World Usability Day: Is It Harmful to Usability Practitioners?

Jared Spool

November 14th, 2006

Today, as you may or may not know, is World Usability Day. All over the world, people are gathering to talk about usability and its effect.

It’s hard to imagine this could be a bad thing. After all, having people talk about these issues brings awareness. And with awareness, the odds are better we’ll end up with more usable products, web sites, and services, right?

Maybe.

Or maybe not.

I have several issues with World Usability Day. I don’t think I’m alone, but it’s been hard to find anyone else talking about these things. I know that suggesting there’s a downside will probably be considered an act of treason by many of my colleagues, but I think it’s important to get this discussion in the open. Maybe I’m wrong, but if I’m not, the implications are important.

Elizabeth Rosenswieg, Director of World Usability Day, wrote in the August Journal of Usability Studies:

Every citizen on our planet deserves the right to usable products and services. It is time we reframe our work and look at a bigger global picture.

The time is right, the interest is here. ‘User friendly’ is a common and understandable term; people understand that the world should work well. Now, we have to encourage them to take the message to the streets and say, “We will not stand for it anymore, we want our world to be usable.”

No more excuses, no more managers complaining about budgets and schedules. No more marketing people selling functionality and power that is more than we need. No more consumers buying things we cannot or do not need to use.

I’m not sure, in today’s world, usability is the top priority for everybody. Sure, it’s important, but this plea to “take the message to the streets” feels like it could come across as self serving.

But, my big concern is the way we’re going about this. “Usability” doesn’t improve the world. In fact, it doesn’t change a thing.

Today’s usability practice is about measurement and evaluation. Can we determine how usable something is? Can we determine where frustration comes from? Can we determine when we’ve delighted a user (and how to do that again)? These are important things to know, but knowing them, by themselves, doesn’t change designs for the better.

It’s the practice of design where the change comes from. But World Usability Day doesn’t really talk about designing. (In the World Usability Day charter, which they encourage you to sign, the word design only shows up once as a verb. It shows up twice as a noun: poor design and bad design. Apparently, there’s no other type of design.)

Most usability practitioners are not designers. They are an important part of the design process, but they are not the sole contributor. So, this effort of making products more usable needs to include the designers. If we’re going to continue with the holiday idea, maybe we need to rename it “World Design Day” or “World Good Design Day” (no need to celebrate bad design, I guess).

That we apparently call for managers to stop “complaining about budgets and schedules” also leads me to think we’re not very realistic about how business is conducted. Are we actually implying businesses should insist on building usable products, even if it means they go bankrupt?

Pretending we know about business when we really don’t won’t win us any favors with the business community. And, I don’t know how we get funding for our work without their help. Maybe a different tact is in order?

If the likes of Apple, Google, Starbucks, SouthWest Airlines, and Netflix have proven anything, it’s when you make your customers happy, you get profitable business returns. Maybe the day should be “World Good Business Day”, promoting that making customers happy (by providing, among other things, usable products and services) is good for business.

Which brings me to may last point: it’s not clear that usability practice always makes good business sense. There’s no evidence, to date, that strictly following the doctrine of User-Centered Design always produces better market results. (In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest it doesn’t!) There’s a lot that’s not understood about designing quality products, which is why even great design companies like Apple still have duds. We need to do more research into what really makes a difference and what is just the stone in the soup.

A lot of people are gathering in a lot of places today to talk about usability. That’s great.

Yet, if we pretend, on November 14th, nothing in the world is more important that “Usability” and we say and do things to alienate the people we actually need to improve products, we’re going to do more harm than good to our mission. A day to bash designers about “poor design,” without talking about the socio-politico-economic environment that created these designs in the first place, doesn’t help us in the long run.

Let’s put things in perspective and be a little humble about our place in the world. Let’s keep doing good work, involving everyone who can help in the problems we’re trying to solve, and be honest about what we know and what we don’t know. And let’s do that 365 days a year, not just on November 14th.

Happy World Usability Day.

28 Responses to “World Usability Day: Is It Harmful to Usability Practitioners?”

  1. Brian Christiansen Says:

    I would argue that the Cube, although not very commercially successful, should be not considered a failure of usability nor design. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art would disagree that the Cube is a design failure. They have one in their collection. The Cube should be considered a lesson in marketing and market placement. But as a former Cube user at a previous job, I have to speak up that the Cube was a wonderful useful, usable and delightful product from the user’s standpoint. Beautiful to the eye, silent to the ear, and small on the desk, while being a UNIX workstation inside. Many products would do well to emulate the Cube. The iMac for one, did. Which illustrates another design lesson: learn from previous iterations. Be assured that the engineers learned how to make the G4 iMac so small from the innards of a Cube.

