 40-47.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Ibid.

  26. White (2008)

  27. Andersen et al. (2012)

  28. Ibid.


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