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Usability and usefulness part 1

It’s the one universal pitfall of tech startups: focusing on building a usable product, rather than a useful one.

Usability and usefulness part 1
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It’s the one universal pitfall of tech startups: focusing on building a usable product, rather than a useful one. We see this problem across the board (remember the Segway? Yeah, that thing) but it’s particularly common in agtech — and a massive impediment to the uptake of new innovations in the sector.

Drone technology’s a good example. When it initially hit the market, it got a lot of hype — and why not? The potential for it to have huge impacts on farming seemed clear. But in its actual on-farm application, it was difficult to use.

Those brave souls who did adopt drone tech early had to learn not just how to fly the drone properly, but how to get it to do a quality scan, and then how to process all the photos, potentially in a separate piece of software that, for example, detected weeds. With that done (phew!) they’d have to set up another drone, fill it with the right herbicide, and then fly that drone out to spray — with skill and precision, obviously. Finally, they’d probably still have to do another scan down the track to make sure that the spraying had worked.

Exhausting right? In this scenario, spraying is basically an ordeal. The upskilling required is mammoth because the product is not usable. A farmer would need to see an enormous benefit (aka “usefulness”) to take the time to learn, and without direct intervention from the drone makers, that benefit would probably be hard to get a handle on. And the result was that a lot of drones wound up in the shed collecting dust…

Now, picture this perhaps utopian product launch scenario: on release to market, the drone can automatically go out, do a flight path, detect weeds, come back, transmit that data to another drone (or use it itself), fill up with the specific spray needed for that weed profile, and go out again to spray the affected area. Much simpler, right? This level of usability makes the usefulness of the solution much more obvious.

But wait. What is usability and how does it differ from usefulness? I don’t want to bombard you with terminology, so let’s take a look at usability today, and come back to usefulness tomorrow.

Usability defined: Simply put, usability is a measure of ease of use. How quickly can a farmer pick up the product and complete the design task or aims that a specific product promotes? The easier your product is to use, the more “usable” it is, and product designers have all kinds of objective ways to measure this. Sounds straightforward, right? Well, not always.

I think of usability as being a bit like “common sense”: while it sounds universal, it’s often contextual. The skills, education, and background of the person using the technology have a big impact on perceptions of its usability. On top of that, having someone to show you how to use the technology the first time you see it — the good old product demo — can also hugely influence how usable you think that technology is.

Recently, I talked about GPS guidance systems on tractors. They’re a great example of usable agtech. The system can be attached to an existing bit of machinery in the farmer’s shed, like a tractor, that they’re perfectly familiar with. Then, the technology improves the performance of an action the farmer’s already doing. So, it’s a step up and an obvious one. The barriers to getting started, in terms of upskilling and so on, are low.

But what about the humble soil sensor? It’s easy to use, too: stick it in the ground and off you go. It gives you a reading — acidity, moisture, what have you — and you can pick it up and understand what it’s telling you. It’s usable … but how useful is that reading?

I’ll unpack this question in part 2 of this post. But for now, let me know what your take is on this definition of “usability” and what you think makes an innovation truly “useful”.