Friday, August 3, 2007

grokdotcom: Better "usability" isn't always the answer

Howard Kaplan over at grokdotcom has posted a little rant about usability. For example:

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of Usability professionals. The theme of my talk was getting them to raise the bar within their industry; to become true advocates for consumers like they should be. Yes, consumers, not "users". B2B, b2C, self-service, e-commerce, video, web2.0, no matter the focus of your site, or whether a nickel changes hands, your audience consumes the content you provide and engages with the experience you've planned.
And a littler later:
I often challenge people to come up with positive associations with the term user. I'm still waiting for one positive response. Sure, I've heard "Mac user" and even that falls flat given the very real problems with technology — yes, even with Macs — that rear their ugly head at the most inopportune of times.
This is interesting on several levels. First, I find the crusade against the term "user" to be deeply amusing. Howard wants positive associations with the term user? Okay. How about the thousands of times when a usability professional has been in a meeting and said, "We can't do it that way because our users will never figure that out" (or words to that effect). It's an internal industry term that is perfectly useful, and is not in anyway derogatory in the way it is used... quite the opposite. 90% of our job is to treat users with respect... and the other half is to make users happy.

I also find his use of the word "consumer" to be interesting. I would argue that "consumer" is not a synonym for "user". In fact, at IBM we use a term called "consumability", which is not the same as "usability", though there's clear overlap. Consumability is concerned with the front end of user experience. How does a potential customer find out about a product or its features? How easy is it for them to acquire the product? How much does it cost? How easy is it deploy and maintain? How much additional training is needed to be productive? As you'd expect, the is a clear intersection between marketing and user experience in issues of consumability. On the other hand, it's important to remember that in large enterprises the person who chooses to buy a particular product is often not the person who uses the product. Which leads to differences between consumability and usability. For example, price is a good example of something that I would consider critical to consumability but not a factor in usability. Likewise, providing optimizations to increase the productivity of expert users is something that is important to usability but not a factor in consumability.

Later, Howard says:
What brought on this little rant? Our friends across the pond at E-Consultancy came up with a list of their hall of fame "User Experience gurus" based on a survey of their audience. Our esteemed founders, Jeffrey and Bryan, were selected for the list. Flattered as Jeffrey and Bryan were, those who've followed our work over the years know our collective disdain for the casual use of the "guru" label these days.

In case you didn't read Robert's post from last week, where Jeffrey suggests that we marketers need to "get over" ourselves, it should give you some context. A few days later — while, as Jeffrey put it, the woman behind the counter at his local Starbucks still didn't know who he was despite all the publicity ;) – another list came out with an amendment to the E-Consultancy list where both Seth Godin, and Eisenbergs were left off. This new list was created by David Armano, who runs the widely popular Logic + Emotion blog. (If you haven't read David's stuff, his manifesto is what converted me into a regular reader. Although I often disagree with his approach, Logic + Emotion comes highly recommended.)

David's perspective in removing Seth, Jeffrey & Bryan was that they're too much in the marketing camp to be considered "User Experience". My question, though, is this: "Would you prefer to have the experience designed by a top Information Architect but never planned with a deep understanding of the audience's needs? Or would you prefer to plan the experience according to human motivations, then adjust the architecture to match?"

I think you know my answer.

My answer is that it is not an interesting question because both approaches would be broken. I would also say that one of my frustrations is people who think that the "user experience" of a product is the responsibility of the user experience team. It's not. It's everyone's responsibility... including marketing. Just like the "quality" of a product is not the responsibility of the test team. So I fully acknowledge that marketing has a central role in user experience. That doesn't make marketers into user experience professionals though - it's still a different skill set. It's the collaboration between the skill sets (and many others) that creates a good user experience, so trying to figure out which skill set is easiest to drop is not a useful exercise, IMO.


Joshua Ledwell said...

Great post! Kaplan's argument feels like a straw man to me. Are there really many usability engineers out there who focus on "time on task" to the exclusion of all else?

There's a great deal of overlap between marketing and user experience, but not everything is the same. I dislike the term consumer for its marketing connotations, because user experience is about more than just spending and using something up. Is someone who recommends a product really a "consumer?" Your enterprise buyer example is also relevant.

In terms of "who designs the experience," I think it's helpful to have a user experience person who can focus on the experience as their chief responsibility. The point isn't to have them own it exclusively, however. I see their role as synthesizing input from many folks, and constantly reminding people with other duties about the value of UX to the business.

Terry Bleizeffer said...

Yeah, I think half the benefit of having a UX professional on a project is that you've got at least one person whose sole responsibility is user experience. If you grabbed any random person from an organization, regardless of skills, and said, "You're now our UX guy", you'll get a benefit from it for that reason.

The other half, of course, is the specialized skills we bring to the table (in terms of design, testing, research, etc.), but those skills would be pretty useless if we spent 90% of our time doing other work. In other words, I'd rather have the random guy from the test team be assigned to spend 100% of their time on UX than to have a brilliant UXer who was expected to spend 90% of their time on marketing.