World *usability* day

Jared Spool put his finger on (or close to) something that was bothering me.

“Usability” doesn’t improve the world. In fact, it doesn’t change a thing. […] It’s the practice of design where the change comes from.

I must say, I have a problem with where the word “usability” has ended up.

Usability practitioners have a reputation for being pedantic, and focussed on listing problems rather than proposing solutions. Some of the reputation is deserved. I know many who are quite happy to write down generalised recommendations to usability problems in longhand, rather than engaging with the real complexity of the problem and drawing the answer. Just writing “recomendation: make the submit button easier to find” does not constitute a solution at all in my book.

The term usability was officially defined as “efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction […]” in the ISO document, and the definition referred to “specific users doing specific tasks in specific contexts of use”. Once you understand those words, that covers a lot of ground and shows the very best intentions.

But somehow, usability has ended up, in the minds of many, as being just the “ease of use” part. “Can I find the button?”
The terms User experience and customer experience seem to have won the day. Those terms have a breadth to them that works. They seem to capture something important: that with great product and services, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In some cases, you can have bad parts, and still have a great user experience.
An example. There’s a lovely gastro-pub just down the road. It is decorated with cream wood panelling and amazing pink wallpaper. A warm inviting glow reaches out as you pass in the damp November street. The food is delicious, the wines well selected. Wood fires crackle happily and charming, chunky stoves. The staff are jovial, the customers are happy and all seem to be in the mood for a chat. But when you come to leave, the door need to be pushed, even though it has a pull handle!

Focussing on the handle seems churlish – even pointless. The landlord of the pub has achieved a customer experience which is truly delightful. The unusable handle is insignificant in comparison. At its worst, usability has become associated with people who would obsess about the handle, and miss out on joy of the amazing pub that surrounds it.
But ultimately, as Jared Spool says, you need a verb – design. Sitting around listing problems is at best a first step. Working out viable solutions is better. That’s why I’m proud to have been a small part of the MakingLifeEasy blog, set up for World Usability Day. There’s a lot of intelligent ideas in there for improving the designs that get listed – even the good designs. (Admittedly, the next step would be to include drawings too).  If we’re going to talk about usability for a day, we should be as constructive as possible.
Despite my reservations, I admit that considering usability can still bring joy. I went to visit my sister on the weekend before World Usability Day. She said, “I’m too stupid to know what all those buttons on the microwave do.”

My wife (UX fanatic too) set her straight. “If you can’t use it, it’s the product’s fault, not yours. That’s what usability is all about.”

“Well,” said my sister. “That is a refreshing perspective.”

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