July 16, 2004

Usability is NOT a technical problem

Designing usable applications is a multi-disciplinary problem, the heart of which is a people problem. Designers and developers need to understand their users, and customers.

Frans Englich wrote an article for Newsforge called Open source usability is a technical problem we can solve on our own -- and it's an amazing read. It's amazing to me how horribly misunderstood the basic premise of usability is in some areas of the Linux community. I have noticed the folks working on the usability teams seem to be headed in the right direction, although I haven't look at it in depth.

Linux and Open Source have a huge constraint that make usability a difficult to acheive goal: lack of leadership. Let me add: lack of strategy, lack of measurement, lack of clarity -- too many voices are considered at all times, and solid decisions are never really made...not for long.

Here are some horribly wrong statements from Frans' article (and my comments in bold):

1) "For some reason, we treat it [usability] as a mystery instead of looking at it as a problem we can solve the same way we solve all other technical problems."

Sure, the way to solve your problems is to use the same flawed process you used to get into them.

2) "Even if we decide to rely on outside experts to solve our usability problems, they are going to find it impossible to keep up with us. The KDE project alone has an average of 200 checkins to its code repository each day. There aren't enough outside usability specialists available to correct all the errors that are inevitable with this level of productivity."

So he's saying 'We're making too much "progress" to worry about fixing all the errors we're making at this level of "productivity"! Let's be honest here, he's really saying "We don't want to slow down, get organized and do it better the first time...after all, the proper measure of productivity is of course the number of code changes checked in every day."

3) "One of the advantages of open source is its ability to put the consumer ahead of profit. Our goal is to produce great software while honoring the user's privacy, rights, and freedom. When usability, central to everything in today's software, is outsourced to companies, the open source community's independence and opportunity to achieve its noble goal is compromised. The open source community must be able to handle all its issues -- including usability -- by itself in order for our development approach to give maximum benefit to society and the user by constantly advancing our level of technical excellence." .... "We don't need usability reports. We need each developer to devote as little as one single thought to usability."

Okay, now the evidence of heavy Kool-Aid drinking is pretty obvious. This one's so convoluted it's amazing. So the "noble goal" of "putting the consumer ahead of profit" is better served by not paying evil "companies" (god forbid) to identify the consumer, understand their needs and deliver them a better product. Right... The consumer is *definitely* put "ahead" when you rationalize your decision to not practice user-centered design... This is like a non-profit organization deciding that tax and finance consultants are evil because they bill for their time - and then calling for their volunteers to just "think about taxes for one minute."

Design is a skill, an area of knowledge, a craft, a realm where experience matters. Design is also fun, and designers have power -- often people just don't want to share the reins with anyone else, even if those other folks are better suited to that role on the team. And to reiterate: designer is just a role on a much larger team.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!