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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.

Tom Stewart

Published 4 October, 2010 by Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart is Executive Chairman at System Concepts, and a guest blogger at Econsultancy. System Concepts can be followed on Twitter here, and Tom is also on Google+.

35 more posts from this author

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James Christie

That's an enjoyable rant for a Monday morning. My personal bugbear is number 2; "usability is only about testing products with users before releasing them to market".

People believe that one because they want to believe it. It's not too challenging. It suits project managers and developers because it means that existing practices don't have to change. It's also suited some usability professional because it means that usability can remain a separate activity. The trouble is that they're independent but isolated and ineffective. Usability can be ignored till such a late point that it's too late to make any significant changes. It just leaves usability in an impotent ghetto. Google the "peanut butter theory of usability" (Lewis & Rieman).

about 6 years ago

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Steve Davies

Tom, no need to apologise for the Monday morning rant - as James has already said it's a good one.

I'd add a 6th myth to your list:

"Usability is systematic" - you touched upon this in myth#3, people don't necessarily know what they want. 

That's no reason to ignore or belittle user input, merely to recognise that such input is unlikely to fit into a neat slot within a programme timeline.  Usability is an adaptive phenomenon, as a web environment grows and more people use it, what we might regard as effective or most satisfying might also change. 

So just as usability should not be left to the end of a programme, neither should it be considered a finite task.

about 6 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Nice one. An added myth: Usability is 'nice to have'. In truth, it's probably the primary driver of conversions on any website. Get it wrong and you're flushing away all that hard-earned traffic.

about 6 years ago

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Colette Mason

Some very good points there. I understand your pain and need to rant :)

Wish me luck, I'm off to do some initial user testing for a client today - 11 weeks before am expensive 1 year project with 6000 users goes live...

about 6 years ago

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Clerkendweller

I wish I'd read this yesterday morning.  Great stuff.

about 6 years ago

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Michelle Carvill

Made me giggle this am...  Couldn't agree more with Doug Kessler - sadly still really fertile territory in website and online process design.  

about 6 years ago

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Peter Ballard

Great rant! - Another myth to add (I think that makes 8 now, only two more for a cracking 'Top Ten' myths...)

"Usability is built in" - How many times do we hear that there is no need to do any usability research because the design team contains UX trained architects and designers, and that they are using personas to represent customers?

Whilst clients have become more literate in the need for, and benefits of, involving customers in the process, we often see the insight gathering phase getting squeezed out of design agency plans. These teams seem more comfortable in giving opinions about customers, than listening to the opionions of customers.

about 6 years ago

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orangeguru

UX / IA / GUI Designer or whatever we call our jobs have to blame ourselves for these myths. Application and web development has become more and more "atomized" into new jobs and processes - but also complexity. Especially our profession has developed that unhealthy obsession with details like use cases and processes without conserving a good eye for complexity and interconnectedness. There also the perception gap between designers (ux and visual) and the "rest": We know it all, we see it all! Some more humility could help ...

about 6 years ago

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Ian Franklin

I like Tom's comments, brilliant as ever. We need one on UX myths; I have been in usability and user centred design for 20 years and can not get work in the new media UX industry. Why, well here are some of the bizarre situaions I have been in: "we don't think you can do social media, you are too much of a traditionalist" - well I have moved from green screen to GUI to web; I think I can make the move to social media which just whizzy forums and CSCW in the business space. "Why is a psychologist involved in UX and what is an ergonomist"; "can you use Dreamweaver and Photoshop, can you html code" - er NO because I am a psychologist and ergonomist and KNOW about users not technology. "How can you have been into usability for 20 years when the web was only invented in 2000". "We can't use you, you are just NOT IN OUR SPACE, you don't understand e-business" - hello again I have done £120 million e-government projects, run more usability tests and user requirements sessions than you have had hot dinners, and helped invent user centred design with contributions to ISO 13407, THE UCD standard.

In usability testing telling someone who thinks they are a Guru that doing AB BA counter balancing is useless because 1) there are only 3 people in each group so statistically between individuals differences are greater than training\presentation effects; 2) it mucks up the natural task sequence  3) they are only doing it for pseudo-scietific credibility does tend to get you sacked. But this is the same person who wrote a usability questionnare using Likert scales where 1 meant very good and 5 very bad!. They still sell themselves as a Guru.  

So this old dog would like a chance to use my 20 years skills and knowledge. Only one proviso - I like to do things properly and professionally, my strength is user requirements, testing, UCD strategy and process. Oh and I don't code or visually design - I leave that to experts in those fields.

about 6 years ago

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Marc Sokol

Nice post!  Here is one more myth around usability:  The designers of a product are the best ones to determine usability requirements.  

Odds are they are just too close to their own design.  Years ago I worked in telephony with engineers who brought you some new multi-button, multi-feature equipment. Excellent intentions but EVO1 and EVO2 hardly substitute for plain English or color coded features.  

In truth it takes a diverse set of eyes to enhance usability, customers, engineers, newbies and experienced users as well.  We would all do well to think less in absolutes of who has the answer and more in how each group may have a piece of the puzzle.

about 6 years ago

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Stewart Dean

The issue I have with this list is summed up in one word, usability. Point one I consider not to be a myth as that's the common understanding, for that reason I and others no longer use usability as an umbrella term but use user experience instead. Usability has come to mean the aspect of ease of use, ergonomics and user research. The effectiveness of a given product or experience is this plus it's ability to attract people, effectively communicate an idea and deleiiver upon business needs and goals. Expanding the term usability to cover all these is a hard stretch. For that reason I have ditched using the term usability in favour of user experience as it's increasingly a better fit. The other myths are then applicable to the field of user experience. I only use usability as an aspect of the experience in much of the same way as I would use accessibility, and visual and content effectiveness.

about 6 years ago

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Marc

Good points, but I would'nt call that "usability". Usability is a consequence of a series of methods called User Experience Design: If you work in the framework of UX Design, your website will be more usable than if you don't. But it's just a consequence.

about 6 years ago

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart, Founder at System Concepts

Actually Stuart, you may be surprised to discover that I do not totally disagree with you. My problem is that I have been doing usability since before the term was in widespread use (no -  it was not discovered when the world wide web was invented!). In the 1970's we were helping to design human-computer dialogues (they were called then) which we aimed to make effective, efficient and satisfying for their users. We even tested 'user journeys' using video cameras (about the size of a suitace!). So I do beleive that usability is a good term for this stuff.

But where I agree with you is that lots of the world have a narrower view and as a consultant (ever the pragmatist) I can live very happily with the term user experience. Indeed, as Project Editor of the ISO Human Centred Design Standard (ISO 9241-210:2010 http://www.system-concepts.com/articles/usability-articles/2010/exciting-times-for-human-centred-design-standards.html),

I successfully pushed for ther term 'user experience' to be defined and for a good user experince to be the objective of human-centred design. The biggest difference to me is that the total user experience includes anticipation and factors including customer service which would not normally be considered witihin the scope of usability. As I have said before in earlier blogs, I am less concerned about what we call it and more interested in us getting it right!

about 6 years ago

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