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Involving the Community in Your Technology Research

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When it comes to technology development, I am consistently surprised by how little actual user-testing is done. And by “users” I mean the real end-user; the community of healthcare professionals and/or the patients. I generally work with an older population and, unfortunately, many tech companies have written them off as individuals who will never embrace “technology” (so why try?).  If this is true,  I posit that it has less to do with the older person’s resistance to technology and more to do with physical limitations like “tapping the tiny buttons” on a smart phone (or in my mother’s case “stabbing” the buttons) or reading the small font on the screen. Either way, they aren’t good enough reasons to give up on the older set.

In order to bridge the design gap between users and innovators, a gating item in your project plan should be end-user feedback. Getting this formative feedback earlier in your design process will save you lots of pain, suffering and dollars in the process of meeting user needs. While working with industry partners has its own culture, working in the community is completely different.  It’s like the difference between working in the lab with mice versus working in the clinic with real people. Scientific principles may be the same, but the execution and personalism is very different – no offense to the mice.

I learned this lesson through time spent working in community-based participatory research (CBPR).  If you’re not familiar with the social sciences, CBPR is a collaborative approach to research that equitably involves all partners in the research process and recognizes the unique strengths that each brings. CBPR begins with a research topic of importance to the community and has the aim of combining knowledge with action and achieving social change to improve health outcomes and eliminate health disparities (1). The key here is the collaborative approach.

Sure, in traditional health technology research, there may not be a goal of “social change” but the concept of collaboration is equally fundamental.  CBPR is an orientation to research that alters the relationship between the researchers and the research participants. While traditional research positions academicians as the arbiters of who has the appropriate knowledge to define research and who is qualified to perform it, in CBPR there is mutual ownership of the research process and products as well as shared decision making (2).

Can you imagine an endeavor in technology where end-users had that type of role in the process?  I’m not sure I’ve seen that (if you have, please post in the comments of this blog!), but what I have seen are the “baby steps” of bringing in unique end-users to give feedback on design, usability and feasibility on product development. This collaborative approach is a gift to your development team.

Like any mutually beneficial and respectful relationship, there are keys to success. And because no self-respecting blog goes without a list, here’s five keys to maintaining a strong community relationship with an engaged community partner:

  1. Do a little homework – know your audience.  You don’t want to embarrass the user. Don’t assume what they can or cannot do. Get to know their literacy level, physical limitations, etc. Your understanding of this will make for better feedback as well as a demonstration of respect for human dignity.
  2. Respect their time – their time is as valuable as yours.  Whether retired, unemployed, or volunteers, you should respect the collaborator’s time.  Let them know you value their participation by paying for it.  Something as nominal as a small gift card acknowledges that they “gave” their time to you and you value it. Do I need to say this? Thank them.
  3. Listen – you asked for their feedback, now listen!  Even if you don’t want to hear that your beautiful new version won’t work for people with tremors, you need to hear it now. Believe me, you need to hear such feedback.
  4. Teams should get to know each other – isn’t it easier to work with folks you come to know?  My engineering partners, who rarely get exposure to the end-user, appreciate seeing the direct line to their hard work. Community collaborators usually think it’s pretty cool to see how the “sausage is made” and feel as if they are part of that process…because they are!
  5. In it for the long-haul, so loop back around – let these collaborators know what came of their design input. It’s human nature to want to know the next chapter of the story and they were part of the beginning, so show them the end. They will be a lot more likely to help you the next time you need feedback.

The pay-off for collaborating with your end-users can be immense. There is high value and often undiscovered “pearls” you will find in working with these folks, not to mention the credibility you’re building within your community. Incorporating end-user feedback into your project plan will save you time and hopefully avoid hearing “if only we knew about this sooner.”

 


 

1 Community Health Scholars Program goals and competencies.  Ann Arbor (MI):  University of Michigan School of Public Health: [cited 2007 Mar 12]. Available from http://www.sph.umich.edu/chsp/program/index.shtml

2 Minkler M, Wallerstein N. Community-based participatory research for health. San Francisco (CA):  Jossey-Bass; 2003.

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