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How usable is your product?

Your fit tech product might be a game changer, solving problems or creating new possibilities for clients, but none of this will matter if it’s not easy and enjoyable to use. Industrial designer Nick Chubb explains why usability is key, and the factors to consider when designing your new product

Developers must commit to truly understanding user needs Shutterstock/Prostock-studio
Something as simple as seat adjustability on an indoor bike can affect a user’s experience Shutterstock/RomanSo
The design of the product should have the freedom to go in any direction, rather than being restricted by existing beliefs Shutterstock/KANUTPHOTO
Fit tech products should be inclusive for people of different ages and abilities Shutterstock/LightField Studios

Usability is all about the quality of interaction between people and products. It’s a key part of what makes a product successful and an aspect of product design that deserves detailed consideration.

Think of the interface on a fitness tracker, the strap design of an HR monitor, the seat adjustability on a cycling machine, the assurance of wireless earphones or the grip design of different handle attachments on a cable machine.

Ever felt like some products and pieces of equipment feel safer to use, more comfortable, more premium, effective or simply more intuitive? A lot of this comes down to effective usability, and the way we approach it during the design phase can help deliver better products that enhance user experience (UX) as much as possible.

Experience beyond safety
Anticipating the safety needs of a product in the fitness sector is really important. Good usability design eliminates risk. However, safety is only one half of usability. The other half is not so much about meeting regulatory requirements, but building in pleasing user interactions from the very beginning and making the product more satisfying to use.

We know that in today’s world of tweets, comments, online reviews and forums, positive word-of-mouth within the community is essential if a product is to have long-lasting success in the market. There are many factors that contribute to a successful fit-tech product, but a commitment to enhancing user experience and truly understanding user needs at their very core is a foundational part of that.

The impact of good usability
When usability is applied poorly during the design process, this creates what we call ‘use errors’. A use error is any situation where the outcome is different from the intention. Wherever we can, we’re looking to remove potential use errors.

Let’s say you went to reduce the intensity of something, but ended up turning it off completely, which wasted time and interrupted your activity. Or you complete a workout only to realise your HR monitor wasn’t connected properly.

In other cases it could simply be a matter of comfort or just not understanding how to use a product. These can create a different outcome from what was intended by the user and result in frustration and annoyance. In other circumstances, as mentioned, some use errors could result in serious harm.

Important considerations for good usability design:

1. Drop your feelings for the current format
This is more to do with mindset, but an important one to embrace. To design a product with the best UX possible, the overall format and architecture of the product must be driven by insight and a total understanding of the context of the product’s use. This ensures that the user experience is prioritised and can be enhanced with the freedom for the design to go in any direction, rather than being restricted by any existing beliefs or chained down by a desire to stay close to the current format of established products.

Innovation doesn’t tend to happen when there’s a strong feeling to lean towards many characteristics of historic models, without a clear user-centred justification. A strong desire to question every aspect of what went before is more likely to result in great product design.

2. Every stakeholder must be appreciated
To enhance the user experience as much as possible, it’s important to consider every type of user. We call them ‘stakeholders’, which isn’t just the people who are invested in a financial sense but includes anyone who is affected by the product.

For instance, who uses it? Who cleans it? Who assembles it? Who delivers it? Who maintains it? Who sells it? Who doesn’t use it but has to live with it? The list goes on. The products with the best user experience consider all interactions from all stakeholders, not just those involving the primary user.

3. Anticipating the entire experience journey
When every type of user has been considered, mapping out the experience journey for each user and listing all interactions in as many different use environments as possible is a good exercise to go through. Having this visibility of all interactions helps to see the bigger picture and also helps identify opportunities to simplify user steps in the experience journey.

This is difficult to do when you don’t have all the information analysed and mapped out. This approach is proactive and can bring significant value. The reason it’s so valuable is that poor user experiences usually find their way into products because the task of doing a detailed analysis either doesn’t get done or gets pushed back in the development process until usability issues start to present themselves. By this time, it’s too late and you end up fire-fighting and making decisions quickly in isolation without the proper time for thorough analysis and robust thinking where you consider how one decision impacts other aspects.

4. Think about human senses
Another key element in usability is to consider all human senses and their limitations. Missing the sound of an alarm on a product could be linked to the age of the user group, the potential of hearing loss or the volume of background noise in the environment where the product is used.

Another example could be memory. If there are too many steps to remember in a user task or too much information needed to be recalled when moving from one screen to the next in a digital app, then this can cause use errors.

Fit tech products must seek to be as inclusive as possible. Physical fitness can still be of incredible importance to people who suffer from blindness, deafness and other disabilities – therefore inclusive design is also an important part of effective usability.

Refining quality through iterative development
Usability should be considered at all stages during the design, so that use errors can be reduced and interactions can be improved. Some of the ways we do this is through affordances that give cues to the user such as shape-coding, resistance forces, size differentiation, universal symbols and orientation cues, etc. Refining the quality of interactions through expert review of prototypes, user trials, interviews, observations and a full commitment to understanding the areas for improvement through a rigorous process of development is paramount.

As new technologies become available, brands in the fitness industry will be faced with the challenge of truly understanding whether this technology has a meaningful application for their users or not. If it does, a deep consideration of usability is incredibly important for the adoption of that new technology, to ensure it meets user needs in a positive way and doesn’t introduce hurdles and resistance through poor usability design.

Nick Chubb is the lead industrial designer at IDC, designing consumer products, electronics and medical devices for some of the world’s leading brands. He has a 1st Class Masters Degree in Product Design and acts as product design advisor at Arts Thread | www.nickchubbdesign.com

Originally published in Fit Tech 2021 issue 2
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