machinespace = the networked information space of ever-increasing complexity that humans have to interact with.

August 18, 2004

the two faces of Usability...

It's ironic, really. For years, we shouted from the rooftops about usability and its importance, and beat everyone to death using the end-user as a club.... finally, due to the sustained efforts of the design community and the usability gurus and of course, the dozens of books touting the value proposition of the big U, usability practitioners finally had what they always wanted - acknowledgment, responsibility and authority, to make sure the little guy is protected from the big bad developers… yes, I left respect out of the list. That has to be earned, not demanded.

Then what happened? Usability was the first member of the user-centered design proponent family to make the business case for their inclusion, and no sooner did they get corporate recognition and funding, they promptly forgot about the other members of the family.

They forgot their colleagues working as human factors practitioners, information architects, interaction designers, visual designers, prototypers, content developers etc etc, and went off to buy themselves expensive equipment and set up laboratories, test facilities and such… they set themselves up as a "quality function" to test designs for "usability".

They developed strategies for testing of software and web-sites and carried out extensive studies, pointing out all the things that were wrong and making their recommendations for change. They even set up a organization for Usability professionals.

Of course, it wasn't an exclusive club, anyone could join and play their reindeer games, but the vast majority of professionals in our field who saw themselves as design strategists, information designers, architects etc, and could not relate to what Usability was evolving into.

but wait.. wasn't Usability supposed to be about helping building great, user centred products? to be full partners in the design and development, and not just the evaluation? But alas… Usability had mutated and evolved, and now we have two Usabilities - usability engineering, and usability testing.

those who chose to go the usability testing route soon found that had burnt their bridges with the design and development functions, and are now seen as some kind of Inquisitors whose job it is to subject applications to hellish tortures.

usability engineering still remained in the domain of the designers, human factors professionals and information architects even though they did not see themselves as "engineering" usability - they were busy struggling to translate requirements into designs that met the end-users needs while juggling the constraints of project schedules, business and technology requirements.

If applying the design principles they knew resulted in a product that was deemed user-friendly and usable, they were happy. Usability testing became a barrier to be crossed in the design process, much like any critical review or quality testing, not as design partner.

It wasn’t intended to be that way.. it just happened. The fact that IT personnel and Management saw usability testing as akin to formal software testing did not help. Usability testing became powerful, but they became isolated.

at first, they rationalized their isolation from design with such platitudes as "we need to be objective, we can’t get involved in the design… etc etc" . Very true, and necessary to maintaining objectivity, but it did not give them the design clout they thought it would.

oh, they have plenty of clout in corporate America and elsewhere in the world… clout enough to stop a product from launching, if need be… but the policing powers were never what they wanted in the first place, but since they lost their place in the design arena, they are struggling to regain a foothold, since it is all too easy to bypass formal usability testing and get a product launch with various other flavors of semi-formal and informal user testing.

after all, all that seems required to qualify a product is the endorsement of a bunch of representative users. Qualitative results seem to work just as fine, and products on a tight production schedule would rather not have another hurdle to cross on the way out the door.

we have only ourselves to blame for this… we have the same qualifications and skills, but we do not wish to see ourselves as members of the same family whose roles are complementary and supportive of each other - the laboratory is only a location where usability is measured and documented, not where it is created.

usability is built into products and applications at many, many places in the product design lifecycle, beginning with the planning and function allocations and going beyond deployment. usability test findings and recommendations are just one more piece in the complex puzzle.

How can we correct this situation? we need to embrace the philosophy of usability, not its processes. There are very many processes in design, but the underlying philosophy of making applications and products easy to use is a common goal for all of us, whether we are analysts, designers, human factors practitioners, usability professionals or developers - remember, the philosophy unites us while the processes divide us.

The usability focus needs to shift from the "testing" mentality and to the product usability as a whole, engineering usability into products, while working closely with the rest of the development team from beginning to end.

We need to stop seeing each other as as barriers, but as enablers. It's not too late to step back and reassess ourselves, and find ways of cooperating better, and moving together towards our common goals. ______________________________________________________
copyright 2004 ajoy muralidhar. all names or brands referenced are the copyright of their respective owners.


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