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Human Factors: the value of early stage testing

Why we shouldn't fear failure, and the necessity of early stage prototyping for successful HF research.

“You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledgehammer on the construction site”

Frank Lloyd Wright

Functionality, desirability and usability
Early stage prototyping is a powerful way to rapidly assess functionality, desirability, and usability of a product, in short; to understand how to add value. Value is not just measured in monetary terms, but in the benefit offered towards users’ lives by solving real-world problems. Integrating early stage prototyping with human factors (HF) methodologies, adds true value; improving usability and often identifying other areas for product improvement, which ultimately enhances long-term return on investment.

Products designed using an integrated user-centred approach are typically more successful. However, to create a successful product, an unsuccessful product must first be understood. Integrating early stage prototyping within the user-centred design process, allows initial ideas to “fail”; a word that should not be feared but embraced, as it provides the opportunity to learn, iterate and improve. In the words of the famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, which colourfully illustrate the benefit of identifying issues early: “You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledgehammer on the construction site”.

Failing fast
Early stage HF assessments provide the opportunity to “fail fast” and identify the attributes that do not add that ‘value’ that can be iterated around. Integrating an iterative process, where traceability through testing results and failure is applied to the design for improvement, is what makes great products which are not only more desirable, more functional, and more usable than marketed counterparts, but hold true value. Early stage prototyping can prove particularly valuable in the design and development of medical products, facilitating thought-through risk mitigation. Whilst considerations of risk are relevant across all product types and development programmes, the need to mitigate risk in medical products can be a matter of life or death.

A set of balancing scales labelled with risk and value.

Risk and regulatory approvals
Medical products carry with them a huge responsibility to add value to their users’ lives. The value that an inhaler can have to an asthmatic, or a glucose monitor to a diabetic is immeasurable in terms of quality of life. As creators of these products, we have a duty of care to ensure that the ‘value’ added is aligned with the user needs. What is required is a product that will perform as expected, without the ‘risk of risk’, which would otherwise need to be mitigated. The most effective way to identify such risk, is to test, from an early stage, with prototypes and real users. This is not just best practice but is an essential requirement for US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) product approval. As creators we must demonstrate and document integration of a user-centred approach within our design and development process for product approval for use.

Prototyping fidelity
So what types of prototypes can be effectively used in early stage HF testing? The answer is that prototypes that are of any level of fidelity have a valid role to play in HF testing, whether this is sketch model mock up, a paper prototype of an app, or a highly finished ‘looks-like-works-like’ prototype – they all stand to add value. The important thing is to identify the usability questions to be asked in the testing and design the prototype to address those questions. For example, in the design of a new user interface for a medical device, early prototypes might test whether the concept and its fundamental information architecture fits the mental model of the user – whether they “get it”. It’s not relevant at this stage to test the details of page layout and interaction elements – these can be tested as the product develops, informed by foundation tests. Starting early, and truly understanding how a user will interact and use a product can save much time later on. Often, little encouragement is needed for peoples’ imagination to kick in for meaningful feedback to be offered.

Lower fidelity mock-ups can also form part of other testing methodologies, in particular, contextual design. Using an early contextual design method with such mock- ups can stimulate participants to visualise ideas not yet fully formed. Embedding users within an iterative process enables the creation of truly user-centered products. Using prototypes within later contextual design methods, such as contextual inquiry, can generate considerable insights having embedded the product in users’ lives.

Faking it – Wizard of Oz prototyping
There is often a need to be creative in the approach to prototyping for usability testing. This is particularly relevant in new technology products where a “Catch 22” situation can exist: how can we test technology which is not yet developed, yet how can we develop the technology effectively without that development being informed by user testing? This was a challenge facing IBM in 1983 in developing a “listening typewriter”. The team wanted to test the threshold of user acceptability for the accuracy of speech recognition, in order to inform the development of the technology. Their solution was to adopt a “Wizard of Oz” technique where the speech recognition was performed by a human, hidden from view, who typed the words said by the user, to give the impression that the function was being performed by the machine. This method of creatively “faking” a product or system, can unearth invaluable insight into a product, saving project time and avoiding costly mistakes being integrated into a fully functioning prototype.

Including early stage prototypes in the user-centred design process produces powerful outputs, that when implemented via design iterations, significantly improve a product’s chance of success. If a product is easy to use, addresses a latent need and poses very little risk, it becomes desirable. If a product is desirable it will be in demand; and if it is in demand it will be successful. By integrating early stage proof of principle prototypes within a user-centred design process, great products can be created, solving real problems, for real people and adding real value.

This article was first published in      FOCUS Proof of Principle.

Find out more?

Get in touch with Craig Wightman our CDO.