Exploring usability

Photo of Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer

Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer, photo by Joanne Saad

In summary: 
  • Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer is an industrial designer and Senior Research Fellow with the Designing Out Crime research centre
  • Her research exploring the usability of products is being used to help reframe social problems


Product designers have to think outside the box to design for dynamic and varied uses. One UTS researcher is helping to share this knowledge between design teams, while also considering how designing for different situations could reframe social problems.

It was an inability to answer her phone that inspired industrial designer, and Senior Research Fellow with the Designing Out Crime (DOC) research centre, Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer to explore the usability of products in different situations.

“In the Netherlands it can get quite cold in winter. When I’m outside and someone’s calling my smart phone I can’t pick it up because I’m wearing gloves and can’t swipe the screen,” explains van der Bijl-Brouwer.

“Mobile phones end up in many situations, and these situations pose many requirements on the design. Was the designer aware this was going to happen to the product? And if so, did they think how they could solve the issue?”

This question was the starting point of van der Bijl-Brouwer’s 2012 PhD at the Netherlands’ University of Twente and her current work exploring usability – the change of situations, in time and space, for different versions of the same product.

“When you look into design theory around the usability of a product and the user experience, the theories say you must define in advance who the user is, what they’re going to use it for, and under what circumstances.

“In practice you can’t really do this as certain products are used in endless situations,” she explains. “My question was: how do designers deal with that?”

Through a retrospective study of three design projects, van der Bijl-Brouwer discovered that even though members of the design teams had their own ideas and knowledge from past experiences, or feedback from family and friends, they weren’t sharing them.

“You have these multidisciplinary teams in design – a visual designer, an expert in usability, a marketer, a technical engineer – all working on one product. Personal and past experiences of previous projects help construct a frame of reference for usability evaluation. However, this knowledge is often not communicated between design team members. I wondered whether I could do something to support making this knowledge explicit.”

Then an Assistant Professor at the University of Twente, van der Bijl-Brouwer collaborated with two Dutch colleagues – Assistant Professor Stella Boess from Delft University of Technology and Christelle Harkema, a PhD student at the Eindhoven University of Technology – to develop The Envisioning Use workshop as part of her PhD. Its step-by-step strategies allow a design team to develop a shared vision.

“There’s ‘remembering,’ where participants share stories about use, either personally experienced or observed through other people. Then ‘imagining,’ where you give the group pictures of possible users of a product in random environments and ask what that would mean for the design of the product.

“‘Experiencing’ is another important step; make the team members active and use role-play to define a scenario. For example, try to take pictures with an actual camera while pretending to snowboard and see what the results are.” 

Van der Bijl-Brouwer has since applied the half-day Envisioning Use workshop techniques, and a free, downloadable booklet offered to designers as a user guide, to a number of Dutch companies in real product development cases. She also developed a set of guidelines that outline how designers can use already-established techniques to gain insight into a variety of use situations.

“Probing is one well-known method in design research. You give users a diary and a camera and ask them to take notes for a couple of weeks recording the ways in which they’re using the camera and any interesting situations.”

Van der Bijl-Brouwer says a designer can never fully get inside all design use situations. Instead, they must pick out the use situations that are most relevant and question if the situation is meaningful to the design.

“Look at a carrier bike, a popular mode of transport in the Netherlands. It’s basically a bike with a box at the front used to transport things – most commonly children. I asked student teams from the University of Twente to redesign this bike by means of the guidelines, then analysed how this played out.”

Instead of just looking at how they could protect the children from different weather conditions, the students looked into the emotional characteristics of children, the relationship between child and parent, and what this meant for the design of the product.

“For really young children, they considered how important it is for them to have visual contact with the parent. For slightly older children it’s more important for them to be able to see and explore the world. When you consider wet weather conditions, the first thought would be to put a closed hood on the carrier box.

“The students then came up with a hood that’s open at the back, facing the parent, allowing them to protect the child from the rain and the wind and still communicate with them.”

While van der Bijl-Brouwer calls it “exploring usability”, DOC Director Kees Dorst calls it “reframing”. And it’s what has brought van der Bijl-Brouwer to UTS.

“Kees has been studying designers for so many years. He found designers who are good at this reframing come up with much better designs, so he thought, if you can reframe a problem, you can come up with new solutions. But can we not also do that with things that are not product-related?

“If you look at problems of crime as a designer, would you come up with different solutions than if you looked at it as a non-designer? DOC have developed many projects around design thinking, crime and reframing solutions. We’re now looking at best approaches and methods and the broader applications of this, besides crime.”

Building on her experiences with DOC, van der Bijl-Brouwer has plans in the pipeline to translate these insights to design teams in traditionally non-design practices such as social innovation.

“In social innovation projects, many different stakeholders collaborate to solve a certain social problem. Though there may also be a similar lack of this ‘knowledge sharing’ as in multidisciplinary product development teams.

“My approaches to exploring usability may hopefully support this sharing of knowledge to collectively reframe social problems. One of the things I hope to research here at UTS is whether that connection can be made.”

Technology and Design