March 13, 2013 – The usability of health and other information technology systems has long been a challenge.

And there are a number of common misconceptions as to why the problem persists, according to  Nancy Staggers, RN, a professor of Informatics at the University of Maryland’s School of Nursing, and Lorraine Chapman, Director of Use Experience Research at Macadamian Technologies, a user experience design and software development firm that does work in the health care field.

But if the IT community is going to solve its usability issues, it must first acknowledge, and then dispel, these wrongly held beliefs. As a first step in that process, Staggers and Chapman at HIMSS13 presented a list of the top 10 usability myths.

Myth No. 1: Clinicians are uncomfortable with technology

Vendors often say there is nothing wrong with their systems that more training can’t fix. But the reality, said Chapman, is that doctors and other health care providers like technology, they just don’t like processes that hinder their job performance.

Systems, Chapman said, often aren’t designed to fit with the way health care providers think and work. Many systems, she said, don’t give health workers the “big picture of the patient,” they don’t always support transitions in care and they are often poorly integrated with other systems. As a result, there is a reduced effort to interact with the system.

“It’s not that they need more training – the problem isn’t with the user – it’s with the technology,” said Chapman.

Myth No. 2: Health care workers want all their information on one screen

“They don’t need it all at once,” said Chapman. Granted, physicians and other users like it when all the information they need is right in front of them. But when a system is poorly designed, and everything is crammed into a single interface, it’s often difficult for clinicians to find the information they need.

If software designers look at how clinicians work, the two experts said, they’ll find that doctors and nurses will click on secondary pages if the interface is intuitive and makes sense.

Myth No. 3: The system with the most features will win a purchase decision

The reality is that many systems have too many features and functions. And many of those extra features don’t add value, said Chapman. When vendors add features that few users need, those bells and whistles degrade the usability of the product.

Myth No. 4: If users like a feature or a function on their desktop devices, they’re going to love it on their mobile devices

What people do on a desktop is different from what people do on a mobile device. For instance, few health care workers want to do any kind of analysis on a mobile device that wasn’t designed to perform that task.  Software developers need to match the user’s needs with the device, Chapman said.

Myth No. 5: If clinicians are allowed to customize their screens, they’ll be happy with their systems

Sure, you want to allow some customization, Chapman said. But when a vendor says the user can customize the whole system “they are being lazy,” she said. Here, again, vendors need to figure out what clinicians really need in a system and then design their systems accordingly.

Myth No. 6: Usability is subjective

But that’s simply not the case, said Staggers. The reality is that usability can be measured objectively. Look at performance time. Look at the training time. Compare the number of keystrokes it takes to do a task on one system versus the next, she said. Check out user satisfaction ratings. Consider how many people are needed on a help desk to support a product.

Myth No. 7: Usability is only about a pretty face

The reality is that the user experience is deeper than the user interface.  It includes a solid understanding of the way users think and do work, Staggers said, which should be embedded in the structure of the whole application and reflected on the user interface. Usability also includes interoperability and other technical capabilities that allow users to work effectively, efficiently and with satisfaction, Staggers said.  

Myth No. 8: Usability stifles innovation

Look at Apple, Staggers said. Apple understands what users want and continues to be one of the most innovative companies in the world.  Yet its products are easy to use.

Myth No. 9: Usability is the sole responsibility of the vendor

There’s a lot of finger pointing when it comes to usability, Staggers said. But, she added, usability is a shared responsibility. “We need to partner with our vendors,” she said.

Myth No. 10: Meaningful Use Stage 2 is a year away – we have time to develop new systems

Yes, the government did push back the next EHR adoption milestone. However, Chapman said, creating usable applications takes time. Any user-centered design process involves several steps, she said, including analysis, the actual design and evaluation. You need to start preparing now, she added.

This story originally appeared at Health Data Management.

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