Dumb Design… a Flaw of Smart People?

The longer I work in the field of usability design and web design, the more I understand that the concept of ‘usability’ is seriously flawed. And I have to admit that the majority of users are lazy, and not absolutely bright when using websites, and we publishers of websites abide too much by their laws.

There is nothing wrong with good usability. It is matching an interactive system tot a potential user. A very simple concept; if you produce for the American market, you should at least deliver the product in English or Spanish and English.

If you design something for color-blind users, do not rely on color too much, but more on shapes and texts. It is all very logic. Nothing wrong there.

But usability became a hype in front-end development, and turned to become some kind of marketing-tool. And once it is something that potentially relates to success, people whose attention is on making money and success, tend to overdo it, and tend to be ‘usability specialists’, ordering people who really know about this stuff around to keep making adjustments that hurt the product more than it benefits.

Good usability does not mean that a user should be able to use everything you have to offer at once. A user might be required to learn first. Take a look at a car. It is known that using the steering wheel, brakes, accelerator and the mirrors is a very good usable system. So good, that it has been practically unchanged over the last 40-50 years. Still, people have to train months if not years for it before they can use it on their own, and then drive for years to master it. And it is absolutely accepted and no-one complains.

You cannot walk into a nuclear power plant, sit down and just keep everything under control. Each gauge and button has its own function, which might be very intuitive once you know about the plant, but may be abracadabra for anyone else.

A website is not that much different. If you offer anything that is a bit different than people are used to, don’t be afraid to explain it to your users by, for example, a quick tutorial or a brief explanation. It is better to have a good interface that helps the people using your systems, even if it takes time to learn them – than to try to dumb your interface down and making it more complex for the users down the road, creating a big mess out of something that was good at one time.

One example you see often is the drop-down menu’s in websites. A lot of people love it if those menu’s show up as a roll-over, because it shows immediately that there is content underneath it. But that is often how far people think ahead about that… just showing that there is content. It becomes a bit weird to automatically show a drop-down on a roll-over, and the reason why is that you have a problem if there is no additional content to show. Because normally, a click is a request for action, so it should also be a click that opens up a menu, just like in your operating system. And, worse, rollovers do not work on touch-screen oriented devices.

Even here on WordPress, while I am editing this posting, I see these inconsistencies. The menu in the top of the screen has roll-over drop-down menus. But the drop-down menus on the left-hand side are click activated. It is not horrible, but simple, it is not well designed.

So, that is an example of bad interface design, because most of all, your interface should be consistent. Consistently good, or consistently bad, but consistent nonetheless. So that when your users have learned to deal with your product, you are not throwing them a curve-ball later on.

But most of all, don’t try to make things too simple. It will always come back to haunt you. If you have a difficult production, don’t force yourself to make it too simple. Your usability should be in line with effectiveness. Think about it this way:

I have an interface that is so easy to use, that people learn to create a product within 1 minute and it will take them 30 minutes to make a product.


I have an interface that is efficient to use, and it takes 30 minutes to learn, and then 10 minutes to make a product.

If a person now only has one product, he or she might lose 10 minutes. But just with two products, he or she already has a time gain of 10 minutes. With 10 products they gained 169 minutes… see where I am going with this?

So, think wise. Don’t make something ‘potentially’ fool proof. Because you can’t. First of all, your production is not fit for people who do not understand a single thing. Don’t even count them as a viable audience. Second of all, real fools will also mess up a fool-proof system.

One last real-life experience: recently a client of mine who was building a marketing – learning website asked me if in any message that we showed in a pop-up message window, we could tell the user to close that window with the X on top once they were done reading, because people might not understand. I honestly had to ask them how their potential audience was actually going to the website if they did not know how to handle the basics of any operating system…

Make a good interface design, listen to your interface designer… he will protect you from yourself.


2 thoughts on “Dumb Design… a Flaw of Smart People?

    1. I absolutely agree. And it actually often slows down the development process, increasing the required budget. It is often well worth doing some research into your audience before designing, but most of the time it is seen as a waste of money… While it actually might be a money saver. And indeed, this is not only in the world of technology, but everywhere.

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