Usability and usefulness: What agtech needs to succeed, Part 2

Usability and usefulness: What agtech needs to succeed, Part 2

Recently, I explained some of the barriers agtech innovators face — and need to address — as they develop products for the market.

We looked specifically at the definition of usability, which, as you’ll recall, was an actual measure of the product’s ease of use. We saw that there were a few different factors that influenced this, from individuals’ contexts and prior experiences to product demonstrations.

Now, let’s compare ‘usability‘ with ‘usefulness’ and see where that leaves us.

What is usefulness? In Part 1, I discussed the humble — and highly usable — soil sensor, which, once you put it into the earth, reads whatever it’s designed to. So, how useful is it? The data that a soil sensor gives the farmer is there to help them make better decisions. But making a better decision isn’t just a thought process: it’s an action.

When the farmer uses the soil data they get from the sensor, and makes a choice to irrigate, we’d better hope they’ve got the sensor talking to a localised weather station and an irrigation system. Otherwise, they might miss the best opportunity to irrigate altogether. And, well, that’s not so useful…

Usefulness is ultimately about value. It’s tied to whether the technology can enhance the current performance of that farmer and their system. The soil sensor might be very usable, but how much can it enhance farm performance if it’s not connected to the weather station and irrigation system?

Optimising for usability and usefulness. Usefulness becomes clearest when technology is integrated — when one reading influences the decision to operate another bit of technology.

The soil sensor we just talked about is very usable — normally, the only challenge is getting it installed and set up. But once that’s done and integrated with other related technologies, the sensor can send alerts to the farmer’s phone, for example, to tell them the soil needs irrigation before they apply fertiliser. They don’t have to interfere with the system. It deals with existing activities the farmer already knows very well. They don’t even need to look very closely at the data because the sensor technology has made sense of it already. All they need to do is make the decision and act on it.

The choice is made easy by the sensor product. And through integrating that tech with other related systems, the farmer can act on the decision — they can irrigate at the right time — almost effortlessly. That’s where we get true usefulness.

What are the most useful innovations in agtech that you’ve seen recently? And where do you think a product might need more work to build either usefulness or usability? I’d love to hear your thoughts.