I guess it’s grumpy old man time but I am really beginning to get hacked off with general ignorance (with apologies to Stephen Fry) about usability.
So rather than just grumble in the corner, I have decided to demolish five of the most persistent myths about usability.
Usability is about making things easy
No it’s not! Although some usability professionals also get this wrong. Usability, as defined by international consensus on best practice (ISO 9241-11), is about making products effective, efficient and satisfying for their users.
Rocket ship controls should be usable but no-one expects flying a rocket to be easy. Confusing usability with ease of use marginalises it and makes it merely a desirable quality. Products which don’t work because they are unusable are a useless failure, not just a bit difficult to use.
Usability is only about testing products with users before releasing them to the market
Yes, user testing is an important part of usability, but usability methods can and should be used as part of a human centred design approach; to derive user requirements, to drive initial concept design and to guide the entire development process, as well as test the product before it hits the market.
Usability is about asking users what they want
Again, consulting users can be part of the human centred design process but that is not the same as just asking them what they think. Of course, users are the best source of information about what will work for them but you do not get at that by just asking them. People are notorious for saying one thing and doing another.
Getting input from users is very important but it needs to be systematic and structured. Following a disciplined and systematic method is not the same as asking a few friends if they like your product.
Usability slows down development
No. Applying human centred design methods may mean that initial ideas are subject to real world scrutiny early and that may indeed slow down the initial process - with good reason. If the initial design was wrong, discovering this before too much work has been done will save time and money later.
Concepts can often be altered by making a few tweaks to a sketch whereas once code has been developed or tooling committed, changes become very expensive and time consuming. All our experience is that overall development is speeded up as blind alleys are avoided.
Usability stifles creativity
No! Usability methods can work hand in hand with creativity. Of course you are unlikely to get an innovative solution from a focus group or user testing, why would you expect to? But creative solutions need to be tested to check that they are as clever as their originators believe.
Creative people need to know what problem needs to be solved which usability methods can help refine and define. Kekule allegedly came up with the discovery that benzine molecules formed a ring after dreaming of snakes biting each other’s tails. No doubt other tortured souls had similar dreams but they were not trying to understand benzine’s structure at the time.
So, enough grumpy old man. Please do not confuse usability with a luxury, a last minute user test, asking users what they like, something which slows down development or a creativity killer. And don’t get me started on why having a rigorous and systematic approach to usability provides great commercial advantage and should NOT be confused with being academic.