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Why Is It Hard To Make Things Easy? (part one)

Posted in Usability by Matt Eagar on September 18th, 2007

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In yesterday’s blog entry I wondered aloud why digital photo sharing is not growing more rapidly. I hinted that perhaps the reason is that it is not as easy as it should be.

In fact, ease of use — usability — is something that everyone seems to want, but few people are able to provide. Why is that? What is so hard about making things easy? Perhaps if we understand why usability is so elusive, we can find a better path to attain it.

To start, we have to acknowledge that usability is subjective. Things that are second nature to me (computers, cars, digital video recorders) are beyond my grandmother. Likewise, some older practices (Morse code, farming, penmanship) and some newer ones (preteen IM chat, pet health insurance, High School Musical 1, 2) have not clicked with me, either. But this subjectivity is not only generational, it is also experiential or cultural. For example, in many Western cultures white is a symbol of purity, and therefore popular at weddings. In some Eastern cultures, it is a symbol of death, and therefore only worn at funerals. Well, maybe those are the same — but you get the point.

The subjective nature of usability is problematic for two reasons. First, it means that a particular interface or design may be intuitive to one slice of the population, and confusing to another. Second, it is costly to measure – requiring focus groups, behavioral analyses, and statistical sampling. The design reality is that nothing will be completely intuitive to everyone, and we may never be really sure what the optimum design is.

Rather than deal with these problems, most organizations instead choose a top down approach. That is, they anoint some usability “experts” to determine the best design, to find the appropriate balance.

There is good reason to take the expert approach. Not only do they save time and enable relatively rapid development progress, knowledgeable experts also have a deeper understanding of psychology and ergonomics, allowing them to see things that technology consumers cannot identify even for themselves.

As I see it, however, there is one major problem with the expert approach: that is, experts must at once be well versed in the details of usability and design, and at the same time have enough empathy to understand how a true layman will react. Sadly, the more expert we become in a particular area, the less empathy we seem to retain for those who come with a fresh perspective.

Contradictions in Usability Design

In fact, this is one of the fundamental problems of usable design: it is always a balancing act between opposing goals. There is no single solution for usability, no way to mathematically derive the appropriate answer. Instead, usability is a tenuous mix — an unstable solution — of opposing themes. Only true artisans seem to have the capacity to weigh all of the considerations and propose appropriate solutions.

Thankfully, there do seem to be ways to learn appropriate design principles even if we do not have this aptitude. But a more in-depth discussion of these methods will have to wait for another day.

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