Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fashion: A useful Usability Placebo

Beauty vs. effectiveness ...

"Let’s swallow hard and say something difficult but true. Sometimes fashion is more important than usability.

Why is that so difficult to say? Maybe it’s because we’ve spent decades trying to get developers and designers to pay any attention to the user’s needs whatsoever. Not just that, but also we’ve been building a profession from scratch, and cost justifying our very existence. So it is difficult to admit that simple usability is only one component of the users’ entire experience.

A while back, we studied two versions of a mobile phone menu screen. The first showed 12 icons, each with a name underneath it. The second showed the same 12 icons but without names. All the people who tried the two versions were much more successful using the version with the names. But they greatly and unanimously preferred the version without the names. Why? The version without the names was more fashionable-looking at the time than the version with names. And because the version without the names wasn’t too difficult to use, fashion trumped usability.

The traditional definition of usability mentions three elements: efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction. But it’s worth noting, that sometimes these elements can compete against each other, and it’s not always efficiency that wins. Sometimes, for example, fashion increases satisfaction at the expense of efficiency, and sometimes that’s OK.

Take the iPhone. The iPhone is widely recognized as an easy-to-use device, and its success in the marketplace is breathtaking. However, for many tasks touchscreens are not as efficient or effective to use as devices with physical buttons. And yet, when we speak to people who own and use iPhones, most say that the touchscreen makes it more usable. If you point out that it actually takes them longer to do certain very common tasks using the touchscreen, they will acknowledge it but insist that it just feels simpler. The touchscreen is just too attractive, and Apple has done a good job of turning the touchscreen into a fashion icon.

Where does that leave the people who advocate for good interfaces? We can’t give up the fight to make the fundamental interactions simple and pleasant, but we also can’t ignore the boost that attractive, fashionable design gives to devices and interfaces. You probably know of the placebo effect, the purely psychological benefit that comes from thinking we are we being well taken care of. But here’s the kicker. Even while good medical researchers have to go to great lengths to eliminate the placebo effect from their studies, good doctors do everything they can to amplify it, even when prescribing real medicines. They offer treatment with a sense of authority, and let the patient know that they are cared about, so that the patient benefits from both the chemistry of the medicine and also from the power of hope.

Usability researchers should take a similar approach. We should understand which aspects of a product make people more efficient and more effective. But we should also keep our eyes open for the placebo effect. Look for the instances when something is so beautiful or so delightful that it should be kept, even if it doesn’t make it more efficient or effective. Of course, we should also consider whether there might be some way to combine the best of both worlds, to create something that is beautiful and delightful and efficient and effective. But if you can’t do all of that at once, remember that sometimes “beautiful and delightful” is more important."    (Continued via Usability News, Serco, Andrew Swartz)    [Usability Resources]

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