Improved cookstoves have been designed and disseminated for several decades in an effort to address the human health and environmental issues caused by the inefficient, traditional biomass cooking and heating methods used by 40% of the world’s people. Engineers and designers working on these improved stoves have tended to focus on technical design criteria, such as improved fuel and combustion efficiency, but neglect aspects that are important to cooks, such as usability. If a stove design does not meet a cook’s needs and preferences, however, the stove will likely be used only as a supplement to a traditional stove, or not used at all. As a result, improved cookstoves have often fallen short in efforts to reduce harm to health and the environment.
A testing protocol for cookstove usability was developed to help stove designers and implementers consider and evaluate user needs more effectively. The proposed protocol is based on established usability practices from product and software design, and uses anthropological testing methods to increase validity in cross-cultural testing applications, where the test administrator and stove user come from different backgrounds. Tests include objective measurements and observation, as well as subjective survey and semi-structured interview questions. Usability criteria are generally assessed with paired Likert scale survey questions that elicit both user perception of a given criteria, as well as their relative importance. These results are supplemented by interview questions and objective measurements, wherever possible, to identify potential bias in the results.
Preliminary validation and refinement of the protocol was accomplished through a study in Northern Uganda, which included 10 rural and urban households and 2 institutional kitchens. Key outcomes from the study included improvements to the language used in survey and interview questions, restructuring of questions dealing with location-specific stove functions, the adoption of a conversational test administration format to increase participant comfort and the likely quality of responses, and the development of alternative testing procedures to allow for laboratory testing and less time-intensive field testing options. The protocol was further calibrated on a sample of stove designs at the Aprovecho Research Center in the United States. Through the field testing process and feedback from local expert test administrators in Uganda, these trials demonstrated that the protocol is a viable tool for increasing the understanding of cookstove usability and highlighted opportunities for additional research to validate, expand, and improve the protocol. The protocol is undergoing additional trials and review by several international development organizations in 2018. Elements of the protocol are also being incorporated into an International Standards Organization standard for cookstove testing, and it will be hosted on the websites of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and Oregon State University.
In addition, the methods used by the protocol elicited data from field study participants regarding their attitudes towards improved cookstoves and the relative importance of reducing air pollution and fuel use in the larger context of their lives. This information may be invaluable for better understanding the stove stacking and low adoption rates experienced by many cookstove projects. The interdisciplinary approach may be replicated in other work to increase the accessibility of user input in international development more broadly.