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Does usability matter?

I place a high value on usability.  But I have used some very successful products (and websites) which have very poor usability.  And, in thinking over the various processes and criteria which I've seen used in making buying decisions, usability has been of little or no importance.  It appears that usability has only a small effect on the success or failure of a product.

I am at a loss to understand why this is so, since poor usability can have a dramatic impact on productivity.  To say nothing of frustration.

So I ask... how much does usability matter?  Where is it important?  What am I missing here?

-Thomas

Thomas
Thursday, January 30, 2003

If you are selling software out-of-a-box, the easier it is to use, you have a better chance of selling more.

It also matters, how you define success and productivity>

Prakash S
Thursday, January 30, 2003

I think the definition of usability is important here: I don't ever use the term, because of its ill-defined-ness.

If a product has a very complex and counter-intuitive interface, it's bad, right?

Not necessarily: I like to consider Macromedia's Flash here. It's got an interface with tons of widgets and buttons and launch switches and such, jargon all over the place, and it succeeds: Why? Because despite this complexity, it's the most usable (once learned) interface for doing that sort of work. Once learned, it works very well.

A lot of 3D applications are like this: filled with jargon and buttons and views and such, and are *very* intimidating. But they are a good interface for what it is, despite the complexity.

I only point this out because the biggest criticism of interfaces I see is complexity. It's overwhelming to many people. I don't think this is always avoidable, though (as above).

OTOH, products like Adobe Photoshop manage to keep the amount of options and tools and such manageable, but that's because there's only so much you can do to a 2D raster image :) And they are also easy to use.

I think usability matters. A lot. But I think there's a lot of facets to usability. Initial frustration might be bad, but what about frustration later once you get past the "What does the File menu do?" stage?

I'm not trying to excuse the unnecessary complexity that a lot of programs (especially unix command line utilities, although this has advantages (though I don't feel they are worth my time learning yet)) add, for apparently no reason, which is bad. But sometimes it's necessary, or at least better than the alternative.

Mike Swieton
Thursday, January 30, 2003

As far as whether it matters and the salability of products: find and read a copy of "The Inmates are Running the Asylum" by Alan Cooper. This book is completely about the usability aspects of common embedded SW based products, as well as computer programs. His take appears to be that customers have become accustomed to poor usability and have come to expect it. Also, he describes "survivor" mentalities in some groups of users, who pride themselves on the suffering they go through in figuring out poorly designed SW products.


On the salability of poorly designed products: I suspect that lots of programs are acquired by purchasing managers for the enterprise, and the users are deemed as an unwashed rabble of lowly serfs with no voting rights - "higher  and nobler things are **IMPORTANT**, scum worker,  than your mere creature comforts"....  I bet that this internal dialog goes on even if it's never explicitly stated.


One of Cooper's central points appears to be that geeks suck at design because the culture of our industry makes us tending to be insensitive to outright sadistic toward "normal" non techie users.


He advocates the creation of detailed user personnas early in the design phase of a project, which then guide product planners in formulating the user interface of the product.


There's a lot more in this book too. I recommend that if current usability practices disturb you, buy or borrow and read this book.

790 Robot Head
Thursday, January 30, 2003

"There's a lot more in this book too. I recommend that if current usability practices disturb you, buy or borrow and read this book. "

...and read it with a big salt shaker nearby....

Cooper does make a lot of excellent points. I haven't read that book, but I read his "About Face" and I agreed with about 85-90% of what he wrote. The rest of it I wondered what in the world he was smoking...I've read some of his opinion pieces in VSM and there are times when he is dead-on, and there are times when he is just out there.

Mark Hoffman
Thursday, January 30, 2003

"If you are selling software out-of-a-box, the easier it is to use, you have a better chance of selling more."

This isn't really the case since the interface is not evaluated prior to purchase.

Interface is important but not critical.

pb
Thursday, January 30, 2003

Interface quality is evaluated prior to purchase.  People read reviews before dropping $500 on software.  The reviewer almost always mentions ease of use as a factor in his/her evaluation.

The reason we have GUIs everywhere is that GUI apps have trounced other apps that are harder to use.  Why should a bank pay to train 3000 users in one application when a competing app can be grasped intuitively?  Why design a public pay-per-service web site that causes customers to make multiple calls to tech support, when a slightly better design would prevent this expense?

