Fail Lists ( Part 1 ) : Misconceptions about Usability

Sign-Error-iconI thought it would be a good time to start something called ‘fail lists’. Simple lists that show the most common problems, issues and misconceptions about fundamental elements in IT and web publishing. The reason is simple, I see so many projects fail because too much time is spent on things that feel very important, but actually are not. Or, that are easy to fix, or worse, are of no influence of a project at all.

The first list that I would like to start is a list about usability. Don’t get me wrong, usability is a huge deal, but generally completely misunderstood. People are being trained for years to handle good usability, but even more than with graphic design, so many people think they know everything about it and count themselves a professional. The problem is, usability and usability design is something that is much more difficult to master, but actually, easy to implement as long as you heed the advice of a trained and experienced usability designer. Don’t have one on your team, at least hire one free-lance during the conceptual phase of your project to guide you in the right direction.

Fail #1: Usability means that is it easy to use.

The main thing that I hear is that usability is the same as an easy to use product. The problem is that because of this misconception, many products actually become less usable. This mistake in understanding of usability is usually made by people who have an idea what usability actually is, but miss the expertise or experience. Sure, it is important that something is not difficult to use. But there is a world of difference between ‘easy’ and ‘difficult’. Most of the times, people want to have the idea that something should be so easy, that when they start something, like a website or a physical product, it should immediately be clear what is happening and they should be immediately be 100% productive.

The big issue here actually is that it is easy to be a company that can publish on the web. Production companies or studios, or manufacturers, know that you first have to technically design the whole product, all that it can do, and with that perspective, understand what the interface should be like. This way, your users have to learn only once the elements of your product, and can then easily learn and master your product. If you design something to be usable and easy, but it is actually a difficult product to start with by means of what it can do, your users will only experience bumps on the road every time they have to learn something new.

So, Usability means that something is easy to use in the scope of the project. Not that it has to be easy to use right from the start.

Fail #2: Everyone should be able to use your product.

This is another misconception I hear a lot, which is also mostly for web companies or indie companies that do digital distribution all by themselves. Everyone who produces something physical, or something that has to go through a decent financial investment phase or production stage, knows that part of your production or business plan is ‘Who will be your audience?’. You have to really research this. Find out who you are going to sell to, and thus, produce for. That is your target. Know them. And understand that those people are the people who should be able to use your product.

If you create a usability design for certified accountants, you know you can assume they know certain jargon and functionalities already before they even looked at your product for the first time. So you don’t have to make it extra easy for people to learn those things. You can assume that they know a certain base level that you can build on. Just like I assume you can read the English language when reading this blog. How do I know that so sure? Well, for starters, there is no way you could have arrived at this page without first visiting another English oriented website. And if you were able to get to find references to this blog, I assume that you at least are able to read the English language.

A good example of how most of use are confronted with this concept every day is when you get into your car. Everyone with a driver’s license has learned how to drive (well, let’s hope). You did not get into the car for the first time in your life and just drove off like you had 5 years of experience. Car manufacturers do not design their cars for people who don’t have a driver’s license.

So, Everyone who is in your target audience should be able to use your product.

Fail #3: A good interface is a good usability design.

Oh, help me. This one breaks up most of the projects, or prevents deadlines from being made. Yes, a good interface is crucial for a good usability design, but a project can be perfectly usable without a good interface. They are not the same thing. An interface is the designed methods of how your users will use your product. So, you need a good interface. But more often than not companies trip over themselves trying to build ‘a good interface’. Simply, because they forget that their website, for example, already comes with a default interface. It can be your mouse, touch on your tablet or phone. These are things people are using, and are the first interface. If you are not sure, or have to make deadlines, rely on the basics and how your operating system is handling things. For example, if you want to make clear that people can click on a text, you can design that whole text, or rely on the colored underlined text called a hyperlink. It has been there for ages, every internet user already has been using it before they arrived at your site or ran your program. Don’t make it so difficult for yourself. There is a good interface in every OS. Rely on those manufacturers to do most of the heavy lifting, and then, once you see how people are using your product, you can always fine-tune it.

But most of the companies who have this idea about interfaces but do not really grasp what it really is (and usually, they don’t know that they don’t know) hurt them selves financially, and actually risk of making their product less usable. Take a look at some of the major websites out there; Google; Bing, Yahoo!, Craigslist, eBay, New York Times… all standard links, and it works. There is not amazing concept in the interface, and it simply works.

