Define Usability, Please

Ah, the old trustworthy REX. I loved it. Had Apps, Touch Screen, Internet, Office Apps, and fit in your wallet. And it was ahead of its time with usability... only no one thought that way.
Ah, the old trustworthy REX. I loved it. Had Apps, Touch Screen, Internet, Office Apps, and fit in your wallet. And it was ahead of its time with usability… only no one thought that way.

As I mentioned in my previous posting, I was faced with losing my prime source of income last month and of course that can hit hard. Very hard. Still, every action has its reaction, and mine was suddenly being there with a lot of time on my hands, and far less stress to deal with. And being someone who simply loves his work, I decided to use the time while looking for other work, to be well spent to put time into this product that I have been thinking about for such a long time.

But, just before I lost that income, I had a lunch with an old colleague who asked me a simple question; why wasn’t I going back into doing what I do best again. I started out my career as one of the first qualified and full-time trained Interaction Designers in the world. The very first school to do so, The Utrecht School of the Arts was the only school to actually start this course, years before usability design became a big thing.

I waved the comment of this ex colleague away with the thought that the money I was making now, was more than what I would be making as an Interaction Designer. But he asked me to check it out again. And as I did, I was surprised. While other salaries in the industry had dropped, Usability Designers (Interaction Designers, User eXperience (UX) Designers, or however you want to call our breed) actually were increasing in salaries. So, going back to my roots and doing what I do the very best, or sticking with what I was doing now, which often related to a lot of technology parts that I simply could not care about more. Oh, I am good at it, but it is easy to get very bored with it as well.

So I decided to give it a go. I brushed up my résumé and rebooted my orientation on the market. But, in the meantime, I grabbed up my project, and worked on it like there was no tomorrow. The good thing of working for a while on something for your own company is that you can do it exactly how you think it is the best. No people mentioning that it has to be different, no people who want to push their opinion or have you simply do what they tell you, even if you know from experience that you do know it better. But hey, that is work. And often it is good as well, as you learn new perspectives. But sometimes, you know your own job so much better than anyone else.

And in three weeks, there it was, a complete new platform for a shopping engine the way how I would envision it to work on current days computers. And believe me, I was the one telling myself to redo things, work them over, and make it better. But still, I was happy as a clam working with the finished product, testing it, working it some more, prototyping… everything. It simply worked, and first responses were very good without any real content to it.

But, at the same time, I also started to get surprised about the Usability job and project market. And that was that it appears to me that the so-called UX designer is just as much an enigma to the technology world as it was 18 years ago when I walked out of school and into my career. Because the impression that I started to develop now is that a UX designer is the modern-day art director for applications. Talking about the usability test tools, and especially the term ‘wire-framing’ is still wildly popular. But it is nowadays important that a UX designer programs HTML, JavaScript, jQuery, AJAX, and a lot more. True, everything in here is a good practice. I advice always a designer to know their platforms they are designing for, even if it is just to defend their decisions. And I happen to be very confident in my skills in these tools, languages and everything around it, both front-end and back-end.

But I miss, in each and every job or project description for UX design, actually a reference to usability. Usability is something invisible. Usability design is not graphic design, it is not development, but a complete skill to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, look through their eyes, and adapt to their understanding and level of comprehension. Then, based on what you imagine there, you draw up a usability design. And on top of that, you build (or hav it built by someone else) a graphic design.

This is where the wire-frames come into place, but the wire-frames are the last step of your usability design, while I notice it is often seen as the first step. And then, usability design is not an exact science. For example, we had a while, in the late nineties and early 2000’s that icon design was a lucrative business. Making an icon was the big thing for usability. Little pictures explaining exactly what something had to do if you clicked on it. The world would become so much better because of it.

Oh, it works as long as the number of options are not too many, or not too familiar. How would for example WordPress, what I use to write this blog, show a difference between the ‘Save Draft’ and ‘Publish’ button. Using the old-fashioned DISK icon wouldn’t make it clear what is a draft and what is a publication, and make it so clear everyone sees the difference. Who uses a DISK anyway still? I know it is around, but a lot of people who use computers now never used those 720kb disks before, maybe never even saw one. Should you show now a CD which is a simple circle that can look like anything else, or a chip, which would be something like a square?

These days it is okay to have things show up as texts again. A text is a great way, simply to describe. But if you have too many options, you have too much text. So you need to rethink how to present it to your users, and in what doses.

Usability design is an art. It is not technology. It is one of the few psychology infused professions that actually get physical results. It is not easy, and it changes all the time. Pre-2007 touch-screens were considered a problem. You could not ‘feel’ your interaction methods, so you could not use or type blind on a phone if it did not have real buttons. Touch was there, and the iPhone was absolutely not the first. In the late ’90s I owned the REX. A small PCMIA card that also contained a touch screen. It was super small, and absolutely amazing. You could download games on it, read your email, program it, and all the size of a thick credit card.

But it never really picked up, simply because it was not something considered very user-friendly. Would it be released in 2008, it would have possibly been a huge success with an updated color screen. But pre-iPhone it was absolutely considered a bad thing in usability to not ‘feel’ the texture of your input mechanisms. But the iPhone was so cool and popular, and it was the big thing, that the market got swamped with touch screens and it became something people were getting used to. Now, it is considered user-friendly. The market and the audience have learned to deal with things that we thought were bad in the past. Now, it is about the size of the buttons. Making everything big, clear, understandable. I know there is research going on at this moment in trying to get a dynamic texture back into the touch screens so that you actually could feel the buttons on the screen, but it is not there yet. But once it is, it might as well be that what we consider now so very user-friendly, is bad again in five years.

I had a talk about usability design this morning with a person from Merrill Lynch, a very intelligent guy, but the talk could not go beyond technology. A Usability Designer was simply someone with an impeccable knowledge about JavaScript, jQuery, AngularJS, AJAX etc. I guess it is the job of the Usability Designer anywhere to first come in and be the person people are looking for, and then astonishing them with what the job actually entails. But hey, nobody said it would be easy…

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