While many companies believe they are focusing their development efforts on more intuitive solutions for the end user, few are succeeding.

September 4, 2015

5 Min Read
Why Making Devices Easy-to-Use is Not So Easy

While many companies believe they are focusing their development efforts on more intuitive solutions for the end user, few are succeeding.

Michael Lau

The ease of use of a product has never been more important than in today’s dynamic marketplace, where new reimbursement criteria loom large and patient adherence figures prominently. But while many companies believe they are focusing their development efforts on more intuitive solutions for the end user, few are succeeding. Whether the solution is software, hardware, or a virtual experience, the developer’s challenge is consistent: New products launched to market often reveal substantial gaps between what users find easy to use and what the designers behind them believe to be.

With insight into the most common missteps that OEMs make along the way and a decades-long history of developing solutions that resonate with end users and enjoy widespread adoption, we offer an inside look into what typically causes “easy-to-use” solution development to go astray and provide a framework for avoiding unfavorable development outcomes.

Interpreting Target Market Need

One common element that often derails developers on their quest to create an easy-to-use solution is the disconnect between what the developer assumes is easy to use and what the intended user believes is easy to use. This disparity is caused by reliance on basic marketing parameters alone without further inquiry. Product requirements specified by marketing often only broadly define the population the solution is targeting and what the product needs to do, without providing specifics about how that solution is to be accomplished. A requirement that states “the product must be easy to use” is so vague that it leaves an R&D team to its own devices to interpret and design, without any knowledge of the users themselves. Imagine what the outcome would be if a designer assumed that including a button for every possible function on a single TV remote control would make it “easy to use.” The lack of meaningful understanding of the user’s needs in this instance would certainly lead to a poor user experience.

A second culprit that impacts product usability is the false assumption that ease-of-use lies solely in the hands of the designer and not the universe of other influencers on a solution’s design. Whether or not they know it, anybody along the spectrum of design and development can affect product design and the ease-of-use of a device. Marketing, design, engineering, software, regulatory, legal, and manufacturing are all presented, at different points along the path and in their own way, with opportunities for independent interpretation of what exactly is “easier to use.” In reality, those interpretations and subsequent decisions made by this universe of individuals can result in entirely different solutions at a program’s conclusion.

A third contributing factor to this challenge is a development team’s tendency to look at one component of development in isolation, without consideration for the entire process. The TV remote control might have buttons that are very easy to press, but if they all look the same, the user has a difficult time distinguishing between them and finding the correct one to press. By not taking into account the entire workflow, a developer runs the distinct risk of frustrating the intended beneficiary.

A New Framework for Thinking

Overcoming these challenges requires a shift in perspective and reliance on more than basic user needs requirements passed down from marketing. Designers need early access to information about the specific qualities that the target user finds important for ease of use. By investing resources up front to precisely identify key stakeholder needs using established human factors research methods, companies can avoid false starts and market misses by defining user needs in no uncertain terms as early as possible. Adopting this approach provides R&D with not only a better understanding of the specific properties that will make a product easy-to-use, but also clearer parameters around which they can successfully innovate to meet a market’s needs.

The first step is defining the intended users with sufficient detail. For example, it’s not enough to say that the TV remote should be designed for people ages 4 and up, based on the broad market opportunity. It is necessary to also be specific about the range of relevant characteristics like hand sizes, dexterity levels, visual limitations, and cognitive capabilities within that population. Designing a solution for only one user subset could easily result in a product that alienates another.

A variety of human factors methods should be employed to capture what product characteristics make it easy to use, how important they are relative to each other, and determine whether a design has succeeded in embodying those characteristics. Contextual inquiry, competitive benchmark testing, heuristic analysis, and usability testing are all methods that should be used strategically to inform design.

Contextual inquiry allows for an intimate understanding of the potential user and environments of use. Competitive benchmark testing identifies solution embodiments and feature sets that work well in predicate products. Heuristic analysis is a low-cost approach that evaluates a design according to known best practices. Usability testing using prototypes to simulate actual use sheds light on product use in a controlled setting and uncovers potential human factors issues. The data generated from these collective research methods provides developers exponentially greater insight into user requirements for a product than the marketing department can provide on its own to specify what exactly is “easy to use.”

Of course, the key benefit of investing time in these research methods is their ability to help developers track their innovation progress. Equipped with the specific insights this research reveals, human factors engineers can help design around discrete user capabilities and then test their assumptions to confirm the developed solution effectively meets the needs of defined users. In cases where these needs have not been met, the timely opportunity then exists for modifications to best meet those needs and increase the chances for product success.

Taking the time to challenge initial assumptions about what “easy to use” means for a product and its users is crucial in making a product easy to use as it enables developers to design to known user capabilities and avoid blindly interpreting high-level product requirements. This approach can help developers overcome the leading challenges on their path to realization and lead to substantially differentiated new market solutions with the best chance for commercial success.

Dr. Michael Lau is principal human factors engineer at Insight Product Development in Chicago.


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