Why It’s So Hard to Make Usability Sexy

Dec 11 2013 by Daniele Grassi | 2 Comments

Every time I’m in an electronics store to buy something or whenever I’m assisting one of my friends identify the right new gadget for them, I notice the feature-counting we’re all swept into as soon as we start comparing our options; "Well, this coffeemaker has 15 buttons, it has to be better than that one with only 6 buttons."

As a usability professional, my decision is frequently biased towards the usability and design of a product rather than its number of features or its price.

But, I must admit, even as a person who regards usability very highly, it’s extremely difficult to keep my mind straight and focused on design and usability when I’m shopping.

Here’s why.

Usability is Very Subjective

For products like electronics and the food you get at a supermarket, a lot of efforts have been made to make comparisons among them extremely simple.

For example, in the European Union, the EU Energy Label makes it crystal clear whether or not your new fridge or washing machine will be energy-efficient.

Source: en.wikipedia.org

The labeling scheme quickly tells us which of our options will save us more money in our electricity bill and which one will have less of a negative environmental impact.

In addition, the EU Energy Label is a simple yet clever way to make us all aware and worry about energy savings in our buying decisions. Every time we’re about to buy an electronic product, the labeling scheme reminds us that energy efficiency is an important factor to keep in mind.

For food, we have standardized nutrition labels to help us decide which breakfast cereal or brand of potato chips is better for us:

Source: fda.gov

The creation of a rating system for usability would appear to be a good solution because, just like with any rating system, it will achieve these two things for buyers:

  • It will allow us to compare usability between products
  • It will make us aware (or remind us) that usability is important

However, a usability rating system clashes with one of the cardinal points of usability itself: Different users have different needs. In other words, usability isn’t as cut and dry as the number of calories in our potato chips.

Perhaps we could create a usability rating system based on objective qualities related to usability, such as page load time, average clicks it takes to perform a user-action, background/foreground color contrast to measure readability, and so forth. But that type of rating system will only be able to tell a small portion of the entire usability story of a product.

Feature Count and Price is Easier to Use

I’ve found myself comparing the features and prices of two or more products on e-commerce sites simply by opening each option in their own browser tab and then just tabbing back and forth between them.

When we are comparison shopping, we can easily count and evaluate features and prices, and then come to a quick conclusion.

The same applies to brick-and-mortar stores, where we can actually see and touch the products we are considering. In stores, feature sheets and salespeople will never miss the opportunity to remind you that if your TV isn’t able to record five TV shows at the same time, you will never achieve happiness in life. And — surprise — the "slightly more expensive" TV right over there has it all. See? It says so right here in the feature sheet.

We do this as well when choosing which web app to sign up for. We can go to each "features" page and "pricing" page and readily decide which app suits us best.

But usability is completely absent from feature sheets because you can’t easily measure it.

Usability is difficult to convey to another person; how can we objectively show that our product is more usable than another? How can a person evaluate usability without first using the product for a significant amount of time?

A product’s list of features and price are easier to use and more readily available to us, so we often default to them for our buying decisions.

Can We Make Usability Sexy?

I think usability has an opportunity to become a factor in purchasing decisions in the next few years as our design techniques and understanding of user-centered design improves.

As web professionals, we are now much more aware of the importance of usability in the success of our products.

Now we need to figure out how to make usability a significant component in the buying decisions of people.

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About the Author

Daniele Grassi is a UX Designer and CTO of Timeneye Time Tracking, a time tracking web app designed with usability in mind. Follow him on Twitter or on his personal blog.

2 Comments

Jacob

December 12th, 2013

Interesting analysis!

BE Design

December 18th, 2013

Great points. At this point I usually look to user reviews to speak to a product’s usability. Maybe finding a way to distill this information and deliver this to the customer is a good place to start.

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