Interface quality is worth the trouble.

Ran Whittle
Thursday, January 30, 2003

Mark: I agree with the "salt shaker." Alan obviously has an axe to grind with software developers, whom he almost (not quite) labels as narrow and arrogant idiot savants, in practice if not literally. But he's a long standing geek of high repute himself.  It feels like massive hubris - "I am a rennaissance man but nobody else is allowed to be and everyone else should know their place."


Yeeeah, right. But the book will make anyone close to the software business think more about how things are designed.

790 Robot Head
Thursday, January 30, 2003

Does anything matter?

Just joking, sometimes usability really means 'learning curve'. Just because something is a bit harder to learn, doesn't make it unusable.

Just take the cockpit of a 747 for example, I bet we'd all find a few usability issues there, right?

Alberto
Thursday, January 30, 2003

Usability matters.  If there were a quantitative measure of things like usability, there would a minimum level necessary to get into a market.

Products which go further can use their emphasis on usability to get differentiation from their competitors.  Products that don't differentiate themselves die.  You have to pick an attribute in which you want to excel, and tell everybody you are the BEST in that area, and then go try and live up to that promise.

Obviously you should try to pick a differentiator which will help you attract market share.  If Ford started selling glow-in-the-dark hot pink minivans tomorrow, they would certainly differentiate themselves, but I rather doubt there is a substantial market segment that cares.

As a differentiator, usability works fairly well a lot of the time.  It will usually get you a small and devoted following.  CityDesk plays the usability angle.  Apple Macintosh does too.

Some products prefer to place their emphasis on other areas like scalability, performance, or stability.  Those approaches can work too.

Fatal strategies include:

(1)  trying to be the best in all areas

(2)  having no speciality at all

Actually (1) is a special case of (2).

Eric W. Sink
Thursday, January 30, 2003

We have to define usability here.

Are we saying that two products have the same features, but one is harder to use?

Or, by usability here do we mean how suitable it is for the task?

I am going to assume we mean that the GUI, and “flow” of the program is better in one case.

Sure, the user experience is much better when things work as expected, or in a fashon that is a easy.

If you take a look at the accounting software for a Pc’s, there is not much that really is important. Your basic accounts and stuff is really the same for most accounting packages. Good accounting software has been available for PC based systems for a good 20 years. A real nuts and bolts type industry, and it is kind of boring. Not much fun, and each accounting package pretty well has the basic concepts of account numbers, and double entry booking keeping down pat.

Not much room to grow in  that industry, is there?

Then Quicken accounting came along and caused a STUNNING boom in accounting software for pc’s. All of a sudden, average JOE could now setup and run an accounting system. Prior to that,you needed some accounting training to properly setup and run a system.

You don’t think usability has an effect? Making a task easy due to minor change in the GUI can make you a millionaire.  Quicken revolutionized the accounting software industry over night. It started a boom in a industry that was previously boring. Even Microsoft had to jump in with Microsoft Money. Suddenly, accounting software for the average Joe was now important. Prior to quicken the existing market was really quite saturated. There was not much more one could do with accounting.

They did three incredibility simple, but amazing things with Quicken that make the program instantly useable to average Joe.

1) Removed any requirement to use account numbers such as 101, 202 etc. (you can use them, but they removed the NEED to use those numbers). After all, most people kind of know that in accounting you have some accounts and some things called categories. I agree, and who really cares if those categories have some strange numbers that the accounting profession uses!…I certainly don’t care! Further, I CAN LEARN them later! I do know that I have a office supply category, but that is all I care to (or should have to) know about!

2) Presented the user with a familiar interface that was actually built around a cheque. The screen looked just like a cheque and you fill it in. Again, other systems had you fill in the same information, but I don’t even know what that is called in terms of accounting. I am not even sure what part of the accounting system I would go to. However, I just need to pay a bill, and screen to write a cheque is ideal. This simple observation by Quicken was probably the greatest single innovation in the product.

3) I could use the product, and know squat about double entry book keeping. It is did it all behind the scenes for you. Who cares anyway!

So, quicken had the same functionality as most accounting systems, but it identified 2, or 3 user interface problems. In fact, they were not really user interface problems at all. They were things that you needed to know to run an accounting system. They simply attacked those things that you need to know. The end results is that now Quicken is a household word. The results speak for them selves.

