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Building Better Technology

February 26, 2003

Technology has invaded our lives to the point that just about everything - from ATMs to dishwashers to the television remote control - requires the use of technology. But as anyone who has struggled to reset their clock radio or gotten lost on a web site can testify, many of today's high-tech products just aren't easy for people to use.

"People joke about being unable to program their VCR or microwave, but it's really a bigger issue," says Bill Gribbons, associate professor of Information Design at Bentley College. "The focus for most manufacturers has been on designing a product that does something, rather than designing a product with the end user in mind. So we have a variety of products - from web sites to telephones to cars - that are ridiculously difficult for the consumer to use."

In Bentley's Design and Usability Center (DUC) faculty, consultants and students have been working for three years to help companies improve the usability of their products. From March 10-14, the DUC will tackle their biggest (physically, at least) product to date.

Participants in Bentley's innovative Usability Boot Camp will spend a week testing a supermarket self-checkout machine. Productivity Solutions, Inc., a supplier of Automated Checkout Machines to Stop & Shop and BJ's Wholesale Clubs, will ship an entire supermarket checkout lane to the college for evaluation during the weeklong program. Participants will put the machine through a battery of tests and make recommendations to the manufacturer on how to improve the machine to make it easier for customers to use.

Gribbons says usability testing is particularly important for products that seek to perform customer service roles. Like automated teller machines and self-serve gasoline stations, self-checkout machines are a concept that has been introduced primarily to replace the cost of human labor.

"These machines may result in savings for the supermarket, but there is no obvious value to the consumer," Gribbons says. "And with no obvious value, there is no incentive for customers to tolerate usability problems. If customers encounter a problem with the self-checkout machines, they just won't use them again. Because of this added burden, manufacturers have to pay particular attention to making sure self-checkout machines are as easy and intuitive to use as possible."

Gribbons says he thinks usability will continue to be a hot issue with manufacturers and consumers. Demand for consulting in the DUC has skyrocketed and Gribbons has been called on to talk about usability issues in the media.

"Good information and product design begins by considering user's goals and what they value most, and then designing a system that satisfies those needs in the simplest possible fashion," Gribbons says. "When companies fail to do that, the product is far less likely to be successful in an increasingly more demanding marketplace."

Bentley's nonprofit Design and Usability Center, the only such center on a college campus, allows corporate clients to test system designs and gain user feedback on web sites, software and other technology products. Founded in 2000, the center has provided usability consulting to companies including, H&R Block, Fleet Financial and MIT's alumni association.

BENTLEY UNIVERSITY is one of the nation’s leading business schools, dedicated to preparing a new kind of business leader – one with the deep technical skills, broad global perspective, and high ethical standards required to make a difference in an ever-changing world. Our rich, diverse arts and sciences program, combined with an advanced business curriculum, prepares informed professionals who make an impact in their chosen fields. Located on a classic New England campus minutes from Boston, Bentley is a dynamic community of leaders, scholars and creative thinkers. The Graduate School emphasizes the impact of technology on business practice, in offerings that include MBA and Master of Science programs, PhD programs in accountancy and in business, and customized executive education programs. The university enrolls approximately 4,100 full-time undergraduate, 140 adult part-time undergraduate, 1,430 graduate, and 43 doctoral students. Bentley is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; and the European Quality Improvement System, which benchmarks quality in management and business education. For more information, please visit

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