Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Early Indications September 2010: The Power and Paradoxes of Usability

Usability is among the most difficult of topics to define and analyze.
At one level, it is much like the famous Supreme Court justice who
noted of potentially criminal extreme sexual images, "you know it when
you see it." At another level, the number of daily moments that
reinforce the presence of poor design can be overwhelming. Examples
are everywhere: building entrance doors with a grab handle you're
supposed to push but that you instinctively (and unsuccessfully) pull,
all manner of software (in Outlook, does hitting "cancel" stop the
transaction or clear a meeting from the calendar?), and pinched
fingers and scraped knuckles. Usability may be easy to spot, but it
is clearly very difficult to engineer in.


Why is this so? As Don Norman, one of the heroic figures in modern
usability studies, puts it in a recent ACM piece, complex products are
not merely things; they provide services: "although a camera is
thought of as a product, its real value is the service it offers to
its owner: Cameras provide memories. Similarly, music players provide
a service: the enjoyment of listening." In this light, the product
must be considered as part of a system that supports experience, and
systems thinking is hard, complicated, and difficult to accomplish in
functionally-siloed organizations.

The ubiquitous iPod makes his point perfectly:

"The iPod is a story of systems thinking, so let me repeat the essence
for emphasis. It is not about the iPod; it is about the system. Apple
was the first company to license music for downloading. It provides a
simple, easy to understand pricing scheme. It has a first-class
website that is not only easy to use but fun as well. The purchase,
downloading the song to the computer and thence to the iPod are all
handled well and effortlessly. And the iPod is indeed well designed,
well thought out, a pleasure to look at, to touch and hold, and to
use. Then there is the Digital Rights Management system, invisible to
the user, but that both satisfies legal issues and locks the customer
into lifelong servitude to Apple (this part of the system is
undergoing debate and change). There is also the huge number of
third-party add-ons that help increase the power and pleasure of the
unit while bringing a very large, high-margin income to Apple for
licensing and royalties. Finally, the 'Genius Bar' of experts offering
service advice freely to Apple customers who visit the Apple stores
transforms the usual unpleasant service experience into a pleasant
exploration and learning experience. There are other excellent music
players. No one seems to understand the systems thinking that has made
Apple so successful."

One of the designers of the iPod interface, Paul Mercer of Pixo,
affirms that systems thinking shaped the design process: "The iPod is
very simple-minded, in terms of at least what the device does. It's
very smooth in what it does, but the screen is low-resolution, and it
really doesn't do much other than let you navigate your music. That
tells you two things. It tells you first that the simplification that
went into the design was very well thought through, and second that
the capability to build it is not commoditized." Thus more complex
management and design vision are prerequisites for user
simplification. (Mercer quoted in Bill Moggridge, Designing
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007))

Because it requires systems thinking and complex organizational
behavior to achieve, usability is often last on the list of design
criteria, behind such considerations as manufacturability or modular
assembly, materials costs, packaging, skill levels of the factory
employees, and so on. The hall of shame for usability issues is far
longer than the list of successes. For every garage door opener, LEGO
brick, or Amazon Kindle, there are multiple BMW iDrives, Windows
ribbons, European faucets, or inconsistent anesthesia machines:
doctors on a machine from company A turned the upper right knob
clockwise to increase the flow rate, but had to go counter-clockwise
on company B's machine in the next operating room over. Fortunately,
the industry has standardized the control interface, with a resulting
decline in human endangerment. (See Atul Gawande, Complications: A
surgeon's notes on an imperfect science
(New York: Macmillan, 2003))


As Ronald Rust and his colleagues have shown, usability presents
manufacturers of consumer electronics with a paradox. In purchase
mode, buyers overemphasize option value in their purchase
consideration: if multifunction device from company D does 13 things
and a competitor from company H performs 18 actions, the potential
utility is overemphasized even if the known need is only for, say, six
tasks. Watching the evolution of the Swiss Army knife testifies to
this phenomenon: very few of us, I suspect, have precisely the tools
we a) want or b) use on our knife.

