Nov. 14, 2006 STC World Usability Day

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Today is World Usability Day

Feeling used? Lots of people do.

There are thousands of people struggling to make products and services easier to use. I’ve toiled in these vineyards long enough to know many of them, some good and some bad.

I had dinner with a professional tester. Liza’s been in the business for many years and has seen every fad come and go. She started at a company we call Avacado, working with a development team to create a breakthrough GUI. Recently she returned to Avacado as a consultant on another breakthrough product that millions of people own. We talked about the current hype around usability.

DJ: So what’s going on at Avacado?

Liza: Why do you always ask that? You know I can’t talk about anything under development.

DJ: I thought I’d try anyway. I like Avacado’s new gadget. There’s no documentation.

Liza: That’s the whole point! That’s REAL usability. You take it out of the box and use it. It should be instinctive, intuitive.

DJ: Okay, the gadget’s great but not every product or service can be like that.

Liza: Why not? I hear a lot of excuses. Our chip design software is sooo complicated, you have to pay for classes and puzzle it out for months or plow through our online help or website. Bull! Did you read John Markoff’s New York Times article on the next generation Web 3.0 products? I recommend it. Basically it says that right now you search for something and you get a list of hits you still have to search through. There are people right now working on ways where you have more relevant hits. Eventually you will not search but ask a question and get specific answers.

DJ: So what’s Web 4.0? You don’t have a question because the answer is built into the product?

Liza: Avacado is already there. But they’ve hired great creative people. They know what the customer wants because they design the gadget for themselves. They are the customer. They ARE the user. The developer/user is the shortest feedback loop. Read Steven Levy’s book about the iPod called the Perfect Thing.

DJ: Doesn’t that lead to narrowly focused complicated geeky gadgets?

Liza: It depends on if the developer wants it that way. Some engineers want to show how complicated their stuff is to show how clever they are. Really great engineers create stuff to show how simple they can make it for other people. Complicated is for people creating job security, not great products.

DJ: I’ve seen it too. The great and powerful Oz with Powerpoint presentations.

Liza: Yeah, the dog and pony shows. I sat through one last May. You could tell it was one of those justify-my-paycheck consultants telling me about how to get management buy-in. They went through the whole process of how you try to get the attention of people with e-mails and meetings. They even did that horrible business of videotaping users and making engineers watch it. Ugh! If you have to drag an engineer in to watch a video of a user suffering, then it is too late. If you need a database to keep track of unhappy customers it’s too late. If you have to break through silos, the company’s arteries are too clogged up. Shut the doors and start over.

DJ: Too late?

Liza: Yeah. First you hired engineers who are too disconnected from their work and their users. As I said, the best developers already know! Second, you hired a consultant to waste the time and money. At the end of the show, they tell you that everything you do may be futile, but it may work…the next time.

DJ: You’re kidding me.

Liza: I thought the show was at the least a waste and maybe a little dangerous. The mark of insanity is to do the same thing and expect a different result. Here was somebody telling people that the usability process is useless but you should keep at it. That’s crazy. If I went through all that and it didn’t work, I’d quit. I’d find a company like Avacado.

DJ: Geeze. That’s pretty twisted and dark.

Liza: It gets weirder. I ran into a competitor of that company who sat through it. She said it gave great insight into how screwed up the company was. She said they had lots of trouble getting products out the door. To her the presentation was “Like watching a neighbor couple arguing on the front lawn about how to beat the kids.”

DJ: Why don’t you say something?

Liza: Frankly because the more competing companies buy into all this usability stuff, the more it will slow them down. Consultants will make their house payments putting on dog and pony shows. I’ll make more money getting it right the first time.

Copyright 2006 DJ Cline All rights reserved.