Is usability obsolete? (Part II)

March 9, 2009 in Human-Centered Design

A few weeks ago, I wrote about three computing trends that were killing usability. As computing has become more complex and pervasive, usability has become far more difficult. Our existing testing and design methods no longer apply, or no longer yield the same efficacy. Similarly, as products become easier to build, usability can easily become marginalized. The short design cycles and “perpetual beta” ethos of modern computing provide a significant challenge for usability.

Usability is slowly being sidelined by these three computing trends, but our demise is being accelerated by three additional “human” trends. As usability loses prominence, users and engineers are stepping into the gap and beginning to take over the design process. Just like the computing trends outlined earlier, these three trends are making traditional usability both difficult and irrelevant.

Users can design their own products

First, an ever-expanding base of users are repurposing or re-imagining how their products are used by modifying, tweaking, adding, building, etc. This work was once limited to a small population of hackers, but is expanding to a larger segment of the user base. According to research on user-driven innovation, these adaptations can represent up to 40% of the market (von Hippel, Eric, “Democratizing Innovation,” MIT Press (2005), page 19 – 22). The research also shows that while many of these modifications are small, their makers are often leading users; their innovations signal future trends or unmet needs in the broader market. This adaptation also causes the “double usability challenge.” First, the system must provide users a straightforward way to make changes (e.g., APIs, help files, parts libraries). The second challenge is guiding new users to make their “new products” usable as well, for their own use or potential customers.

The online multi-player game World of Warcraft provides a great example of user-driven innovation, with a low barrier to entry. Users download the main game, pay a subscription service, and can interact with other players through an online metaverse. Users develop their own collaborative experiences within the WoW environment: joining guilds to team up with other players, choosing their character and style of play, and deciding their path through the quests the game provides. A subset of highly engaged users also builds and maintains a complete infrastructure, outside of WoW, to support their guild- and individual-game play. There are loot tracking systems, project management tools for planning large-scale events, and a myriad of UI modifications that enhance gameplay. These complex modifications are built, downloaded, revised, enhanced and shared through open-source forums.

Similarly, less tech-savvy users also have the ability to make modifications and “produce” their own products. A plethora of online tools has allowed users with limited technical skills to publish, communicate, create and organize. Even ten years ago, publishing a blog or sharing photos required dedicated software and a certain level of expertise. Sites like Blogger, Facebook and Flickr provide usable streamlined functionality, templates, workflows and platforms that allow novice users to produce content, build mini-applications and create their own sites. New parents provide “baby blogs” for extended friends and family, for example. While Facebook and Blogger pages may not have high “design style,” they do allow novice users to publish content and customize their pages in sophisticated ways.

These users are engaged, innovative, creative, but they are unlikely to be understood or addressed using standard usability methods. Again, we face the variability problem and the long tail. Standard usability methods rely on the similarity between participants (e.g., 90% of users did x) rather than focusing on individual innovations or usage patterns. The novelty and insight of the lead users can get lost within the aggregate of the usability collection. And, we can only anticipate the modification barriers to be reduced further and the percentage of hackers to continue to grow. If user-driven innovation and content continue increasing, anecdotal evidence will begin to outweigh the generalized statistics of usability. We will need to shift toward design methods that can identify lead users, their unique characteristics, and homegrown innovations in order to remain relevant.

Engineers don’t need us

Second, we see engineers beginning to lead the design process in interesting ways. When the usability field exploded, the web was a nascent tool with few standard paradigms. Usability’s rise (and potential fall) mirrors the web closely. Early on, usability was needed to test evaluate potential pitfalls with existing sites and propose guidelines to design against. Nielsen / Norman Group made a mint by providing detailed guidelines for specific contexts: for e-commerce, for site maps, for gift-certificate workflows, for corporate intranets, etc.

And while these guides are useful, there is now a flood of successful examples to emulate and an archive of research to mine. We have discovered, tested, and refined the best ways to design basic tasks: organize a form, display a pull-down menu, define pagination, highlight items in a list, etc. Certainly, usability pioneers like Jakob Nielsen deserve a hat tip for laying the crucial groundwork. Engineers can emulate those successes and extrapolate their designs based on what has worked in the past.

Looking forward, however, we can reasonably assume that many of the simple problems have been solved and we are working up the ladder of complexity. If many of the basic usability problems are “fixed,” are more complex assessment methods needed to address the more complex issues that remain?

Additionally, many of the traditional usability methods quantify data that we no longer care about. Lab tests, heuristic evaluations and computational models focus solely on goals like efficiency, accuracy and initial ease-of-use. While these metrics were relevant early on, they are rudimentary at best. Common system-design techniques like use cases and scenarios should make fast, straightforward and learnable UI design a given. Again, there are thousands of relevant, successful, timely examples to baseline against. And the “new” metrics like affect, stickiness, buy-in, loyalty, engagement, are nearly impossible to test within the confines of classic usability. How can we revise our core toolset toward the new metrics? How do we re-prioritize the services we teach, use and sell based on the current environment (rather than the environment of the past)?

Usability is out of step

Most in-house usability departments were added in the last ten or fifteen years, as awareness of the field grew. They are already facing this challenge, since the role and perception of those departments hasn’t evolved and adapted as computing has changed. Internal usability departments see their role shrinking and their influence diminishing, because their methods no longer provide a big impact. Many other organizational partners, in engineering, project management or marketing, have already built usability thinking into their process. With significant improvements, usability can be easily usurped or absorbed by the other disciplines. Embedded usability professionals must overcome outdated expectations and outmoded working models within their own companies: both to ensure survival of their departments and to bring their products into the new era.

Lastly, with the growth of the web and usability, clients are likely to know the underlying usability principles, be familiar with the core heuristics and have already solved the obvious “gotchas” in their products. As consultants, we constantly work with clients that are sophisticated in both design and usability. They already believe in the promise of HCD, but still need an innovative way to improve their products. They may even have in-house usability departments, labs and protocols. Fewer and fewer clients need to be reminded of the basics or need a primer on the principles of human-centered design. The heuristics we test for and baseline against are pervasive; at some level, we’ve put ourselves out of business. We need to provide more to clients than the same basic assessment from a decade ago. Our challenge becomes: how do we revise or augment our clients’ existing methods to continue to improve their products? How do we work with embedded usability departments and dated testing protocols to continue improve our clients’ products? Are different methods, different deliverables or different workflows needed to address the “new usability”?

How does the story end?

The technology trends discussed earlier are forcing the usability community to evolve. We’re finding ways to embrace the trends. We’re (slowly) finding ways to change our methods to address the future of computing. And, just as there are “glimmers of hope” on the technology trends, there are similar efforts on the human side.

The human trends drive us to be more inclusive and find ways to work closely with users and engineers as design partners (rather than remaining in our “expert” silo). This manifests itself as participatory design methods, collaborative research techniques, and design-education services.

The human trends also raise the bar for our discipline, driving us to differentiate ourselves and provide superior services. As clients become more sophisticated and additional alternatives become available, our working environment becomes increasingly Darwinian. Like any competitive market, the quality of our work becomes paramount to our survival as practitioners. Our “products” must convey quality — a depth, richness and subtlety that is unavailable from other sources. The “weeding out” phase will be brutal, but will add to both the influence and the expertise of the practitioners left standing.

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