Sidelining usability is a path to failure
Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007

Todd Wilkens, a design researcher at Adaptive Path, wrote a dubious piece today on the AP blog titled "Why usability is a path to failure".

The post, which claims that usability is not a differentiator and is a sinkhole of energy for minimal benefits, is so buried in completely bungled comparisons that it can't even serve as a starting point for a debate.


When talking of a great writer, how often do people talk about how amazingly legible they are? When talking about a great photographer, does anyone ever talk about the fact that his prints actually developed and thus are visible? Obviously, the answer is no. Legibility and visibility are the bare minimum of requirements for a successful piece of writing or a photograph.
This comparison is fatally flawed on several levels. The most glaring problem is that artifacts with good usability are usually not perceived as having an interface at all. The modern book has superb usability, the result of centuries of iterative design. Advances in binding and folding, printing techniques and, above all, typography and layout, have led to books that are so usable that the idea of a 'book with a bad UI' is silly. Seven centuries ago your book would have been three times the volume of your laptop, have awful scanability due to tight leading and low contrast paper, not to mention that it would have been handwritten in Latin. Sure that was a long time ago (let's not even think about the usability of papyrus scrolls and tablets) but it's ridiculous to point to books as evidence that usability is a path to failure.
Any person who focused most of their efforts on legibility or visibility would probably have almost no chance of being a successful artist.
Nobody is suggesting that the 'creative' source must be the person who also manages the usability of the finished product, but it's silly to assert that websites don't need usability because writers don't. (Also, they do. They're called 'editors'.)

The photographic print analogy is similarly flawed. 'Usability' requires 'use' which implies 'interaction'. The act of gazing at a photographic print requires little to no interaction and consequently usability doesn't play a major role. If Todd believes this analogy stretches to new media or other tools then I would encourage him to unplug his keyboard and mouse, remove the steering wheel from his car and toss his remote control to the dog because the argument that usability is unimportant falls flat when you try to apply it to products that actually rely on interaction.

The important bit is that books and photographs are static pieces of media, while the same can't be said of most artifacts that undergo usability research (the notable exceptions being critical reference materials found on aircraft, submarines, spacecraft and hospitals, which undergo a large amount of usability research because they're intended for situations where the inability to find information as quickly as possible can have dire consequences). Books and photographs are essentially 'solved problems'. Most books and photographs are bordering on 'maximum usability' because the media has been so thoroughly iterated.

Digital media, along with almost every other tool devised in the past century, is not a solved problem. Some sites and products get it better than others, but the space hasn't yet evolved to the point where there are accepted paragon exemplars of usability, where any site that's not perfectly usable simply hasn't copied from the platonic ideal yet. That's still at least 200 years away, if not much further.

Praising usability is like giving me a gold star for remembering that I have to put each leg in a *different* place in my pants to put them on. (Admittedly, I *do* give my 2 year old daughter a gold star for this but then she’s 2.) Usability is not a strategy for design success.
As my co-worker Kerah Pelzcarski notes, "Yes, but Todd, it's not your daughter that's being tested -- it's the pants. If both legs had been sewn shut, they wouldn't have been very usable."

Todd is right about one thing though: Good usability is not to be praised. It should be expected and go unnoticed. Unusable products are quickly shunned by users, creating a Darwinistic model which means that even if we don't design around issues like comprehensibility and ease of use, given sufficient time and new designs we'll eventually evolve better products. However, since I don't have 4 billion years to spend, I choose to make my products better before they fail and are replaced.

The efficiency you create in your interface will be copied almost instantaneously by your competitors. Recently, I’m even coming to believe that focusing on usability is actually a path to failure.
Usability testing is a means to make your product better than the mediocrity of the competition. It's ridiculous to cite design plagiarism as a reason to not bother making your products better than the competition. The same argument could be applied to any aspect of the process of invention, and by applying it thusly you're saying that any attempt at innovation is the quickest route to failure through the squandering of resources. This may be true if you're making a sandwich, but not if you're more ambitious.

Despite Todd's sensationalistic claims, there are countless examples of products and services that have thrived against competitors due largely to a superior user experience generated through usability research. The Palm Pilot over the Newton, Southwest Airlines over United, the iPod/iTunes over countless mp3 players and music stores with lower costs and longer feature lists, Amazon over every other online book retailer.

Usability is too low level, too focused on minutia. It can’t compel people to be interested in interacting with your product or service. It can’t make you compelling or really differentiate you from other organizations.
This is a fallacious argument. By scoping the broad concept of 'usability' down to just those parts which are 'low level' and 'focused on minutia[e]' Todd seeks to justify his assertion that it can't make your service compelling or differentiate your product. What Todd misses is that usability isn't about arranging the furniture into the most pleasing configuration. It's making sure that people can find the bathrooms and that the doors are tall enough that people don't bump their heads.

We're lucky if usability on a product gets to the 'fit and polish' stage. Before it gets that far, usability has to identify and repair the blocking errors in a design. Usability isn't about making products exceed their design potential; it's about making sure that as much as possible of that potential is met. Usability is about making sure that users can figure out how to accomplish the purpose that the product or service is intended to facilitate, whether it's buying a book online, sending an email, or safely using a nailgun.

In closing, Todd writes:

Or put another way, there’s only so far you can get by streamlining the shopping cart on your website.
If 'only so far' is increasing task-completion by 23% (go ahead, ask Amazon about the impact of their 2001 shopping cart redesign, and then ask them about Amazon Prime). Usability alone isn't a substitute for functionality, but in a competitive environment it's a requisite for a successful product, and I'd expect a design researcher to know this.
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