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What Makes a Product User-Friendly? - 2004-04-26

Why are some products and systems more user-friendly than others? A new book by a University of Toronto engineering professor Kim Vicente called "The Human Factor" seeks to explain this apparent design malfunction.

Today's electronic gizmos have incredible features, but it often seems like you need an advanced degree to use a video recorder or a mobile phone. The high-tech capabilities are there, but the designs lack what Kim Vicente calls "human-tech," technology designed with the eventual user in mind. One way to improve that, he explained, is to bring users into the design process at the beginning. He points to one man who did that: famed electric guitar maker, Leo Fender.

"It's not that he was a guitar player," he explained. "He was actually a radio repairman. So what he did was, he followed a human-tech design process by involving musicians early on in the design process, trying to find out what their needs are. So for example, one of the things that he found was that in the original guitar design, the body was at right angles, so it actually bruised the guitarist's ribs as he was sitting down, playing the guitar. So one of the things they wound up doing was changing the shape of the body to conform to the shape of the guitarist. And it fits seamlessly now, rather than bruising your ribs. So, a lot of other examples that benefited from the input of the musicians in building prototypes and doing testing."

As for those designers who don't get it right, Prof. Vicente blames the education system, which trains engineers in all the technical aspects of their profession, while often failing to require courses on the human side of the equation.

"It shouldn't be surprising that when they put these systems out in the marketplace, usually they're very reliable technically, in a narrow sense, but when you put a normal human being in front of them, there's all kinds of incompatibilities that lead to errors and mistakes," he added.

However, Kim Vicente said that applying human-tech principles to industrial design can help limit errors and mistakes. He extends his concept beyond things to entire systems, such as aviation. The industry has developed an elaborate incident reporting system, so that even in the case of a near-miss of two planes, the cause is analyzed and pilots and controllers are not penalized for reporting errors.

Professor Vicente contrasts that system with what happens or doesn't happen in hospitals. He noted that in the United States, medical error is the eighth leading cause of death.

"If someone makes a mistake or they report information about an error or a near miss, they get blamed because people, instead of looking at how the system is designed, they look at the individual and place full responsibility on the person," he said. "People do need to have accountability, but even very well-intentioned people, very well-trained and so on, will make mistakes in a system that is poorly designed in terms of the human factors."

The Human Factor is the name of Kim Vicente's book, which is published by Routledge. As a university professor, he emphasizes that today's students, who will be designing the products and systems of the future, should focus more on learning to improve the fit between people and technology.