— 12 July 2004 —

Usable, Not Usabile

Sometimes I am a designer. Most of the time though I am just a user.

I can be looking at a site and not even see the link to the conference information that should have been easy to find. I get frustrated that I cannot find it, and when I do find it (after it has been pointed out to me by someone else sometimes) I feel annoyed and dumb. The feeling of annoyance stays with me, but thanks to all that usability and human factors training I don’t feel dumb for long; I immediately blame the interface.

There is no such thing as a dumb user. Yes, there are cases where the user’s goals will never line up with the goals of the product/service, and there are factors out of your control as a designer that the interface simply cannot compensate for. But in almost all cases, responsibility for an inability to find what one is looking for rests solely on the interface and those who designed and built it.

I am in the lucky position of having this training. Most people don’t have it. So they continue to feel dumb.

  • I can’t make it work.
  • I can’t find it.
  • I am not smart enough to make it work.

Nice. Ever had someone say this about one of the things you designed? I have. Luckily it was only in usability testing and we were able to fix most everything. However, due to constraints and other insistent methodologies, I am never around during actual use so I am sure there are moments when a user of my design says, “I don’t know what I am supposed to do next.” To you, gentle user, I apologise. You shouldn’t feel dumb, useless, or impaired by the design of anything. You shouldn’t encounter a 90% chance of an error when navigating from one page to the next. You shouldn’t have to wait, and wait, and wait as the application makes one more unnecessary call to the server. You shouldn’t have to avoid using your Web-enabled phone because we designed the site with only IE in mind.

The thing is, a lot of the time that is me. And if I know how hard it can be sometimes to develop a usable (hah! Originally I typed “usabile” – patent pending) system. So if most people don’t know anything about design and usability, that must mean that most people spend their days with minor frustrations and moments of “dumb” that build up throughout the day.

You know what this means? We as designers and usabilityers are driving people slowly insane. We contribute to the reasons people seek counseling. We contribute to the levels of stress that give people heart disease and brain clouds. Now, you may be asking yourself, “But Matthew, what can I, a lowly cog in the corporate/freelance world do to help?”

Talk about design that meets the goals of the people who will be using your product or service. You will have to tell them over and over again because for the first 21 times they won’t listen to you. Then one day they will have an idea out of the blue. “Maybe we should find out what the users really do, not just what the procedures say they do.” At this point you can smile, inwardly say, “I told you this a year ago,” and outwardly say, “Good idea.”

You, designer and a usabilityer, impact a piece of an actual person’s world. Depending on what you help create, you may be impacting in a large or small way, but that impact is relative to the context of the person.

Care about your users; don’t try to be them (as so many newbies make the mistake of doing) but stick up for them against the idiotic ideas that come out of companies left and right. I know there are a few companies that believe in the tag line, “We’re not about making money, we’re about making customers,” but they are not the rule. Don’t get me wrong, I want the companies I work with to make money. Because if they make money, I make money. But I don’t think that money should come at the expense of making someone feel stupid. You make someone feel stupid, they may over time start to relate their feeling to your product/service. How much money do you think you will make then? Huh, punk?

A company’s reputation feeds as much into its ability to turn a profit as does the things it creates in its operations. Your design should take that into account. The people who approve your deliverables should understand that. The people that sign the cheques should demand it. And the people who end up using what you design should never even think consciously about it.

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