The first ever World Usability Day was held on November 3, highlighting the good, the bad and the even worse in the usability world.Sponsored by the Usability Professionals’ Association, a group made up of product testers, designers and others, its aim was to promote “user-centered design and every user’s responsibility to ask for things that work better.”
Over 80 events in 35 countries focused on people and companies trying to bring simpler to use products to the market.
Counter-intuitive user interfaces such as the power button for many cell phones that is also the “End” button and Windows shutdown being initiated by pressing the Start button were but two of the usability crimes highlighted by experts.
You could include boneheaded efforts like putting the instructions on how to install a CD drive on a CD. And how can we learn how to use a computer if we have to know how to use it to access the manual stored on the hard drive?
Usability isn’t just about operating devices, though. It can encompass everything from packaging to maintenance. I recently bought a new toothbrush, for example, and extracting it from its armour-plated plastic shroud was a painful experience. Getting the plastic off a CD requires fingernails and persistence. Many Web sites are another usability nightmare.
There are, however, some things that even usability experts love. The iPod is touted as a triumph in ease of use, and the Amazon.com site is held up as an example of how to do e-commerce right.
World Usability Day is in part designed to get users to quit putting up with the torment, and to demand products meant for normal human beings. Installation and use instructions should be written in clear, coherent language native to the purchaser, and not directly (and often literally, with hilarious results) translated from a foreign tongue. User interfaces should be tested with real users (what a concept!), not by the engineers who designed the product.
Centering on Staples
To be fair, some companies do spend a lot of time and money on usability testing. Staples watched how people interacted with their stores and used the information to come up with more effective designs. Microsoft has huge usability labs with experts in all facets of the discipline. And Intuit literally follows people home (with their permission, of course) and documents their every move from opening the QuickTax box to filing their return to see what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps the seal on the box is too hard to open. Perhaps the setup instructions are a bit wooly. Watching users in their native environment helps isolate these issues so they can be fixed.
Everyone profits from more usable products. Manufacturers’ support costs are lower. Resellers have fewer returns. And customers have a happier experience. It’s a win-win-win situation — would that we had more of them.