    The Cube brings up another point: design, no matter how good, must operate within the confines of the business.

  2. Joshua Says:

    I love the Cube for this very reason…it’s a great design discussion piece!

    The Wikipedia entry for the Cube notes that it was too tempting a place to put things, as well as a tangle of wires.

    Alas, I never used one so I don’t know how seductive it was…

  3. David Armano Says:

    Jared,

    You make some very solid points here. Personally, I see uability as part of both design and business. As a smaller building block of the bigger brand experience, (though being in marketing it does sometimes tend to get overlooked).

    Thats said, one thing I have noticed about usability “zealots” is that they can tend to alienate. I once read somewhere usability being described as a “black art” and it has always stuck with me. Sometimes IA’s can tend to operate in exclusive vs. inclusive ways. Just look at all the groups/clubs created by UX/IA professionals. This says a lot.

    This is a very good post. Great food for thought. We should all take it to heart.

  4. Andrew Scherer Says:

    Jared:

    I take your premise to mean that we should be careful not to alienate those who should be our partners – design and business, as David points out in his reply. I completely agree.

    That said, I find it a tad disingenuous to get all fired up about UPA being self-serving. Of course it is, it exists to be so to a degree just as uie.com, this blog and the associated podcasts are self-serving to a degree. The things you’re reacting to don’t seem to me as apparent inside the tent, so why not advance beyond semantics and bring your valid points into the conversation and influence the action?

    Cheers,
    Andy

  5. Jared Spool Says:

    Andy,

    UPA, whose charter is to support its members, has the responsibility to be self serving, just like the Pork Council, the Tobacco Farmer’s Union, and every other organization looking out for their members’ best interests. I have no beef with that.

    My beef is about the grandiose scheme behind World Usability Day, as implied by this paragraph in Elizabeth’s JUS article:

    A good example of one day that changed the world was Earth Day 1970. For the first time, a group of people focused on the environmental issues plaguing the planet. Disparate groups, such as environmentalists fighting against polluting companies, toxic dumps and extinction of wildlife saw they had something in common. The groups even crossed political barriers, and on April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans demonstrated for a healthy, sustainable, environment. By 1990, Earth Day was a global event with 200 million people in 141 countries participating. Today, you can see recycling bins in cities all around the world. Earth Day is still making a difference.

    Would Earth Day been as successful if the only sponsor was the Recycling Companies Owners’ Council? (Earth Day actually started by a concerned US Senator who bullied it onto the UN Agenda, making it a world-wide event.)

    Remember, it doesn’t matter what those of us on the inside of the usability community think. My concern is the appearance of being self serving to those outside the community. What are we doing to combat that appearance?

  6. World Usability Day: Morning After at obso1337.org Says:

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  7. Hayden Vink: Life In The Fast Lane » Blog Archive » Amen! Says:

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  8. Harry Says:

    I disagree with Jarred.

    More visibility is a good thing for all of us. If one of our colleagues says something we feel is a little off the mark, is it really right to start bashing them in a public forum? I think it’s a bit of a mean thing to do.

    We all say stuff that is slightly off the mark sometimes. I seem to remember a title of a chapter in one of Jarred’s books was “Graphic design neither helps nor hurts”… :-)

  9. Jarrett Says:

    I think Jared is right on and that Elizabeth’s comments are more than “a little off the mark.”

    UX professionals cannot solve the problems they uncover by themselves. If they fail to influence others to affect change, they fail ultimately at doing anything useful for users. To say “…no more managers complaining about budgets and schedules…” is contrary to the spirit of cooperation that is needed to solve design problems.

    Budgets and schedules are part of reality in the business world and aren’t going away because usability professionals find them inconvenient. We need to be smart in the way we work so others see value in what we provide, so that usability studies are included in budgets and schedules.

  10. Andrew Scherer Says:

    Jared – thanks for the clarification. Any thoughts as to what we *can* do to create a positive vibe and project not just a tone but promote real inclusion to our brethren (and ‘sistren’ :->) in the design, business and development communities?

    Andy

  11. Elizabeth Rosenzweig Says:

    The real message of World Usability Day is to get everyone to work together to create products and services that work better. It is not just for Usability professionals and it is certainly not just for us to talk to ourselves.
    Earth Day started at the UN because the founder was a US Senator.
    World Usability Day also belongs in the UN and we are working to get that to happpen. First we need to make more things happen, like working with developers, designers and product managers to make products and services that work better.
    I do not want to focus on bad design. That is one idea that many people focused on.
    I want us to focus on educating people to become aware of these issues, use their purchasing power to encourage developers to produce products and services that work better.
    Any company or association that wants to support World Usability Day is welcomed with open arms. At the end of the day, we want to work together.

