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?
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.Tweet