Usability Moves Beyond the Screen

Web designers have long been aware of the need to make things easy for Internet users. Now usability is increasingly an issue for other technology areas.

There’s a set of bathroom scales advertised on a well-known online retailer that appears pretty good value until you look closely. Keenly priced and packed with features, the scales seem a good bet. Unless you read the customer reviews. Then it begins to dawn.

From comments such as “inaccurate”, “unreliable”, or “inconsistent”, it is clear these scales have one important failing: they do not measure weight well. From a user’s perspective, no matter how many features it has or how low the price is, the product is essentially worthless.

In design terms, this is a fail, when it comes to ‘usability’, something that is increasingly being recognized as important not just for weighing instruments but across a vast range of consumer and business products.

Modern usability has its origins with the Internet. With little or no bricks-and-mortar presence to guarantee back-up sales, early website owners realized they had to make things as simple as possible for their customers, or they would go out of business. Much of the success of online giants such as Amazon, for example, is generally considered to be down to the implementation of simple-to-use features such as one-click buying.

More widely, usability has long been seen as an issue of IT systems in general, perhaps because coders work largely in an abstract world where it may be difficult to foresee real-world design faults.

That may partly explain why a fair number of major IT projects failed in the past. Nowadays, however, a growing cadre of software developers recognizes the need for usability testing. Increasingly, too, do developers of other products, which should be a relief to anyone who ever remembers struggling with the instruction manual for a home entertainment device such as a videocassette recorder.

Marieke McCloskey, a user experience specialist with the Nielsen Norman Group, says companies that build physical products or software applications tend not to prioritize usability.

That’s because once a customer has spent money on a product or piece of hardware they have a vested interest in learning how it works. This contrasts with the situation online, where you can often switch to a different, more usable website in a couple of clicks if your first choice does not work properly. However, improving the usability of products is good not just for their users but also for the companies that make them.

Usability testing helps companies fix problems before products emerge onto the market, McCloskey says. That saves cost. And usability is particularly important for corporate tools such as collaboration systems, which can be critical for users from a wide range of backgrounds (see panel).

The good news for product designers is that usability rules tend to work independently of language, race, or background. “When it comes to behavior, we don’t see many differences between countries,” McCloskey points out.

Another bonus for the product guys is that usability is no longer viewed as an impediment to eye-catching design. In the early days of the Internet, usability buffs rightly challenged website designs that looked nice but did not work well.

But as usability and design have matured there has been a growing awareness on both sides that good looks and user experience can go hand in hand.

This is giving rise to a whole new generation of consumer and business devices and interfaces, such as the Dyson vacuum cleaner, Nest intelligent thermostat, or SAP RealSpend mobile app.

McCloskey also adds: “If something isn’t designed well, people feel you just don’t care. It has an effect. Design is important but it just can’t be the first thing that you do. First you need to figure out the tasks that users need to do.”

There is still some way to go. Modern mobile phones, for example, look pretty cool but often suffer from similar usability issues to those encountered previously in website and desktop computer design, like prioritization of content on the screen, says McCloskey.

However, with sleek and simple products increasingly capturing the public’s imagination, and user feedback quickly exposing the usability shortcomings of existing offers, it seems the days of wading through a manual just to find the ‘on’ switch could soon be over.


By Jason Deign, Used with the permission of