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When you go shopping for a new gadget like a microwave or mp3 player are you mostly wowed by its sleek looks, do you drool over its long list of extra functionality? Do you then not use those extra functions because you don't know how? Rather than just drooling, why not go to the races to help find a device you will actually use, because it is easy to use!
Take an everyday gadget like a microwave. They have been around a while, so manufacturers have had a long time to improve their designs and so make them easy to use. You wouldn't expect there to be problems would you! There are lots of ways a gadget can be harder to use than necessary - more button presses maybe, lots of menus to get lost in, more special key sequences to forget, easy opportunities to make mistakes, no obvious feedback to tell you what it's doing... Just trying to do simple things with each alternative is one way to check out how easy they are to use. How simple is it to cook some peas with your microwave? Could it be even simpler? Dom Furniss, a researcher at UCL decided to video some microwave racing as a fun way to find out...
Everyday devices still cause people problems even when they are trying to do really simple things. What is clear from Microwave racing is that some really are easier to use than others. Does it matter? Perhaps not if it's just an odd minute wasted here or there cooking dinner or if actually, despite your drooling in the shop, you don't really care that you never use any of those 'advanced' features because you can never remember how to.
Would it matter to you more though if the device in question was a medical device that keeps a patient alive, but where a mistake could kill? There are lots of such gadgets: infusion pumps for example. They are the machines you are hook up to in a hospital via tubes. They pump life-saving drugs, nutrient rich solutions or extra fluids to keep you hydrated directly into your body. If the nurse makes a mistake setting the rate or volume then it could make you worse rather than better. Surely then you want the device to help the nurse to get it right.
Making safer medical devices is what the research project, called CHI+MED, that Dom works on is actually about. While the consequences are completely different, the core task in setting an infusion pump is actually very similar to setting a microwave - "set a number for the volume of drug and another for the rate to infuse it and hit start" versus "set a number for the power and another for the cooking time, then hit start". The same types of design solutions (both good and bad) crop up in both cases. Nurses have to set such gadgets day in day out. In an intensive care unit, they will be using several at a time with each patient. Do you really want to waste lots of minutes of such a nurse's time day in, day out? Do you want a nurse to easily be able to make mistakes in doing so?
What the microwave racing video shows is that the designers of gadgets can make them trivially simple to use. They can also make them very hard to use if they focus more on the looks and functions of the thing than ease of use. Manufacturers of devices are only likely to take ease of use seriously if the people doing the buying make it clear that we care. Mostly we give the impression that we want features so that is what we get. Microwave racing may not be the best way to do it (follow the links below to explore more about actual ways professionals evaluate devices), but next time you are out looking for a new gadget check how easy it is to use before you buy ... especially if the gadget is an infusion pump and you happen to be the person placing orders for a hospital!