Thursday, March 29, 2007

Does usability stifle innovation?

Getting stuck in our own habits ...

"I'm not generally one of those usability people who grabs whatever Jakob Nielsen writes and links to it. It's not that I have a problem with Dr. Nielsen's work, but I generally think that, if you're going to take the time to read my blog, then the least I can do is to take the time to have an occasional original thought. This week's Alertbox got me thinking, though, and it's a subject I find I keep coming back to, so pardon me while I think out loud.

In a piece about user annoyance, Dr. Nielsen suggests that we should stop using drop-down menus for state lists (on shopping carts, in particular) and go back to straight text fields. Now, I'm not debating his data; I've been amazed more than once at how many people still have no idea how a drop-down menu works. What bothers me is a much broader question: when does usability risk giving into user habits so much that we stifle innovation?

Let me give an example that might help illustrate the point. You may be aware of the origins of the keyboard. The original mechanical typewriter had to be designed in such a way that it wouldn't jam, and this led to the QWERTY configuration. The key layout that we still use to this day is thought by many to be inefficient and suffers from usability problems. If, however, you were to test users on their current keyboard and an entirely new configuration (even if that configuration was more efficient, cognitively and mechanically), they would undoubtedly perform much better on the original keyboard. Why? Simply because that's what they're already used to. Of course, the switching cost (both in time and dollars) of moving to an entirely new keyboard might be high, but what if that new product really were better? By relying solely on our current habits and even testing data, we'd never know."    (Continued via debabblog)    [Usability Resources]


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