Editor’s note: Ross Teague, Ph.D., Senior Human Factors Psychologist, HumanCentric Technologies, Inc.We recently completed a small vehicle product evaluation in which we brought current product owners into a test facility to evaluate the new version. They began their evaluation by looking at the vehicle (no touching!), after which they were allowed to touch and sit in the vehicle, and finally they took the vehicle for a test drive.

Most of the changes were made “under the hood” and not easily seen by the naked eye, but product owners commented on how amazed they were at the comfort of the new seats, how pleased they were with the added legroom, how the new steering wheel angle made controlling the vehicle easier, and how the new shape made it easier to enter and exit the vehicle.

There was only one problem — none of those changes had actually been made in the new vehicle!

Why, then, was almost every test drive participant, in three cities around the country, convinced that these changes had been made? All of these perceptions were the result of a small change that had been made to the angle of the seat. The steering wheel, legroom, door entry area, and seat were all completely unaltered. When told that only the angle of the seat had been slightly changed, participants told us that we were wrong. They were certain that the legroom had been changed and that a new, more comfortable seat had been introduced. After driving the vehicle, they were more convinced that those changes had been made, and they claimed that it was far superior and more comfortable than the current vehicle.

How could such a small change have such a huge impact?

It’s a combination of ergonomics and perception. The interesting thing is that our client didn’t realize what the impact of their change would be. They were responding to customer complaints that indicated they felt like they were sitting on top of the vehicle instead of inside it, and this change was an improvement. The additional positive reactions were icing on the cake.

Could these reactions have been anticipated? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Humans are complex beings, and alterations to one part of a product or device rarely fail to impact other components. The problem comes when unanticipated reactions are negative. What if the seat angle change corrected the operator’s perception that they were sitting atop the vehicle, but it also made it appear smaller, cramped, and uncomfortable? If our client didn’t test the product prior to its launch, they would never have known.

In our experiences we’ve seen huge impacts resulting from merely changing the background color on a website. This can render a website, previously viewed as trustworthy and appealing, unprofessional and difficult to understand. HumanCentric was asked to redesign a desktop device that was infrequently used by owners. Rather than redesigning the device or its interface, we found access to be the real problem; the addition of a small stand beneath the device raised its level to facilitate reach and ease of use.

The bottom line: What can be learned from these experiences?

1. Be glad that this is human nature. Sure, it’s a little scary that a tiny change can have a huge impact, but without this some problems would be too costly or difficult to solve.

2. It’s important to test your products. Put designs and products in the hands of users, and let them talk about what they see and feel. Don’t simply focus on task completion; instead, let them express their thoughts about the look and feel of the product. Let them talk, and don’t limit them to predetermined questions about the product.

3. Understand the problem that you are trying to solve, but go beyond that problem when evaluating your products. If you limit your product testing, you might fix the intended problem, but you may create new problems to take its place.

Ross Teague, Senior Human Factors Psychologist and Program Manager for HumanCentric Technologies (www.humancentrictech.com), specializes in design research. He provides what he calls ‘informed inspiration’ for companies that truly innovate. With a doctorate in Applied Cognition and Human Factors, Ross claims to have the best job in the world. Where else can you make your living by putting yourself in other people’s shoes? Ross brings user and product insight to life. He can be reached at 919-481-0565 or rteague@humancentrictech.com.