Sometimes ideas sound great in theory, but don’t work well in practice. That’s why prototyping with actual users is essential. We usually think of prototyping in terms of software, but it has real world applications, too.
My sister happens to be a nurse. The hospital where she works recently changed from using computer on wheels, affectionately knows as COWs, to computer workstations. The hospital management thought the COWs were unsightly and that workstations would appear more professional to patients.
The new workstations did look tidier, but management didn’t realize they were sacrificing these three great features:
- Doctors and nurses could face their patients while typing information into the COW. Now, they have to awkwardly turn away from their patients to type as they’re speaking.
- The COWs provided extra storage. The scrubs the nurses wear have terrible pockets, so they must carry tools from room to room.
- Since nurses were using one computer all day, they only had to log in once. Now, every time doctors and nurses move to a new exam room, they have to log out and log back into a new computer.
The hospital spent a fortune on new desktop computers that may look nice, but inhibit staff from doing their jobs. Perhaps if they knew about these concerns ahead of time, they could have altered their plans. The issues would have been obvious if management had conducted a usability test using a prototype.
Testing a prototype
In this case, placing the laptops from the COWs in the exam rooms would have been a suitable prototype. The hospital could have tested this arrangement for a few days to see how it affects staff and patients. Staff would have quickly realized how awkward it is face away from patients whilst speaking to them. Nurses would have noticed they didn’t have anywhere to store their tools. They time wasted while constantly logging in and out of computers would have been obvious.
Shadowing the staff while they use the prototype and interviewing them afterwards would have brought these issues to light. Now that the hospital has already invested in these new workstations, it’s difficult and expensive to change.
The bottom line is this: It’s much easier to make corrections to a prototype than a fully implemented product.