ASTC-NSW day 1: Software usability – some second thoughts

This week I’m attending the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney. These are the notes that I took during a session by Jon Jermey. All the credit for the content and ideas goes to Jon. Any mistakes are mine.

Jon Jermey gave a presentation titled “Software usability: some second thoughts”. After years of experience in the software industry, Jon has come up with the idea that “usability” is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Brave man, to stand up and say something like that when the “U” is so much the trending topic. At first, I didn’t agree with Jonathan. But as I listened to him speak, I grew more and more interested in his perspectives. There were some contradictions in what he said. But then, perhaps that was the point. His presentation was a great collection of “second thoughts”, to get us thinking.

Jon pointed out that there are imperatives that trump the usability imperative. He gave some examples of “products” that may not pass the usual usability tests, but are still worth pursuing. For example, things that advanced civilisation, such as fire. Or a military product that you need to have, because your enemies already have it.

The superficial usability aspects are not the whole story. Jon compared Windows 7 and Linux. Linux command-line instructions at first appear horrible. But there are many great usability aspects, not least of which is the fact that by and large they do not change over time, as the more UI-focused products do.

Jon thinks that the current usability trends are an example of, well, not exactly “group think”, but a number of people all thinking along the same lines. There are very few dissenters.

The problems with the trend towards usability

Jon listed some problems with the current thinking around usability.

Usability is conservative. We find out what most people are doing already and stick with it. For example, the QWERTY keyboard (designed to stop people typing too fast); the traditional spreadsheet. I disagree with Jon here. There’s a lot of experimentation and new design coming out of usability professionals right now. For example, the iPad and various UI designs I have seen floating around that have not yet hit the production lines.

Jon gave an example of usability in action: eReaders. He posed the question, what exactly are they and what should they do for us? He pointed out that there all sorts of different formats of eReaders out there. I think this is an example contradicts Jon’s thesis. The early prototypes have been improved, based on usability design.

Problems are foisted on the designers rather than the users. Usability tends to be made the problem of the software designer, even though the designer has no contact with the users and no idea what the users need. Jon says it seems to be unfair to shift the responsibility to the designer, when the user actually has a lot of power too. The result is that the designer often restricts what the user can do, to prevent problems. Instead, problems can often be solved by the user, if they are willing to learn a few simple things, change their behaviour and fix the problem themselves.

Price and language. Jon posed these questions: Is price a usability consideration, and if not why not? Which is more usable, a product that costs a lot or a product that is cheap? Which is a better solution: Simplify the English version of your product, or translate it into French, Indonesian and Chinese?

What about having no words at all, such as on the first screen of the OLPC machine – using just images. Is this a usability win or failure?

Marketing versus usability. Jon asks, is the distinction always clear? What about the law of diminishing returns: Every new version of a piece of software is less of an improvement on the version before, and costs more and more to develop.

Dealing with failure. Jon put up a slide showing the differences between how the commercial world and the non-commercial world deal with failure. The commercial world blames the designer and tries to sell the user an upgrade, whereas the non-commercial (Linux) world asks the user about the problem, warns everyone else, asks the user how to fix it and suggests and alternative product. I disagreed with the import of this slide, because I think the division into commercial and non-commercial is too uncompromising.

Pressure groups and politics. Jon gave the example of the deprecation of frames. Why did the whole world shift, and why was the onus put on the website designers to change, rather than on the browsers to handle frames better?

Some suggestions from Jon

What if all software was like games? Games are designed to be difficult. Jon made the interesting observiation that people like their recreation to be difficult, but their work to be easy. In games, you learn or you leave (die). Is there a way to take some of that gaming motivation and apply it to software, websites, even documents?

Jon says yes. It’s about recognising that people learn and their skills grow over time. In the same way, software could grow over time with add-ons and feature packs.

Do we in the software industry need to re-think our approach? For example, we could have a director’s cut of our product (borrowing from the film industry). Or looking at the car industry: Take a simple version of the product and invest it with glamour.

Providing personalised products. Companies are providing customers with personalised products: Books, music, films, computer games. But software is generalised. Why is that? Is it that the software industry is going backwards? Looking at Linux, there are 50 to 60 different flavours to choose from. This fragmented hobbyist approach is driving the fast development of Linux to develop. Why is this not so in the commercial products?

Can we capture that exploratory approach and put it to work?

Possibly usability considerations are slowing down the development of our products. Jon’s impression at the moment is that all software products are the same. There are a lot of good things about standardisation, but can’t we set a higher goal and allow people to customise their software products. Put the glamour back into software.

My conclusion

This talk gave me a lot to think about. A new way of looking at our current approach to usability! It’s a brave man who can stand up in this day and age and go against the UX stream. Thank you Jon!

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 30 October 2010, in technical writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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