Usability as a driver for technology impact


Indoor air pollution as a result of cooking with biomass and other polluting fuels has been found culpable of causing approximately 4 million deaths annually. In addition, fuel collection and smoke emissions have also been shown to degrade environmental quality thus contributing to regional and global climatic change. For decades, improved cookstoves have been designed and distributed with the goal of addressing the human health and the aforementioned environmental issues caused by traditional biomass cooking. Nonetheless, majority of these designs have failed to produce the intended impact. Such failure can be attributed to the fact that engineers tend to focus on technical attributes of cookstove designs, such as: improved fuel and combustion efficiency, while at the same time neglecting usability. As such, the stove design does not meet the cook’s needs, consequently, the stove is likely to be used as a supplement to a traditional stove or not used at all. Therefore, a cookstove testing protocol should be created to help assess the usability of a stove.

Recently a novel cookstove testing protocol was proposed by Oregon State University researchers Nicholas Moses, Mohammad Pakravan and Dr. Nordica MacCarty where they suggested an alternative approach that was based on established usability practices from fields such as software and consumer product design, as well as usability criteria taken from existing cookstove research and interviews with subject experts. They focused on resolving the drawbacks that go unnoticed in the production of modern cookstoves and thus improve on their adoption and usability rate. Their work is currently published in the research journal, Energy for Sustainable Development.

Their approach incorporated ethnographic testing methods from the field of anthropology in a bid to make the protocol more appropriate for cross-cultural applications, as well as adaptive to a wide range of testing scenarios. In particular, their protocol included objective measurements and observation, as well as subjective survey and semi-structured interview questions. Generally, the usability criteria were assessed with paired Likert scale survey questions that elicited user perceptions of criteria, as well as the relative importance of each.

Specifically, the approach entailed the classification of cookstove usability into six main criteria, each with multiple sub-criteria, to provide both a high-level and more detailed framework for assessing usability. The presented criteria were then evaluated with subjective survey and interview-based testing methods, as well as objective, quantitative methods when possible. A weighted average score for each main usability criterion was then calculated from corresponding sub-criteria results and a relative importance assigned to each sub-criterion by respondents.

In summary, a protocol intended to offer practitioners an accessible method to increase their understanding of user needs and how effectively a cookstove meets them in a given context was presented. Generally, an acceptable and feasible cookstove testing approach was proposed and developed. Altogether, the improved understanding of the usability of modern cookstoves gained should allow designers and implementers to better balance technical and user needs in cooking systems.

Usability as a driver for technology impact - Advances in Engineering

About the author

Dr. Nordica MacCarty is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Oregon State University where she is an active contributor to the growing humanitarian engineering program. Her research is focused on the design and evaluation of clean water and energy projects for the developing world with particular attention to usability and sensor-based impact monitoring. Many of her graduate students are earning dual degrees in mechanical engineering and applied anthropology, and are using techniques from social entrepreneurship to commercialize technologies developed in her lab.

Her research and teaching efforts are funded by the National Science Foundation, VentureWell program, and other private and university foundations, and she was recently recognized with the Elevating Impact Award for social entrepreneurship from the Lemelson Foundation.

She serves as faculty co-advisor for OSU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter and Associate Editor for the journal Energy for Sustainable Development. Prior to joining the OSU faculty in 2015, she spent nearly 10 years as an international consultant building capacity at projects and universities around the world for the design and testing of renewable household energy systems. She earned her MS and Ph.D from Iowa State University as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

About the author

Nick Moses is currently the director of the non-profit cookstove manufacturing firm, Institutional Energy Solutions, and will be working in Kenya for the next year designing and manufacturing institutional cookstoves with BURN Manufacturing. He has also received and deferred a doctoral position in the interdisciplinary Design Science department at the University of Michigan slated to begin in Fall 2020. Nick earned his MS in mechanical engineering and applied anthropology from Oregon State University in 2018 with Dr. MacCarty by completing research focused on developing a usability protocol for improved cookstoves to help encourage more user-friendly designs and improved adoption rates. Prior to graduate school, Nick served as the lead engineer for the cookstove manufacturing firm InStove and as an executive board member of Engineers Without Borders at Oregon State as an undergraduate student. He has traveled and worked extensively in the developing world.


Nicholas D. Moses, Mohammad H. Pakravan, Nordica A. MacCarty. Development of a practical evaluation for cookstove usability. Energy for Sustainable Development, volume 48 (2019) page 154–163.

Go To Energy for Sustainable Development

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