As far as the person not having tried the product before they buy. Well, quicken was real big on free trials. The competitors to Quicken were caught off guard so bad it is not even funny! They could try and start offering free trials to the average Joe, but average Joe could not use their products. Word of mouth is also very good. If you user experiance is good, then your users get hooked.

Also, people felt empowered for the first time as far a accounting goes. Wow, I can do my own accounting, and not have to go to nigh school to learn the stupid thing!

Quicken had a fabulous initial user Experience. They also included a whole bunch of templates for certain types of popular industry, and pre-loaded the categories in for you!

Again, it just works, and rocks right out of the box.

Is good usability important? Yes..it can make a millionaire many times over!

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
Kallal@msn.com

Albert D. Kallal
Thursday, January 30, 2003

I view software as "usable" when an end-user with existing business/domain knowledge is instantly (or at least very quickly) productive.

So when you look at it that way, usability is a must have.  Who would want customers to be UN-productive with their product?

One problem is that most managers view usability as nothing more than pretty icons.

A bigger problem is that most developers don't have (or don't want) a standardized implementation of the business tier that frees them up to work on the UI.

In a perfect world, developers would come in two flavors:  component and user-interface.

Joe Paradise
Thursday, January 30, 2003

It comes down to what usability means to you.

Some people take it to mean that things must be simple. I'd agree that making things complicated just for the sake of it is always a bad idea, but some things are just plain complex, need that complexity exposed to the user because its something they need control over, and therefore require a complicated interface.

Someone mentioned macromedia flash and I think the interface for that is a case in point; the user gets hit with a lot of stuff because they need to be. Replacing half the controls with a dancing paperclip that said "Hey it looks like you are designing an animated widget" would not be helpful at all.

Its not about making things simple or complex or dumb or difficult, but appropriate for the audience.

Robert Moir
Friday, January 31, 2003

Usability simply means making it easier to get things done with your product.  There's no need for any confusion over this, so long as you remember you have to take into account users of varying levels of ability and experience.  Making a product simple to use for a new user is only going to cause frustration if you force your power users to step through a wizard for every operation.

Tognazzini goes through these issues (and others) here:
http://www.asktog.com/menus/designMenu.html

Articles from 1998 and 1999 are the most interesting.

JP
Friday, January 31, 2003

It is cost versus benefit. Usability can reduce the cost, but not increase the benefit. I will not buy an extremely usable product that does nothing I want. I will buy a seriously usability challenged package and live with it because it does give me something I need.

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, January 31, 2003

I think this whole thing also has to center around your target market. If you're writing some widget for the IT industry, chances are you'll have a group of people who can readily absorb the learning curve of a less-than-perfectly designed app (as far as usibility goes). On the other hand, one of the apps I wrote is in the top three of it's market because of it's ease of use. The GUI is all visually represented, with drag-n-drop functionality. Some of the competitive apps are list based and harder to use. In a market where there are constantly volunteers running the software, they need to be able to sit down and learn the basics in literally minutes. Our software sells because we've made that possible.

HeyCoolAid!
Friday, January 31, 2003

If there was only one book on software left on earth I would hope it was "The lunatics are running the asylum" by Cooper.

One of the points he makes is that success in the software industry is not as much a lottery as people like to say, and that paying attention to usablitiy is one way of keeping ahead of the game.

Another point he makes is that the distribution of users by skill in the real world is a Bell Curve. Most users are intermediate users, because beginner users don't stay so for long, and when a user reaches the level of competence necessary to do his job the incentive to learn more disappears. Yet these users are the ones that are least catered to. The reason is that the sales people see a disproportionate number of newbies, often they are trying to push the product to customers for the first time, and the developers see a disproportionate number of advanced users because they are the ones whose problems are passed on to them from tech support. So we get lots of  wizards for the clueless, and masses of technical detail for the clued-up, but not a great deal for thje masses inbetween.

Stephen Jones
Friday, January 31, 2003

Has anyone taken any courses given by Cooper? I have both his books but was wondering if taking the 5 day 'Interaction Design Practicum' would be worthwhile.

Does anyone here use the Goal Directed/Persona method with successful results?

