A day in the life of… a human factors researcher

Published on: 23rd November 2017

Lisa Baker, Senior Human Factors Researcher

I touched down in Bogota on a balmy Sunday afternoon for the start of an exciting global usability study. In a modern world with video conferencing, you may well ask why I flew half way across the world to do this. I could have done it remotely, but I don’t think I would have gained as many valuable insights as I did from face to face usability testing. Trying to elicit knowledge and insights from users is a challenge in itself, but trying to do this in emerging markets, which are often non-English speaking (or in other words, not my first language), presents additional challenges. I particularly love this aspect of my job, and find it very exciting to work with simultaneous translation from another language to English.

A couple of hours later I met my study moderator, Beatriz, a vivacious Colombian woman who I would be working with over the following week. While drinking a cup of sensational coffee (dare I say, the best coffee I’ve ever tasted), we discussed the details of the study which involved testing three functional prototypes of a medical device with representative users. I think one of the key things to working with moderators or translators is to build a strong rapport. Therefore, we had a period of social time together to enjoy some tasty authentic Colombian food, experience the culture and visit Monserrate, a mountain that dominates the city centre of Bogota. I gained an immediate insight in to the country’s culture. This was incredibly useful for meeting the participants during the study and gave us common ground to settle any nerves prior to testing. Travelling around the world for work has given me insights into many different cultures. This is invaluable for the design of products, which may be sold in various parts of the world with distinct cultures. The challenge then becomes incorporating all those points of view in to a single product which can meet the often different needs of users in developed and emerging markets.

Day one of the study was dedicated to better understanding the user journey in situ for a medical device. Beatriz accompanied me around the city to various pharmacies to purchase competitor products and other relevant stimuli for the study. This gave useful insights into understanding frustrations with the device at the point of sale and any barriers to purchase. We then drove to the study venue and had a debrief with Carlos, the study translator. I informed him of the aims of the study, and showed him the prototypes so that he could familiarise himself with the different components for his understanding and for ease of description during translation. His role was to sit behind the one-way mirror and, via microphone to my headset, translate what Beatriz and the study participants were saying.

Early the next morning I caught a taxi to the venue to set up before the first participant arrived. This involved testing the live video stream to the rest of the project team at DCA in Warwick, to our clients and the wider project team based in Europe and Australia. We had already pilot tested the study in Warwick prior to flying out to Colombia. The first day of testing ran smoothly. The participants matched the profile specifications we had given our third party global recruitment agency, and they were forthcoming about their opinions of the three prototypes. I sat in the room with my headset observing them and recording data while they conducted a series of tasks using the prototypes. Once testing was over, the participants and I were able to have an open-ended discussion, via translation, of some of the challenges that they had experienced with using the prototypes. They also spoke anecdotally about their frustrations with current products on the market and how the prototypes addressed those frustrations.

At the end of the first day of testing, I had already gained many useful insights to take the project forward. I had a teleconference with the project team back at DCA, which consisted of mechanical engineers, designers, researchers and model makers. They had watched some or all of the day’s testing and were itching to ask me questions. One of the things I love about my job is the multi-disciplinary collaboration. The company is full of dynamic and creative individuals, who problem-solve in such innovative and collaborative ways, it’s a treat as a human factors practitioner to be involved. The human factors team are consulted right from the start and at every stage of a project. Since working at DCA, I now understand much more about product engineering and manufacturing constraints, which has enabled me to give more pragmatic recommendations.

Two clients from the Bogota office came to watch the third and final day of usability testing from behind the one-way mirror. We had an interesting discussion afterwards regarding the participants’ preferred prototype and how this had differed from the expected results. Error analysis showed that one prototype had performed better than the other two. Initial analysis of the qualitative and quantitative data showed that they aligned well. This gave confidence that information had not been lost in translation. However, we were due to conduct more usability tests in India and Australia before full analysis of the results could occur. I then called my colleague in the research team who was due to fly out to Mumbai the next day to facilitate testing there before we met up in Sydney for the final part of the global study.

In the taxi on the way back to the airport, I had time to reflect on the study and specifically the challenges and what I had learnt. If a study is being conducted in another language, and you can’t moderate it yourself, then a good moderator is essential. I think you need to spend some time with them prior to working to gain a good rapport and working relationship. This helps with translating those important findings into useful insights which drive the design. I also think that experiencing the culture goes a long way to understanding your users and the context in which the product is being used before you have even begun testing. Finally, if you can work with a dynamic multi-disciplinary project team then designing world class products becomes attainable. Gracias Colombia…until next time!

This article was first published in The Ergonomist.