We must not fail to recognise that our knowledge has its limits

I think this is the 5th year that I have been asked to help judge the Ergonomics Design award for the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.

It’s a rewarding process in many ways, not least because of the time you get to spend with accomplished designers and ergonomists – my old colleague Mat Hunter, now chief designer for the UK Design Council, was another of the judges.

It’s a unique award, too: it looks for commercially viable, well-designed objects that have clear evidence of the use of ergonomics data and principles. In product design, aesthetics and function are clearly vitally important. But this award recognises that, for certain classes of product, being able to demonstrate that the device really works in the hands of users is even more important.

Clearly there are designed products where the consequences of misuse and use error are benign or trivial – I’m thinking of fashion design particularly – but there are also significant numbers of consumer goods that are mature, well-understood and have few significant hazards: mobile phones, televisions, etc.

Quite quickly, however, you start to list consumer goods that don’t have associated intrinsic hazards but for which the consequences of use error could potentially be serious – the payment app on your mobile phone, for example. And then there are those products that are intrinsically hazardous, and most of our work at Team is in this area. Our work can involve powerful, sometimes toxic, drugs and very ill people who need to be assured that they will get their drug reliably and completely.

So there are vast areas of design for which we cannot justify an evidenced assessment of usability and safety but, then again, there are equally vast areas where it is advisable, or essential, and even mandatory.

When it isn’t mandated, how does one make that determination to justify and quantify the investment in usability? Some of the questions to ask are obvious, others much less so…

  • What is the likelihood of error or misuse?
  • How serious could the consequences of that error or misuse be?
  • How well do I understand the user behaviour connected to the product?
  • What are the chances that I may not know everything I need to know about that user behaviour?

In my experience it’s the last two questions that trip people up, and usually the last of them. For all of us it is easy to assume we know everything we need to know, thereby failing to recognise that our knowledge of the user has to have limits. We prefer to think that the limits of our knowledge are distant and sufficient. Experienced designers do know a great deal about users and usage, they are expected to know much, they win work by appearing to know much. For all of us it is emotionally troubling to acknowledge those limits, and practically expensive in product development terms.

But, depending on the answers to the first two questions, sometimes it is best to be humble and assume that not everything is known, leaving the door open for discoveries based on the unscripted responses of real users. This award is a little reminder of the value of doing that.

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