    Elizabeth

  12. Jared Spool Says:

    More visibility is a good thing for all of us. If one of our colleagues says something we feel is a little off the mark, is it really right to start bashing them in a public forum? I think it’s a bit of a mean thing to do.

    More visibility isn’t always a good thing, if it sends a message which alienates.

    This isn’t an instance of “one of colleages” saying “something we feel is a little off the mark.” This article was published by the Usability Professionals Association in the Journal of Usability Science, which describes itself as:

    a peer-reviewed, international, online publication dedicated to promote and enhance the practice, research, and education of usability engineering.

    I see these comments as reviewed and endorsed by the UPA. Are we not allowed to share our differences with these views?

  13. Jared Spool Says:

    Any thoughts as to what we *can* do to create a positive vibe and project not just a tone but promote real inclusion to our brethren (and ’sistren’ :->) in the design, business and development communities?

    Andy,

    Good question. There’s a ton of stuff.

    Instead of insisting these people are clueless because they are building unusable products and services, why don’t we engage in a conversation to find out what about the social, political, and economic conditions of their development process pushed them in the direction they ended up? How do we address systemic issues in design and development?

    Instead of insisting the only way to build usable products is to hire usability professionals, why don’t put together curricullum that brings usability skills and experience to everyone on the team?

    Instead of listing all the “bad designs” we see in the world, why don’t we celebrate every good design we can find and, more importantly, promote those designers and developers as heroes, encouraging them to share their experiences, even if they didn’t build their successful products using our sacred User-Centered Design techniques?

    There are many things we can do. It just take a little creativity and energy.

  14. Elizabeth Rosenzweig Says:

    In fact, if you look at the list of events for World Usability Day you will see that some of those very things Jared describes above DID happen. We want the dialog to continue and we want to create a collaborative environment for that to happen. And it is. Just look at the site.

    I think discussion is fine, I don’t think it is OK to bash people without knowing what is really happening. In fact, we are doing the very things Jared says we are not- and that is the real problem with bashing.
    Many countries held conversation with designers, developer and user-centered design engineers. Several countries, such as Cuba, Argentina, Poland, and Lithuania held some of their first ever events for user-centered design professionals (not differentiating between designers, developers and usability engineers).

    World Usability Day is only a beginning it is not meant to be the only day we look at and discuss the issue of usability. The day worked, we brought attention to the issues to a wide range of people, from developers, designers, users and our course, our own community.

    Discussion is fine as long as it is respectful. That of course comes from knowing what you are talking about.

    Knowledge is a wonderful thing.

    Thanks for keeping the dialog going.

    Elizabeth

  15. Jared Spool Says:

    Many countries held conversation with designers, developer and user-centered design engineers. Several countries, such as Cuba, Argentina, Poland, and Lithuania held some of their first ever events for user-centered design professionals (not differentiating between designers, developers and usability engineers).

    Elizabeth,

    That’s great.

    Yet many of the events weren’t that.

    And, as far as I can tell, none of the “messaging” behind World Usability Day suggested it was better to be inclusive instead of divisive. It did talk about bad design and poor design, but never about what makes good design or the people behind good design.

    I would be happier if the JUS Article and the WUD Charter focused on celebrating all the good design that is happening and the people who are bringing it to us, instead of trying to pit customers against vendors because we believe the vendors are doing the customers an injustice.

    My beef is not about the idea of making a more usable world. It’s about our approach to the problem.

    Thank you for participating in this discussion.

  16. Zephyr Says:

    Well, I’m just glad my event focused on “usable design” then ;-)

  17. Dave Feldman Says:

    Jared,
    I’m an Interaction Designer (or whatever umbrella term we’re using this year to refer to people who try to envision and design usable products), and am worried about the stark distinction you draw (both here and on your SpoolCast) between usability practitioners and designers. I consider myself a designer *and* a usability professional; it seems odd to separate the two.

    I had not read the WUD charter, and agree that perhaps Earth Day comparisons are a bit grandiose. That said, I like the idea of a day to increase awareness of usability. We’re not the most high-profile group of professions, particularly outside the IT world…yet surely there are kids who might get excited about designing the next generation of usable products. And part of getting them excited has to involve exposing them to what makes a product *un*-usable. Maybe the answer is to provide a balance between exposing bad design, showcasing good design, and promoting an understanding of what differentiates the two.

    Beyond that, introducing the public to core concepts – like affordances and the notion that maybe the inability to operate a product is the product’s problem rather than the user’s – seems worthwhile.

