There’s more than one kind of usability

The science of usability is, along with OS development, one of the most fascinating topics which I’ve studied on my own to date. Knowledge of it has enlighted my everyday life, by making me stop angrily screaming at devices in frustration and start to meticulously analyze them in a cold-blooded fashion until I finally find out what, exactly, in this piece of tech I’m playing with, makes it so painful to use.

It is just fascinating how infrequently product designers (especially those who work on software UIs) seem to have actually had a curious look at a book on the subject. As an example, it is common for websites to still expose classic usability problems that were known long before the existence of computers, like controls that are too small for comfortable use, an excessive amount of irreversible operations, ambiguously placed labels, and inadequate control colors and shapes. To mention another field of software engineering, anyone who wants to understand why consistency is so important for usability experts only has to play with a modern smartphone running Android or iOS and download a handful of applications on it. And should I talk about more physical product like this alarm clock next to my bed, where the button for setting up minutes is on the left and the button for setting up hours is on the right, whereas on the LED display they are naturally shown in the reverse order ?

Thankfully, the situation is improving. Awareness of usability problems and their importance gradually rises, as HCI lectures become mandatory parts of CS and engineering courses, companies use alleged superior usability as a selling arguments, and more educated modern users learn to explain in a more detailed fashion what they don’t like in a given product.

The battle is not yet won, though. That more people want to learn about usability is great, however care must be taken that these curious persons do not get a false idea of usability in their mind that would make them no more than a predictable marketing target. In particular, a rising tendency is for users to believe that usability is a universal science which describes how to make things work optimally for all human beings without any other compromise than the monetary one being at stake. That given infinite funding, and an infinitely talented usability expert who has an infinite amount of time at hand, it would possible to make a product that’s perfectly usable for everyone. This way of thought is best pictured by the well-known grandma analogy : “If my grandma and/or my six-year-old child may use it, it must be fantastically usable”.

Aside from being exceedingly derogatory to elder and young people, this analogy has the problem that it only sees one side of the usability coin. Approximately one half of ergonomics is just what this is believed : a field of applied psychology focused on making interfaces as human-friendly as possible. Grasping this half gives a strong feeling of personal achievement, knowledge, and power. However, it should not make those interested in usability forget about the second half : optimizing for THE target user basz.

Let’s give a simple example for those who are not convinced of the importance of this part : my grandma has some bad sight and needs a magnifier to read normally-shaped text. On her computer, text is configured to be aproximately 2x as big as it is on our average computer. Now, try enabling 2x zoom in your web browser, witness the result, notice how much you have lost in terms of displayed information and the extra amount of scrolling that you now have to do because of this, and wonder : is what’s good for your grandmother always that good for you ?

That frequently-mentioned 6-year-old dude is just as problematic. To adapt software to the knowledge and cognitive capabilities of children, manufacturers have to add lots of explanations for the simplest tasks, spoken if possible, and to use a highly metaphoric language that explains concepts that we can invoke with one or two words in terms that a child may understand. Add to this the highly colorful environments and funny noises that young children like a lot, and let me ask this again : do you really want it on your own computer ? Personally, I don’t.

There’s a reason why we have user testing, personas, and (flawed) market analysis. There are many kinds of users, with many different needs, and half of the task of a true usability expert is to help the project leaders define what the the target audience is find out and how he can optimize for it. Different users have different needs, and generic knowledge of the human being, although useful, is not sufficient when one has truly outstanding UIs in mind.

With this in mind, one can better understand why a single product can receive both fantastic praise and in-depth criticism by different persons who both seem to have some bulletproof arguments to support their opinion. They simply have different needs, which are more or less nicely fulfilled by the product.

Well, that was my small part to the improvement of usability knowledge on the internet. Hope some curious guys who needed it will read it :)

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