Monday, March 21, 2005


is usability demeaning?

Reading the current ACM Interactions magazine, I find a couple of provocative statements about how much usability really cares about people. Nico Macdonald writes: "in design, the advocacy of the user is often presented in terms of victimhood rather than recognizing people's innate abilities and adaptability. The idea that humans are proactive and problem-solving determinants of their own situations has tended to be replaced with a view of them as relatively incapable." Nico's position is that of a technophile and libertarian who sees usability as demeaning to people.

A different implied criticism comes from David Siegel and Susan Dray in their article comparing usability and ethnography. While in ethnography the focus is "on people and how they behave in context", in usability the focus is "on technology." They mention a "stereotype" that usability people are "so focused on technological features that they are hardly better than technocratic designers and developers." In human computer interaction, the emphasis is often on the computer, not on the human.

The issue comes down to whether we are drawn to technology, interested in it and excited by what it can do, or are having it forced on us, trying to accommodate ourselves to its demands. Of course both pull and push coexist. Many people elect to spend a lot of their free time using technology recreationally. At the same time, they are often forced to use technology against their wishes, such as when companies decide it is much cheaper to use an automated system instead of a person. Usability does increase user acceptance of technology. But acceptance shouldn't be confused with authorship. Usable products only allow people to do more easily what others have decided is worth doing.

I am not against usability, and don't necessarily consider it to be demeaning to people. In fact, I was one of the early popularisers of the concept in the UK, through conferences and writing.

But I do feel that usability-led thinking has come to dominate in many areas of online product development, and in some cases has substituted from design-led innovation. I am in favour of usability as an 'and' not an 'or' in the product development process.

I am also aware that the tendency to treat people as victims that we see in the discussions of the power of corporations and branding, and government and social behaviour has extended into the discussion of interaction design. Of course people should be given things that are easy to use, but we shouldn't underestimate their ability to learn things they have a motive for learning.
Sorry if I overstated your case Nico. When one equates "advocacy of the user" with seeing them as "incapable" one can easily assume that contempt rather than empathy motivates the usability profession, which I think is not fair. I agree with your point that usability seems to be only about whinging. There are valid and more suspect reasons for that.

Studies show again and again that users want interactive products simpler. It is not that they are necessarily "incapable", but the are often time-straved and not that interested in having to concentrate on the task. So the "don't make me think" attitude of usability is a reflection of the desire for users just to get a task done without bother. Some tasks are never going to be fun, such as paying a bill online. Not much scope for motivational user research there, but at least one can try to minimize the unpleasantness.

The other, less credible, reason usability whinges is because that is its source of political power. As I noted in my iPod entry, people generally don't talk about good usability, but they do talk about bad usability. I fully agree that usability needs to be about more than throddling complaints, but the profession hasn't figured how to articulate such a vision very well yet. So the debate you open is a valuable one.
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