Editor’s note: Barry H. Beith, Ph.D., is president and founder of HumanCentric Technologies. Richard P. Church is manager of operations. The Human Factor is a regular weekly feature in LTW.
________________________________________________________________________________________In last week’s column, we discussed the three phases related to the initial sale of a product. Those phases were:

1. Garnering attention.

2. Facilitating engagement.

3. Establishing expectations.

We will now explore the phases and issues associated with achieving the secondary “sale”.

If we assume that the secondary “sale” is an extension of the effectiveness of the initial sale, and the outcome of preceding phases is positive, then continued success should be assured. We must also factor in positive or negative user experiences, gained via exposure, for the success or failure of the product. These experiences provide comparison variables for expectations generated during phase three. The phases of this process stage are:

4. Product education.

5. Integrating use level.

6. Error and workload management.

Product Education

The quest for the Holy Grail of perfectly intuitive products (i.e. – no associated learning curve or Help function) perpetuates. An infinitesimal number achieve this (i.e. — the Pet Rock, light bulbs, etc–), compared to those that drive us mad, and training profits up. Product education, how to use it, and use it properly, can often be a costly and recurring process.

Thus, the accuracy of the expectations established in phase three are critical to user satisfaction in phase four. Years ago, we spent months attempting to learn how to use project management tools, like Symantec’s Timeline and Microsoft Project. What we learned was (a) you had to use them daily to maintain your skill level and (b) both companies made a fortune from training courses, so their inclination to increase ease-of -use was low.

Human factors specialists provide insight into user capabilities and limitations, relative to components impacting learning, such as memory load and workflow. They also provide learning technique variation knowledge, such as embedded learning, internet tools, and training regimes. Combined with a comprehension of human memory, consolidation, retention, and mental modeling, this makes the human factors specialists an integral team member when structuring product-learning requirements.

Integrating Use Level

While, some users are novices, others advanced power users and still others constant or infrequent users, each adopt their individual “use level”. This determines other aspects of the product, such as help facilities and initial and refresher training requirements. Be it software or automotive, determining optimal product design to accommodate users of varying skill levels and need at various points in their “product use life” is vital.

The requirement that a product be designed for instantaneous use, by multiple users operating at varying levels, is often critical. User adoption often demands that, as novice users learn and retain via normal use, requisite experience to migrate to increased expertise levels, there be adequate conventions (i.e. — toolbars, shortcuts, etc–) to support their use. An adequate grasp of user types allow developers to design said conventions directly into the product, nullifying voluminous user manuals

Human factors specialists can aid in defining, designing, and integrating these migration elements into products of varying complexity.

Error and Workload Management

Few events can undermine a product’s second “sale” like errors, particularly human/user errors. Experimental research indicates that minor errors, occurring with regularity, destroy user trust and acceptance almost instantaneously. A simple television set voice control study demonstrated that any command, that had to be repeated twice, reduced the technology’s user acceptance rate to less than one-third its original value.

A second technical support systems study indicated that human errors required two and one-half as much time, as non-human errors, to resolve, and resolution was achieved in less than 40 percent of the instances. This dramatic finding was generally due to technical support personnel inability to recreate human errors.

In terms of exceeding expectations, high workload and unresolved human errors have the greatest negative impact on the long-term product acceptance. Of particular importance is human error in medical products use, where more than lost time and efficiency are at stake. Human factors specialists are trained in identifying human error and managing the impact and outcome. When errors cannot be eliminated, effective design approaches still exist that ensure early detection and management to minimize damaging or harmful outcomes. In conjunction with designers and design engineers, human factors specialists can address this critical issue.

Effective human factors specialists can also assess workload levels to aid in the reduction and management of the effects of high workloads and stressors, via design modifications, early in the product development process.

The emphasis on first and second product “sales” is highly significant. While first “sales” bring revenue and viability to product lines, companies, and careers, second “sales” strengthen and ensure user loyalty, advocacy, and demonstration.

Understanding the relationships between these two periods in product life can provide vital development cues. This is particularly true if the right interactive team, including human factors specialists, designers, engineers, marketers, planners, developers, and executive champions, can be brought to bear on the various issues impact the product success or failure.

HumanCentric: www.humancentrictech.com