Thinking About Usability on a Rainy Day at the Beach
For the past 20 years or so our family has made an annual pilgrimage to the beach. As our children have grown older, our activities have evolved through the years. As I write this, it is raining at the beach. In years past this would have created a challenging environment. This year however there are a number of more mature activities taking place—engaging in in-depth conversations about world events, reading fantastic books (I just finished Susan Cain’s book Quiet, a must read for the introverts of the world) and writing blog posts.
As I sit here pecking on the keys of my laptop, I notice a piece of tape just above the screen. I received this company laptop about three years ago. Our company was much smaller at the time and I was doing a number of product demos with our business development group. Those were typically done via webex and the first time I launched a session with the new laptop an annoying window popped up displaying my smiling face. My new fangled laptop had a built in video camera, and in spite of several attempts I could not disable the darn thing. One of my colleagues walked in, noted my distress and returned with a piece of tape. She covered the lens of the camera and, voila, problem solved! Remarkably that piece of tape remains intact today.
Why bring this up on a rainy day at the beach? I believe there is a lesson here which I would like to share with you. EHRs today present a number of opportunities for improvement. As our customer base continues to expand, we receive a growing number of suggestions for improvement. Many of these requests are thoughtful and insightful, but on occasions the “ask” reflects wants instead of needs.
We recently have had the privilege of working with an interactive design firm. During this time I have become intimately acquainted with the concept of “latent needs.” A latent need is one that the user has trouble articulating. Often this is because they have established a suitable work around and no longer consciously recognize the “need.” The piece of tape over my laptop’s video camera is a good example of a latent need. With the exception of rainy days at the beach, I no longer notice it. If someone asked me what they could do to improve the laptop as a product, I’d probably mention things like speeding up the initial boot when I turn on the machine everyday. (Yes, it’s a PC.) Making it easy to disable the video camera would not be on the list. And yet an astute observer watching me interact with the machine would almost certainly ask me about that piece of tape on my laptop.
As the EHR market matures usability will increasingly take a front seat to things like meaningful use and eRx. Appropriately our attention will focus on screen content and orientation, the appropriate use of symbols and colors, and how many drug alerts is too many. It will become very important for us to ask not what users want, but what do users need as we define the direction these applications take moving forward.
Next time it is raining, when you were expecting the sun to shine, look around your world and try to identify a latent need. Let us know when you find one—they are hiding all around us.