Once they get that 18-way gadget home, however, option value recedes
and usability comes to the fore, and the extra controls, interfaces,
and other factors that drive complexity can make using the more
"capable" device frustrating at best and impossible at worst. At
consumer electronics retailers, most returned items function
perfectly, but are often returned because they are too hard to
integrate into everyday life. (They may also be returned because
consumers routinely seek better deals, get tired of a color or finish,
or use the purchase essentially as a free rental, performing a task
then returning the device.)

Hence the paradox: does the designer back off on features and
capabilities, and thus lose the head-to-head battle of shelf-side
calculus in order to win on usability, or do purchase rather than use
considerations win out? There are some ways out of this apparent
paradox: modular add-ons, better point-of-sale information, and
tutorials and other documentation (knowing that the vast majority of
people will never read a manual). The involvement of user groups is
growing, for both feedback on products in development and support
communities for stumped users. (Roland T. Rust, Debora Viana Thompson,
and Rebecca W. Hamilton, "Defeating Feature Fatigue," Harvard Business
, February 2006)

At its worst, overwhelming complexity and other forms of poor
usability can kill, as the anesthesia example makes clear. Nuclear
power plants, military hardware, and automobiles provide ready
examples. Especially with software-driven interfaces becoming the
norm (even for refrigerators and other devices with little status to
report and few user-driven options to adjust), the potential for
either bugs or unforeseen situations to escalate is becoming more

Beyond Gadgets

This essay will not become a tribute to Apple or Southwest Airlines,
however, if only to escape the cliche. Instead, I'd like to discuss a
recent video
by TED producer Chris Anderson. In it he looks at the
proliferation of online videos as tools for mass learning and
improvement. Starting with the example of self-taught street dancers
in Brazil, Japan, LA, and elsewhere, he argues that the broad
availability of video as shared show-and-tell mechanism spurs, first,
one-upmanship through imitation and then innovation. The level of TED
talks themselves, Anderson argues, provides home-grown evidence that
cheap, vivid multimedia can raise the bar for many kinds of tasks:
futurist presentations, basketball dunks, surgical techniques, and so

Five things are important here.

1) The low barrier to entry for imitator/innovator #2 to post her
contribution to the discussion may inspire, inform, or infuriate
imitator/innovator #3. Mass media did some of these things (in
athletic moves, for example: watch a playground the week after the
Super Bowl or a halfpipe after the X games). The lack of a feedback
loop, however, limited the power of broadcast to propagate secondary
and tertiary contributions.

2) Web video moves incredibly fast. The speed of new ideas entering
the flow can be staggering once a video goes "viral," as its
epidemiological metaphor would suggest.

3) The incredible diversity of the online world is increasing every
year, so the sources of new ideas, fresh thinking, and knowledge of
existing solutions multiply as well. Credentials are self-generated
rather than externally conferred: my dance video gets views not
because I went to Julliard but because people find it compelling, and
tell their friends, followers, or colleagues.

4) Web video is itself embedded in a host of other tools, both social
and technical, that are also incredibly easy to use. Do you want to
tell someone across the country about an article in today's paper
newspaper? Get out the scissors, find an envelope, dig up his current
address, figure out correct postage (pop quiz: how much is a
first-class stamp today?), get to a mailbox, and wait a few days.
Want to recommend a YouTube or other web video? There are literally
hundreds of tools for doing so, essentially all of which are free and
have short learning curves.

5) Feedback is immediate, in the form of both comments and views
counters. The reputational currency that attaches to a "Charlie bit
my finger" or "Evolution of dance" is often (but not always)
non-monetary, to be sure, but emotionally extremely affecting

With such powerful motivators, low barriers to participation, vast and
diverse populations, rapidity of both generation and diffusion, and a
rich ancillary toolset relating to online video, Anderson makes a
compelling case for the medium as a vast untapped resource for
problem-solving on multiple fronts. In addition, because it involves
multiple senses, the odds that a given person will grasp my ideas
increases as the viewer can hear, watch, or read text relating to the

Thus the power of extreme usability transcends gadgets, frustration,
and false-failure returns. When done right, giving people easy access
to tools for creation, distribution, interpretation, and
classification/organization can help address problems and
opportunities far beyond the sphere of electromechanical devices.
Apart from reducing frustration, improving safety, or increasing
sales, lowering barriers to true engagement (as in the web browser,
for example) may in fact help change the world.