From the July 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

If

were going to create a medical device that would soothe and entertain children during the often-traumatizing process of anesthetizing them, it would have to seem fun for kids and helpful to doctors. "For physicians, it had to read as a fine-tuned anesthetic monitoring device," says the 48-year-old Cohasset, Massachusetts, anesthesiologist and inventor. "For kids, it needed to read as fun."

What Hart faced was a thorny question of usability. The Usability Professionals' Association describes usability as a quality of a product that makes it easy to use and a good fit for its users. Usability is an established concern on the Internet, where Web site operators hire experts to evaluate their online portals' friendliness and ease of navigation. It's less recognized as an issue in product design, retailing and services; but according to Zurich, Switzerland, consultant David McQuillen, it should be. "Simply put, I think most businesses are too hard to use," he says. Poor signage, mazelike phone-call routing and counterintuitive Web sites are examples of common usability failings, he explains.

Businesses should care about such things because usability is an important element of competitiveness for most businesses, says McQuillen. To improve your usability quotient, make products, processes and the overall customer experience easy, useful and enjoyable. Check ease of use by looking for moments when customers seem confused or make mistakes. Study all aspects of the customer experience, and remove or change those that aren't useful or don't add value to the customer in some way. Enjoyability is often overlooked, McQuillen says, but it's obvious that customers prefer to buy from companies that provide an enjoyable experience. If customers don't seem to enjoy any aspect of interacting with your firm, changing that will boost usability.

Techniques for evaluating your company's usability include self-shopping-visiting your store, applying for credit, requesting service, seeking information and returning a defective product as a customer would. You can also learn by studying customers as they shop. Start with key interactions, such as providing information, making the actual sale, using the product or service, getting after-sale support and making repeat purchases.

Think about different types of usability, urges Aaron Oppenheimer, principal product behaviorist with Design Continuum, a Boston product development firm. "You can think of the product in terms of emotional usability as well as functional usability," he says. "Does a can opener open cans-and make me feel good while doing it?"

Design Continuum addressed both issues when the company helped create the pediatric anesthetic-delivery device Hart eventually dubbed the Pedisedate. After several revisions, designers wound up with a brightly colored headset that connected to a CD player or a Nintendo Game Boy. It delivers music or game sounds through one earphone, monitors oxygenation through sensors in the other earphone, and delivers anesthetics through a snorkel that swings down in front of the child's mouth.

Most companies should recognize better usability in increased sales, larger average orders, more repeat customers, less customer churn and similar metrics. When Hart tested the Pedisedate at a research hospital, the usability he had worked to develop was an advantage. Anesthesiologists appreciated the high-tech respiratory monitoring; the young patients endorsed its usability differently but definitively, especially given the negative reaction children typically have to conventional methods of administering anesthesia. "Of the initial 100 kids," says Hart, "we probably had 15 of them ask, 'Can I take it home?'"


Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.