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I have just given my annual lectures to some postgraduate students about what it’s like doing usability in the real world (i.e. the world where you can’t spend three months redesigning the perfect interface to a toaster). 

And one of the issues I cover is why it seems to be so difficult to design usable products. It must be difficult - there are lots of clever designers and few really usable products.

One of the reasons for this is that too many people confuse usability with ‘easy’. 

I argue frequently that this marginalises usability, which we and the International Standards Organisation (ISO) believe has three elements – effectiveness, efficiency and user satisfaction. 

If it’s just ‘easy’ (which relates to satisfaction and possibly efficiency in ISO terms), it becomes a luxury, not a necessity. 

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 the hard pressed business manager saying: “OK, that would have been nice but we didn’t want to wait.” 

However, if you use the ISO 9241-11 definition of a usable system, 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!

But one of the reasons why business systems are not as effective as they should be is that designers often fail to fully understand the way the users work in practice. 

And this is where I’d like to mention the iPod (again). 

OK, I admit that I am a fan of Apple – I love my iPod and I bought a Mac mini just because it was beautiful (even though I do all my business on a PC). 

But apart from their beauty, I find that the ipod just works so well. The clickwheel is very effective (and efficient and satisfying). So why can’t more products be like iPods? 

As I tell my students, I think there are two main reasons. 

Firstly, many designers find it really hard to ‘get into the heads’ of their users. 

I suspect everyone who worked on the iPod really wanted one and therefore had a good starting point for getting the design to work for users. Of course, I’m sure that was then followed up with intensive testing. 

Secondly, not every product can be as desirable as an iPod. 

In a recent article on our website I explained that we sometimes have to do usability on products and systems that the end users do not really want (voice response systems for example) but which still need to be usable.

And this is part of the complexity – the difference between needs and wants. 

There is a tale (probably apocryphal) of the Black and Decker executive, who changed the fortunes of the company thirty years ago by declaring that its customers wanted ‘holes in walls’ not electric drills. 

He argued that the company could only succeed in selling more drills by focusing on that underlying customer need - emphasising what you could do with the tool, rather than marvelling over the product itself. 

I am not sure that this still holds true. In fact I am certain that it doesn’t – I have to show great restraint not to buy myself yet another tool. 

Perhaps this also explains the phenomenal growth in the popularity of satellite navigation in cars, the subject of another recent article

I guess we have all experienced the frustration of getting lost so a sat nav seems like a ‘no-brainer’. 

But how many of us drive to new places often enough to actually need them? Mind you, since we use them infrequently, and often while performing the difficult and demanding task of driving (despite the instructions not to use while under way – yeah , right!), making them usable is certainly worthwhile.

Tom Stewart is joint MD of System Concepts.

Tom Stewart

Published 28 February, 2007 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+.

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Comments (1)


James Robertson, Web Marketing Manager at www.venuebirmingham.com

If you are going to plug usability then shouldn't the links to the articles on your own site actually work?

about 5 years ago

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