Why I’m passionate about usability

There was a great Schneier post about why he is so ‘into’ security, and how his mindset differs from so many other people.  I was thinking tonight about why I’m so passionate about user experience and how to improve its general approach.  I think what drives me boils down to the following:

  • Constantly imagining how other people might interpret something

Obviously it’s impossible to know exactly what other people think, so usually I ask them.  What did you think about that?  Why did you think that?  Internally I create a mental model on how people with different views might interpret things.  When I use something I can’t but help imagine how my grandmother might use it.  Would my Dad know what to do next?  How about my best mates?  Not only with design, but this extends to even just being in a group conversation.  As people are relating stories I’m wondering “how will other people here interpret that?”.  I find I can’t but help notice when there’s a gap there, and I often find myself interrupting two people who obviously don’t share the same understanding, “oh by the way John, I think what Fred really meant is this…”.

  • Personal frustration with the design of products

My wife hates this.  She noticed this started just after I began my PhD.  I’ve always been critical of my personal devices and sites I use, but after starting a PhD in human computer interaction I became hypercritical.  Used to be if I got stuck, I’d blame myself and look up the manual.  I’d like to think that I’m fairly savvy, and most times I find myself stuck, it’s usually a usability problem.  On a daily basis, my wife deals with a lot of my frustration.  The worst two designs for me at the moment for this are the Playstation 3 system UI (what were they thinking? The company that brought the simplicity and joy of the PSP interface took it and just broke it) and the new Google search interface (they crowding my results with multiple suggestions that I search for what now? And what are all these new buttons everywhere?  Way too much clutter).

  • A belief that delighting users is the best thing a company can do

As a product manager I understand that it is necessary to balance business requirements with usability.  However it is not good enough to say “well, this gives us x revenue, so even though it upsets the users, let’s keep it in there”.  What about the lost y revenue from the people who stop coming to your site?  By focussing on user experience above all else you give people a product that they keep coming back to.  Lost revenue streams can usually be replaced.  Obnoxious ads aren’t the be all and end all of making money on the internet.  Creating something that makes people tell their friends about how great it is (so long as you have a business plan on how to monetize the traffic) is the best possible thing you can do.  Companies such as Apple and Google show this again and again.  I still believe user experience (in balance) with business requirements is key.

  • Wondering “why is it done this way?” and “how can it be done better?”

Every time I use a new product I always like contemplating why is its design the way it is.  Why did the Peek email device forgo all other online activity?  Could its interface be better?  Why does the iPhone not support MMS and video?  Could their touch interface be done better?  I can never be satisfied when using a product, as I’m always asking why.

  • Embracing change

Getting used to a particular way of doing things is great, as it reduces cognitive load.  However it’s often not the best way of doing it, nor the most intuitive.  If you can find a balance of both, everyone wins.  New paradigms for interaction should be supported, although I’m always happy to let someone else push them on their own designs first, and make them a success first so that when I employ them people are used to them.

  • Respecting users

Above everything else, assuming your users are “dumb”, and that you should cater for the “lowest common denominator” is a bad idea.  Why?  Because they’re not dumb.  They’re not the lowest common denominator.  Different people have different needs, different mental models, and different approaches to completing a task.  Simplifying your design approach to thinking “our users are dumb, let’s make it easy for them” is not usability, and a trap for unwary players.  People are smarter than you think, and designers that find the best ways to make use of tacit skills in their users are those that succeed.

Overall I think usability is more a state of mind than a set of skills.  But it’s a hard state ofmind to become accustomed to.  I wrote my PhD about how to better integrate engineers to the design process and make them aware of usability concerns, and my answer was it’s hard (and “it depends”).  But being cognizant of the difficulties users face, and respecting them and trying to anticipate these difficulties (feel free to just talk to them!) will make your design not just better but more successful.