Thursday, June 01, 2006

Why "humane" is a better word than "usable"

A distinction between usable and humane ...

"A lot of people call good software "usable". But what does that mean?

Taken literally, something is "usable" if it can be used. Calling an interface "usable" is kind of like calling food "edible": it's setting the bar pretty darn low. And as such, it doesn't really say much about the interface (or food) in question.

Attaching a modifier to the word may help us. Calling something "very usable", for instance, gives us a little more information: it could mean something that's convenient to use. But who really knows what that means? Few people have ever bothered to try defining it. Jakob Nielsen, for instance, says that usability is "a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use," and breaks the concept down into five different components. Yet none of them measure whether the interface does what users need it to do, and it's certainly possible to come up with bad interfaces that satisfy his five components. Joel Spolsky, on the other hand, says that something is usable if it behaves "exactly as expected". Of course, exactly what the word "expected" means is up for debate. I might expect my clipboard contents to be permanently lost if I select "Copy" from my application's "Edit" menu, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the destruction of my data is a good thing.

At Humanized, we try to avoid using words like "usable" and "usability" because we think that they're confusing at worst, and don't mean enough at best."   continued ...   (Via Humanized)


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