On Usability

Some of my most popular blog posts have been rants on poor usability. That such rants from a layman are popular and accurate reflects poorly on the current state of product and software design. It’s as if consumer electronics and software were astronaut tools, designed by earthbound marketroids with no knowledge of microgravity.

Yet usability is not astroscience.

I wouldn’t call myself a usability professional, but I’m happy to take on the mantle of usability expert. As should you. In my mind, all users are usability experts, and have a duty to speak out against poor usability and product design. After all, what is usability if not the ability for casual consumers to get the most from a product? And who better to decide the success of that product’s design than the casual user?

Instead, we’ve fallen into a lazy, disinterested mode of consumption. We put up with crap design and poor usability in exchange for ubiquity and “innovative consumer-driven synergistic marketing opportunities” – products and designs foisted on us because we fall into some definition of a particular market segment. It’s an extension of what Paul Lukas calls inconspicuous consumption:
[quote]It’s about deconstructing the details of consumer culture — details that are either so weird or obscure that we’d never see them, or so ubiquitous that we’ve essentially stopped seeing them. This can mean anything from a bizarre canned good, like sauerkraut juice, to a beautifully designed light-industrial object that we’ve always taken for granted, like the Brannock Device (that gizmo they use to measure your shoe size).[/quote]
Poor Bathroom DesignIn the same way, we’ve stopped caring about the way our products are designed. We assume that modern shampoo bottles have to be aerodynamic, and that electronic volume controls have to be buttons. We take it as given that registration is required on many websites, and that every software package must have a hundreds of different “options” in the preferences pane.

Sure, it’s not entirely our own fault as consumers. The modern marketing industry exists largely to induce us to buy products that we don’t need. This in turn has created the fallacy of visual product “design” over function.

Wait! Before the cadre of designers come down on me like a ton of 2B pencils, let me be clear: pure aesthetic design is glorious. I love the whimsy and art of items that have no physical purpose other than to look good. What I do hold quarrel with are products that have a design completely at odds with their function. These bulbous, pointless packages exist purely because of supermarkets. Yes, supermarkets. Stay with me here. The competition for sales of consumer goods in supermarkets (and other super-stores) is intense. Manufacturers will pay for the privilege of having their products at eye level. So if you can have a bright green, globular hair gel bottle that attracts the eye of a consumer, you will. Who cares if half the product is inaccessible unless one has serpentine digits?

Ford PintoBut we do have crap products largely because we accept them. It’s only the abject failures or truly dangerous products like the Ford Pinto that get “outed” for poor usability (if you can call the lack of being burnt alive as positive usability). Some would argue that we bring this upon ourselves with our demand for $49 DVD players and disposable cell phones. I don’t buy it. The effort required to put excellent design into a cheap product will be returned tenfold when that product becomes a runaway success due to its cheap price and brilliant usability.

So I say stand up for yourself Mr Consumer! Don’t be scared to speak out if you find a product difficult or just counter-intuitive. Don’t be scared to offend designers or usability professionals. In some cases even the best designer hasn’t quite understood exactly how you use that particular product, and they’d love to hear from you. You understand when a volume dial is better than a button – without knowing the intricacies of how a rotary encoder works. And you shouldn’t have to find a way to lodge your shampoo bottle upside-down between the soap dish and shower head, when everyone in the developed world knows that at some stage, every shampoo bottle will be stood on its head.

Usability. It’s just not that hard kids.

4 Comments

  1. Great post – I have to agree that everyone is a “usability expert”. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes difficult to get that feedback from that consumer expert. Buying behavior is influenced by so many factors that good or poor usability may not be tweezed out… How can we as usability professionals get the feedback we need and how can consumers easily provide the feedback they want to give? Usability studies, contextual inquiries, ethnographical studies all have their downsides – useful yes, but oftentimes influenced by the Hawthorne effect…

    Nice post… looking forward to more!
    Mike

  2. Yeah, it's an interesting topic.

    You'd think that companies that seek the most input from their 'usability experts' (aka comsumers) would have the most successful products, yet one company that consistently scores very highly on the usability index for its products does virtually no market research, focus groups or public betas.

    I'm referring of course to Apple, where the popular perception is that you get what Steve Jobs thinks you should have.

    I guess it helps that the guy seems to have a genius for consumer product conception and styling, as well as an anal need to control every aspect of the product production andquality.

    I have no idea how true the popular myths are, but certainly you never see an Apple product until his Jobness decides it's ready.

    (Which is not to say he always gets it right – Hockey puck mouse anyone?)

    By contrast the Microsoft approach has always been to seed their products widely in progressively public field releases and iterative improvement of the products once they go public.

    This means of course that the inevitable warts in pre and early production versions are very public and there can be a fair amount of poor press and user discomfort while they are squashed.

    Certainly products from Cupertino are shinier once they come out the door than those from Redmond.

    Having said that,Win 7 and Windows server 2K8 have got to be the most finished products from MS I've ever seen (and I've worked with everything from DOS 2.0)..

    Not wanting to get into an OS Holy War here, I'm totally neutral on this one, (OK, I'm liking Ubuntu and Windows 7 at the moment, but that's just where my time is spent in my day job. If someone wants to give me a Macbook Pro I'd be happy to play with that too – or if I ever find time to hack up a Hackintosh) however I do understand the nervousness of Apple stockhiolders when Steve sneezes.

  3. If you will allow me, I’d like to use this occasion to rant about the usability of the ASB debit card.

    My main complaint is that is completely counter intuitive and every EFTPOS terminal deals with it diffidently.

    It has a magstip, so you should swipe it, right? Well… not exactly. You can swipe it and then it will ask you to insert it into the chip reader. Of course you could try to be proactive and try to insert without swiping, and that may work occasionally…but not always. And then… there is the random reader that will work by just swiping it. Argh! And don’t even get me started on the location of said chip reader on each terminal.

  4. I so badly need to get myself in gear and launch a blog similar to this one.

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