So, A good usability design is the one who makes the right use of the interface, not the other way around

Fail #4: Start your product with the perfect usability.

It is amazing how many companies refuse to launch a product or a website before the usability in their own opinion is perfect. Because, if you notice this in your company, you also notice that your sites never go online, or always keep changing. There is only one way to understand if your usability design is actually good; let your users use it. That means, run a correct usability lab, and have your target audience – real audience, not your friends or colleagues that consider themselves the target audience because they are not – use your product. Have a lot of them, so you have a good overall data report at the end. 2 users do not form a usability lab. Start out with at least 20, maybe 50. Gather all the data, and analyze it with someone who understands the data. That delivers the information that you need.

But a usability lab is a costly thing. Too costly for small publication companies or privately owned websites. What to do then?

Simple, use the web as your usability lab. Create a product using the basics of interface design that comes with the territory (see Fail #3). Put your product online; mention somewhere the word Beta letting people know that this thing you are showing is not the final version yet, and see what people do. See if they get to the pages you want them to get to, or not. And use that information to make changes to your product. And then release it again, and again if you must… just as long as you reach the usability level that you are looking for.

So, You cannot launch your product with the right usability if you don’t know how your users are using it yet. Use a usability lab to find out, or just test it in the real world, but never assume you know it better than your users.

Fail #5: One bad comment doesn’t make your product bad.

Another show-stopper that usually takes an unneeded amount of time. people or companies publishing their product, especially online, are so eager to get information. I would advice, put the site live, and just don’t look at the numbers or responses at least for a week. Why? Because otherwise the bad comments would simply provide the wrong picture about your product.

I have seen it so much that the moment a comment that points something out about usability, that it needs to be changed immediately. Usually, this results in changing things in a desperate moment to please everyone without understanding the design process you went through earlier. If your see the same comment multiple times, you should definitely investigate. But if you have 1,000 visitors and one comment, and you see that the users are using your site fine, don’t panic. Leave it be. You are not going to please everyone.

Should you ignore the comment? That depends on you. Maybe there is a very valuable idea in that comment that is worth looking into. But also, make the financial decision; what would it cost you to make the change? How does the ‘problem’ affect your current visitors? If the answer to the latter one is ‘in no way’, the costs of ‘fixing’ it are not worth it.

Also, keep in mind that, especially on the web, there are many key factors that can play with terrible user experiences that have nothing to do with your site; a badly installed browser, a not working mouse or touch device, slow internet connections, etc.

In your design phase make sure you design for the majority of your users, but keep in mind, you will never please everyone. And you don’t have to.

So, not all comments weigh just as heavy. Evaluate your user data and responses, but see them in the right context and understand the impact on your product.

Fail #6: Graphic design is no usability design

The last one for today. Although in a though out production, you should at least have an interaction or a usability designer present. Even if it is on consultancy basis. The issue is that in most companies they mistake a graphic designer for an interaction or usability designer.

This thought process is just as wrong as mistaking a project designer or a technical designer for a graphic designer. Usability – or even worse – interaction design is something very abstract. It is not about creativity, it is not about if something looks nice or not, or handles your style correctly. Usability is understanding your users and set up a framework that your graphic designer can design for.

And interaction designer goes even one step further, and listens to your wishes in the company about the product, and listens to the users, and try to persuade the users in making the right interactions so that they willingly follow the path that you as a company want them to follow.

These are two extremely abstract things that also change with the fashion of today’s devices. What was considered a usable design 5 years ago is hopelessly outdated since the use of touch-devices. Every time major design changes happen into OS’s the whole concept of what people are used to using changes. A usability or interaction designers know how to set your production up for these influences and the way people use it.

Understand that you graphic designer does not. Even if he says he does, just understand that he does not. He might have a good grasp on the concept, and might get the idea pretty well, but it is just like how a graphic designer doesn’t have to be a great programmer, it is the same thing with interaction design.

Keep in mind, you don’t require a usability or interaction designer to build a good site or production. There are millions of examples for that. As long as you rely on elements from Fail #3 and Fail #4 and Fail #5 you’ll be perfectly fine!

So, just understand the different area of expertise usability or interaction design is. And handle it appropriately, and you’ll be fine.


Next time, let’s tackle the fail list of publishing websites.

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