Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Todd Wilkens: Why usability is a path to failure

Todd Wilkens of Adaptive Path expressed some frustration about usability:

When talking of a great writer, how often do people talk about how amazingly legible they are? When talking about a great photographer, does anyone ever talk about the fact that his prints actually developed and thus are visible? Obviously, the answer is no. Legibility and visibility are the bare minimum of requirements for a successful piece of writing or a photograph. Any person who focused most of their efforts on legibility or visibility would probably have almost no chance of being a successful artist. Something that is fundamental to great creative acts is aiming high. If your goals and strategies are not oriented toward excellence then it is highly unlikely that your tactics will get you there. No one tells their kids to aim for a C- and then expects them to get an A.

So, why oh why do people in this day age still hold up “usability” as something laudable in product and service design? Praising usability is like giving me a gold star for remembering that I have to put each leg in a *different* place in my pants to put them on. (Admittedly, I *do* give my 2 year old daughter a gold star for this but then she’s 2.) Usability is not a strategy for design success. The efficiency you create in your interface will be copied almost instantaneously by your competitors. Recently, I’m even coming to believe that focusing on usability is actually a path to failure. Usability is too low level, too focused on minutia. It can’t compel people to be interested in interacting with your product or service. It can’t make you compelling or really differentiate you from other organizations. Or put another way, there’s only so far you can get by streamlining the shopping cart on your website.

Obviously this can lead to a religious terminology war, but for the purpose of this post I'm going to assume that Todd defines usability as "making sure that users can complete their tasks with a reasonably low failure rate"... and nothing else. Of course, I agree with Todd that this is just the beginning of designing a quality product, but I think perhaps he's not giving usability enough credit. Here's why:

1. I think it's nearly impossible for an organization to successfully focus on other aspects of experience without first becoming (at least) competent in basic usability. It's a step that can't be skipped, for all practical purposes. So an organization that went from nothing to doing basic usability should be praised for making progress, because they couldn't have chosen to go beyond basic usability in step one anyway.

2. Great artists break the rules... but great artists know the rules. If an artist creates a masterpiece by breaking rules that the artist didn't know about, it isn't genius, it's luck. In some sense, basic usability means "knowing the rules". For example, whenever we talk about the value of consistency in my job, I always make the point - it's okay to not be consistent, as long as the inconsistency isn't done out of ignorance, but by design. Usability is the foundation for everything else.

3. And last but not least... usability is HARD. Look around. We're surrounded by unusable crap. (I was editing a wiki page today and my username timed out while I was editing, so when I tried to save, it prompted me for my id and password, then took me back to the wiki homepage and threw away my work!) There are many, many roadblocks to creating a product that is usable in even the most basic sense. Kudos to the ones that achieve it. Is it enough? No, but for most teams it's a praiseworthy first step.

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