Who Ever Decided That Usability Actually Should Be Usable?

Once... this was complex too!
Once… this was complex too!

Picture this; we have here a caveman and we call him Gromp. Gromp is a bit of an idiot in our perception, but in his time – let’s put him about 50,000 years ago in a mountainous area where there are a lot of hungry, sharp toothed carnivores live – he had the wits to survive until his wonderful grown-up age of 19. Gromp goes out hunting to provide for his wife and 25 children (hey, no computer, no Netflix… give the guy a break) and brings his brand new club, and walks up to the first woolly mammoth he sees, and charges.

Felix, the woolly mammoth described here, is new in town, and is of the slightly larger variant than the woolly mammoths that Gromp usually encounters. And, Felix is not impressed, smashes Gromp to pulp with one nice planted step and Gromp is no more.



(By the way, on a whole other note; you are allowed to send in my recommendation for the Pulitzer for this previous literary masterpiece).

So, now comes the weird question; who is at fault here? Felix or Gromp? Who is to be credited with Gromp’s early demise? Of course, Felix is the one who actually instantly reduced Felix’ carbon footprint to zero. But, maybe Gromp should pay more attention first, and see that Felix was slightly different from the regular woolly mammoth Gromp knew. Or maybe it was Gromp’s brand new club required working with it.

The clear statement is: Gromp had a new club and a new woolly mammoth to deal with. If Gromp paid more attention to one or both of these new elements in his life, Gromp might still have been alive. Well, not today, but at least until something else killed him.

Things change. And in IT faster than in any other field. The weird part is that people want the change, but don’t want to change themselves. This is not something new. People always would like to just keep doing what they are doing, and that change will make the world better, but not require any change. Eventually, any kind of evolution requires adaptation. That is how the world works, that is how time and progress work.

Gromp’s situation had changed compared to what he was used to. It doesn’t mind if it was an element of the environment (Felix) or the tools he used (the club), when something changes around you, you better adapt, because the change already has taken place. Gromp could not ignore Felix once he charged… he needed to deal with it. Gromp did not, and, well, the rest is history.

A lot of times, when working on a project that requires new elements, new functionality, I encounter resistance when new interfaces are introduced. Especially under the cover of ‘it is not user-friendly’. User-friendliness or usability are often dragged into a conversation when something new is introduced.

People want to have new things, but they want to keep the old way of working, and not want any changes. For example, a design has 4 blocks on the screen, each taking of a quarter of the screen. Each block represents one functionality. Now, the owner of the project wants to add 2 additional functionalities, but doesn’t like that the new design includes smaller blocks on the screen because now it shows 6 blocks, and the 4 looked so much better. Very quickly, usability will worm its way into the conversation, and the blame is on the designer because he or she delivers a design that is supposedly ‘not usable’.

But this is the thing, isn’t it; every bit of change comes with a required change in behavior of the user. And usability doesn’t mean things always have to be easy to learn; it means with proper amount of learning you can do things very well.

I notice it for example with Windows 8. I am a very happy user of the system, and even more so of Windows Phone 8, which to me is the first phone I have owned since the Siemens S35 in 1998 that I really, really like. Yes, it all required me to learn to use it, and some things I immediately liked, some things I did not, but now I have learned these things and everything goes faster in behavior, and with my machines, as they went before.

With the phone, I finally have a phone that replaced my GPS and my portable music player completely, and it is the first smart phone that I use to surf and write emails with without hesitation. This is not a praise for the OS, it is that it took some time for me to learn it, and now that I know how to work it, it makes my life a lot easier.

So much so, that I even am planning to replace my iPad with a Surface. Not a PRO, I don’t need another full computer, an RT would be perfect for me. And it is not about that I want everything from Microsoft, but I am happy with how it works, and it makes me believe in having different devices on the same platform.

But, also from the tech world there are a lot of people so very anti change. When fulfilling my duties as the family computer-handyman, I had to help my father-in-law out of a problem with his computer. I was not there at the time, but I advised also maybe upgrading to Windows 8. But when he called around to some IT support professionals, they all told him vigorously to not upgrade to Windows 8 because it is more difficult, and it is a waste of time and money. In the end, I upgraded him anyway, and he is happy as can be. His 3-year-old computer is faster, and it took him about 5 minutes to get the hang of everything again.

But we are not talking about Windows alone, look at how Apple introduced the iPod earlier on. It is never a problem when introducing a new device, to have a new interface with it. I still consider the wheel and the click-wheel to be one of the best hardware interfaces for what it should do that has ever been designed. Of course, it would not work anymore with the complex interfaces the iPod, iPad and iPhone support, but back in the day, it worked amazingly well. Nobody complained, until the 2nd generation that placed four different buttons on top of the wheel. These were required to work with new functionalities. The iPod was not only for navigating anymore, people were now able to do more stuff on their little device, which required more interface possibilities. Apple’s answer to the interface was the click wheel, that became integrated in the versions after that.

Still, for the more complex operations, you needed to hook it up to your computer, and use iTunes, which, well, was not that user-friendly.

Complex operations require training to understand and to master. You cannot expect things to stay simple, if you want to do something complex. Sure, you need a good interaction designer to understand this, and apply it. But also, as any trained interaction designer or usability designer can tell you; you only know if something is designed well is to create some user tests.

Gromp wanted to do something complex with a simple interface; kill a bigger and badder woolly mammoth with a tool he did not yet understand. You might understand that the outcome would not be completely satisfying….

…for Gromp at least.



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