Sunday, December 09, 2007

Technology's usability conundrum

The difficulty of designing usability into technology ...

"Believe it or not, the people who make technology are well aware that most of us get fed up trying to use the hardware and software they make. And now some of them are beginning to wonder whether there's any point in even trying to satisfy us.

Michael Platt, an IT architect who designs technology infrastructure at Microsoft, outlined four elements that make for a good user experience in a recent blog post, titled Architecting for Happiness. Products should be entertaining, foster creativity or problem solving, allow learning and promote interactivity, collaboration and community, he writes.

According to other usability experts, however, it's not that simple. Here's a snapshot of the debate going on in the blogosphere:

Turn the frowns upside down: Mr. Platt (michaelplatt.net/blogs) uses the example of an error message that pops up in a software program. Usually these are cryptic to lay people, but he proposes a system whereby error messages are linked to discussion forums where users could find colleagues with similar experiences and ask for help. "Imagine that the person was able to find a workaround on this problem on their own. Suddenly an annoyance becomes a very satisfying experience," he writes.

When user friendly becomes too friendly: Consultant Dennis McDonald offers a response to Mr. Platt on his own site, ddmcd.com, where he suggests that what vendors consider helpful might only frustrate users more. "I'm not saying that systems should not be enjoyable to use. Nor should they prevent me from communicating with others in the event an opportunity arises to benefit from collaboration or expertise-seeking," he writes. "But if I'm busy and need to get as many tasks done as possible, I don't want extraneous or distracting features in place that delay things or get in the way."

Give up already: Jess McMullin goes even further in a recent entry on AdaptivePath.com, where he likens the quest for better usability to giving someone a gold star for getting dressed in the morning. In other words, if you're focused on usability you probably haven't done a good job in the first place. "Recently, I'm even coming to believe that focusing on usability is actually a path to failure," he says. "Usability is too low level, too focused on minutiae. It can't compel people to be interested in interacting with your product or service. There's only so far you can get by streamlining the shopping cart on your website."

Those who can't do, preach usability: Scott Berkun (scottberkun.com/blog) cuts to the chase when he says usability is "an attribute of a well-made thing." For all the consultants and experts offering advice, he says better products will come from the source. "Find the people who are doing and moving, or are able to persuade others to do so. The talkers, the report writers, the complainers, the finger pointers, those are the people to avoid: they'll be doing those things forever," he says."    (Continued via reportonbusiness.com)    [Usability Resources]

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