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User Defined? Not Without Human Factors Research

By: Chris Gregory - HLB Director Marketing and Business Development

How often do we hear “user defined” when companies and people describe their products and services?    What does it mean for a product to be user defined?  What types of user research and feedback best support an effective development process?  To some, the answers to these questions may seem obvious.  In practice, however, reality tells a different story.

Meeting frequently with seasoned product development professionals within the corporate structure as well as “newbie” entrepreneurial start-up’s we often hear from both that a concept has been developed as a result of witnessing a need in the marketplace.  First, this is great and a basic principle of product marketing.  But, is need discovery enough to call a product user defined?  Actually, this is only a fraction of the truth.  It certainly isn't uncommon for corporately funded teams to conduct highly structured market research collecting customer feedback data on a concept as well as competitive alternatives.  Is a highly formalized market research program the answer to user defined?  A structured research program is certainly a highly informative and important piece of the puzzle but a large component of success is still not being addressed.

In order for a product to be truly user defined, the user must be represented during various phases of the design and development process thus expanding user research beyond needs identification.  Ergonomic or human factors research empowers product design to more effectively address user needs in an intuitive, user-friendly manner.  More than one great idea has failed due to the inability of the user to simply “use it” and therefore truly address his or her need.  Placing user and concept together in a real-world environment during discovery, concept design revision/finalization, modelling, prototyping, and testing phases provides greater insight into how the user actually interacts with a product to accomplish the desired outcome.  Addressing human factors aligns a product with the human condition.  

In a perfect world human factors research would be utilized after every relevant phase enabling for design revisions to directly reflect usability requirements.  Of course, we do not live in a perfect world.  Resources, time, and budget place limits on research.  This is especially true of the start-up environment.  Even so, completely ignoring the importance of human factors (which is not uncommon) can be more costly than carrying out even a basic level of research.  Often we hear, “I know EXACTLY what this thing needs to be.”  Please understand, no one knows EXACTLY what a concept should be, what it should look like, or how it should function.  We often refer to this scenario as failure by close association.  Broadening the product vision through the implementation of human factors research will uncover discoveries beyond a single vision and greatly increases the likelihood of market success.

Here are a few key points to consider when incorporating human factors or ergonomic research in the product development process:    

Following these guidelines will increase your chances of delivering "Meaningful Design.”

Per the International Ergonomics Association, the study of ergonomics or human factors is as follows:

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.

  1. Identify the projected user type for the product or device as best you can.  
  2. Make use of published information like the works of Henry Dreyfuss to get relevant information.....remember, some information may fit your application perfectly, others should be viewed more as guidelines. 
  3. Research other papers and publications that exist from industry, armed forces, medical sources, studies, educational institutions.  Many times you can find data very specific to your needs.  
  4. Make use of what exists.  Examine analogous products.  See what works and doesn't work.  You personally may certainly fit the user profile for a product so your experiences are valid, but remember, you are not the only user type. 
  5. After building your collected data into concepts - get physical.  Make complete or partial mock-ups.  Make foams, clay models, SLA's, construct tape drawings on walls.  Do whatever you can to translate your 2D ideas into the real physical world. 
  6. Test, evaluate, remake and retest.  Go through as many iterative loops as feasible, gathering good, constructive feedback each time. 
  7. Be sure to refer back to your initial data (benchmark) and compare it to where you are now.  If there are some "drastic" conflicts, go back and confirm the validity of your results. 
  8. Following even these basic guidelines will result in a design being user defined, ensuring ease of use, and achieving greater overall user satisfaction.