Last November, I sounded off about two things – one was that I did not like the tag line for World Usability Day 2005 – Making IT easy – and the other was that I didn’t think we had much good usability to celebrate.

This year, they have changed the tag line to ‘Making life easy’ and I’m still unhappy.  As I pointed out last year, easy is good but it is not enough.  Technology should also be useful and focusing on ‘easy’ tends to marginalise it.  In today’s competitive times, I can see an IT project manager saying “we would have liked to make the new billing system a bit easier but we really didn’t have time and we did not want to delay it”.  I can see a hard pressed business manager saying “ok, it would have been nice but we didn’t want to wait”.

However, if you use the ISO 9241-11 definition of a usable system as one that is effective, efficient and satisfying for its users (easy is only part of it), then the picture changes.  Can you honestly imagine the project manager saying (out loud) “We know the system is not going to work but we wanted to be able to tick the ‘delivered on time’ box”? And can you imagine the customer saying, “Ok, it would have been nice if it had worked but we’d rather pay for a failed system than take a bit longer getting it right”?  No, of course you can’t, so I still believe that linking usability just to making things easy is a mistake.

Speaking of mistakes, have we made any usability progress since last year?  Well, Apple has brought out a few iPods with yet more memory and features but still with the excellent click wheel.  But has there been progress elsewhere?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  I travel regularly on a new train, which has been upgraded with accessible toilets.  That sounds like progress but every journey is interrupted with a claxon indicating that a disabled user requires assistance.  So far, nothing of the kind has occurred.  Customers keep mistaking the ‘emergency call’ for the toilet flush.  As the harassed conductor mutters under his breath each time “They are always doing that.”  But is this ‘human error’?

Which brings me to the one really good thing that’s linked to World Usability Day this year – the World Usability Day Charter

Ok, so it offers fine sentiments with little real detail on how they can be achieved – a bit like a political party manifesto – which is exactly what it is (without the party bit).  It is a statement about how technology should make life better and how important usability is in achieving such an aim.

One statement which really caught my eye was that: “Human error is a misnomer. Technology should be developed knowing that human beings have certain limitations. Human error will occur if technology is not both easy-to-use and easy-to-understand. We need to reduce human error that results from bad design.”  Of course we could argue that bad design is a result of human error – the error of the designer.

So this year at System Concepts, we decided to offer for free our one day course in User Centred Design aimed at helping designers avoid such problems in the future.  The course has been oversubscribed several times and we already have a long waiting list.  Normally, we would charge about £395 for this course so getting it for free is clearly a bargain, which people obviously like.

However, it is interesting that although there are some designers from smaller companies there (who we thought would not normally be able to afford such a course), we have had lots of applications from very large companies.  The final shortlist includes some from each group but I can’t help wondering why the people from the bigger companies need the inducement of a free usability course.  Their employers regularly pay similar sums or far more for other training courses but seem to hesitate when it comes to usability.

Maybe it’s because their employers see usability as being about making things easy and have decided that’s a luxury they can live without, instead of being an essential if we are to get real benefit from technology.  What do you think?

If you have any good examples of bad usability, whether it’s a website that makes it really hard to do business with or an upside down ketchup bottle that squirts sauce in your lap, I’d love to hear about them.

Tom Stewart