    Without really knowing much about the event, I volunteered for the WUD here in Boston. I think there’s room for improvement in terms of getting visitors engaged and developing understanding, but I also think it’s on the right track with demonstrations covering both evaluation and design. (I do agree that a better, more usable name might be in order, though.)

    I suppose if I’m saying anything overall, it’s that having an event to spread awareness of usability – both in the public and in potential designers and researchers – seems like a great idea, and perhaps your concerns are not with the existence of the event but its framing and perhaps some aspects of its implementation. In which case, why not do a UIE booth next year?

  18. disambiguity - » links for 2006-11-15 Says:

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  19. Daniel Szuc Says:

    “It’s the practice of design where the change comes from.”

    Suggest that change comes from being able to work in an “product environment” that encourages designers/developers/marketing/business etc to think about the customer and link business value to it and iterate.

    What are the “characteristics” that make good designers, communicators that drive great products? etc

    No amount of fancy design or usability will help a product that has no customer value proposition to begin with. I am sure we have all worked on plenty of those products before :)

  20. Elizabeth Rosenzweig Says:

    The bottom line for me is that we have to start somewhere. That where World Usability Day for 2006 is a great start and not the end. We have a vision, that people work together to make more usable products and services.

    I am not interested in differentiating people into categories as much as having us work together.

    Maybe the analogy to Earth Day is grandiose, but I argue that dreams are often grandiose. If they were little, perhaps they would not be a dream.

    I see a future where people work together to create more usable products and services and that we help raise that awareness through World Usability Day.

    Thank you to all who participated and to those having this conversation.

    Elizabeth

  21. Front to back » Blog Archive » World *usability* day Says:

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  22. Susan Doran Says:

    Interesting and provocative post! Just wanted to share my experience with attending my first world usability day in Boston.

    It was unexpectedly heart-warming to see streams of visitors at the Museum of Science (of all ages) playing and learning, talking to “usability people” (who didn’t spew platitudes about the noble aims of usability:) and overhearing conversations between 2 school kids in the cafeteria later about how cool the sox-sorting exercise was–how they’d never thought about people seeing things so differently–and mobs of teenagers dropping their tough postures and participating in group activities like designing the remote for a video game, seeing how much better design is when the user is involved (the lessons weren’t dolled out heavy-handedly and the activity areas were filled with laughter and dopey teenager hijinx).

    I dunno. I may well be a sap, but it was pretty cool.

    Also, and I don’t think you’d have a beef with this, but WUD also arranged to have practitioners on hand to do hour-long web evaluations for nonprofit orgs. The nonprofit staff seemed thrilled with the free service, and the ability to pick the brains of an assortment of people who do UI design work for a living. Of course, 1 hour is 1 hour, but most evaluators had clearly spent chunks of time preparing, and valuable sharing and learning took place.

    Hope you don’t mind my posting–I don’t usually add comments to blogs and am not a “name.” :)

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  25. Paul Doncaster Says:

    Hi Jared —

    As always, excellent food for thought. Not sure where I am on the topic of WUD, but I seem to have been through this before in another professional life.

    Having read the thread, the concern seems to be the viability of the usability practitioner within the design process and the prestige of the profession within the business enterprise.

    The concept of using video communications within the business enterprise went through uch the same thing about 20 years ago. Back then, the buzz was that the use of video was going to explode within the communications departments of corporate America — perhaps not to the point of full-fledged TV studios in every headquarters, but at minimum a group of professionals taking advantage of the “democratization” that the medium was experiencing.

    At the same time, a number of influential people in the field worried about the possible downsides: If more and more companies had the ability to create their own programs, where did that leave the seasoned “professionals” of the day? Would select instances of a more visible and expanded role within the business be worth the risk of more and more examples of sub-standard quality — a “dumbing-down” that would ultimately cause more harm than good?

    I can’t help but think that HCI/usability is at the same point in its development and acceptance. It’s not so much of a crossroads, where the field wil take one direction or another. Rather, it could be seen as a widening of the same single road forward. Providing value keeps us near the center line, where moving forward is easiest, and allows the road to accommodate more travellers. Invitably, some who join the journey will cling to the shoulder, using means, methods and approaches that are risky. Some of those will fall by the wayside, while others will wind up providing even more momentum for moving forward.

    To take this automotive analogy one final nauseating step further, my guess is that business is beginning to see enough tangible benefit to what we’re doing that discount methods and uncertainties over self-promotion are really very minor bumps in the road. As with any facet of business, the measure of value that hci/usability provides will be the determinant of its fate.

    Two cents from a relative newcomer to the field. Keep up the good work.

  26. Hayden Vink: Life In The Fast Lane » Blog Archive » The future of usability Says:

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