Vincent Vega
Saturday, February 01, 2003

I see a lot of discussion in this thread regarding the meaning of "usability," but (unless I've missed it...) no discussion surrounding the definition of "successful."

If "successful" works under the limited definition of selling copies and creating buzz, sure, it's easy to be successful wihtout paying much attention to usability.  But if the product manager has to include the cost of tech support in the profit-loss statement (e.g., the profits for the sales are dimished by the cost of the calls and/or web development for support pages, plus bandwidth), or has additional requirements such as not intruding on the company's goodwill (that is, doesn't hurt chances of future software sales/repeat business), then success is much more likely to be achieved if "usability" is a criterion.

A product manager has to do more than create sales;  a product manager has to generate usage.  Anyone here hear the story of David Ogilvie looking at the cans of Campbell Soups in the cabinet, and saying something like, "you know, these just don't make me hungry."  A product that is sold -and- used will be more likely to create future sales for a company, be it in other products or future upgrades.

As for how often usability is an apparent criterion in purchasing a product, it's usually not noticed when it works, but can be a criterion when it doesn't work.  I once had a 4-slice toaster from Cuisinart that broke the visual connection between the toggle to turn the 3/4 slice slot on:  to have it on, the toggle had to be pointed -away- from the 3/4 slice slot.  After too many instances of half of my toast not being toasted, I threw it away, *even though it was a very expensive toaster.*  And I will not buy Cuisinart toasters again.

Frank Lynch
Sunday, February 02, 2003

Read a copy of "Tog on Interface".  One of the things Tog does really well is back-of-envelope calculations of how usability improvements save users money.  For example, he used AOL's early Macintosh email system as an example.  When you created a new message, the cursor wasn't put into the subject field automatically; you had to manually reposition it with the mouse.  Tog estimated that the collective time wasted by the users of AOL just on doing this one task added up to 80 person-years of effort.  A little program change would save an amazing amount of money and time over a whole population of users.

Most apps aren't used by such a large population, but if you're making something that you want to reach a large audience, it is worth considering issues of efficiency and simplicity in your user interface.  You will win over customers, and they will be eager to see what you do next.

Ben Combee
Wednesday, February 05, 2003

I would have to disagree that Macromedia Flash has a usable interface. I think this is largely due to the product being purchased by macromedia and their apparent desire to reinvent it as a "baby" Director. Flash has strayed from it's origins as a tool for creating animation since Macromedia bought it. The company seems intent on turning it into an application development system for the web, with the resulting bloat of features and inevitable decline in reliability and performance. The only reason I find this software usable at all is because I started around version 3, and I still keep version 4 on my hard drive for simple animation tasks, when I don't feel like wading through all those palettes. But if I were a new user, I would be terrified by the interface. Worse, it's scripting language has evolved to the point where only a background in programming and a half dozen good books on the topic give the user any hope of using it. (I am continually appalled at how poorly documented scripting languages are by the companies who develop them)

This would all be status quo, if the target audience for Flash was programmers. But it isn't. At least, it wasn't. It was built for designers. There is absolutely no need for animation and drawing tools to be put in the hands of people with no inherent artistic abilities. The result of doing so is the subsequent flood of animated garbage we are seeing all over the web now.

Don't get me wrong, it's an awesome tool. But it really is trying to be two or more tools, and it's usability has suffered as a result. (Their one concession to this fact has been the option to create custom sets of palettes for different users, which is clever, but ultimately just forcing me to do the job of optimizing the interface myself. I don't need software finding things for me to do. I have things to do. That's why I bought the software...)

I don't think this is that uncommon. The "pay to upgrade" business model the software companies currently use encourages a steady stream of software suffering from feature glut, as new buttons get squeezed into whatever gaps the programmers can find in an effort to slap that new and improved label on the box.

Frankly, I don't think Photoshop is all that more useful now than it was two or three versions ago...but it's certainly less usable. (For example, trying drawing a simple straight line in Photoshop 7...it is now a four step process. It used to be a one step process. I have 87 more options for that line, of course...86 of which I will never use...but it takes me four times as long to do a simple task.)

I got off on a rant, and forgot my point. But I think the bottom line is that sometimes too much choice is a bad thing.

Joe
Saturday, February 07, 2004

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