U for usability: understanding users

If you work in the tech industry, you might be familiar with the popular buzzword “usability.” Although designers and engineers use this term to evaluate how easy their tools or processes are to learn and use, the strategy for achieving usability can be an abstract mystery.

From the movie Temple Grandin

Here’s the most vivid way I can describe usability in action: in the movie Temple Grandin, the titular character crawls through a claustrophobic tunnel on a ranch where cows are prodded and dipped in pesticide to eradicate ticks. She experiences firsthand the ways in which the tunnel violates cows’ natural instincts, scaring them with glints of lights and unnatural direction changes. Later, Grandin redesigns a slaughterhouse to account for their natural sense of direction, and the cows are gently guided to their deaths. They get a dignified ending, and people can enjoy high-quality beef from relaxed cows.

While the ranch redesign is a morbid example, it demonstrates what usability practitioners call “empathizing with the user.” Designers are often too close to their process or product to see its flaws, so they observe how brand new users try to accomplish a goal. If people misinterpret a product in a consistent way, it’s not necessarily that humans are bad at technology – the product might not be correctly designed for its intended audience. The field of study called User Experience, or UX, tackles issues that stem from a mismatch between a machine’s behavior and people’s expectations.

My favorite part of UX is the incorporation of cognitive science and Gestalt psychology. For example, a person’s eyes travel from the top left to the bottom right corner of a page (for languages that read from left to right), so the most important elements of a website should be in the top left corner. People adopt mental models of the world and expect things to be arranged in a certain way, so a product is the most intuitive when it fits the mental model. The “intuitiveness” of a product is tricky to gauge, but I’ve found that the fewer steps I need to explain how to use something, the simpler it is.

Although UX is mostly applied to web or mobile interfaces, usability isn’t unique to our tech devices. To borrow an example from Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, even a poorly designed door (affectionately called a Norman door) should be reevaluated for usability. Thanks to the book’s wisdom, I’ve stopped blaming myself for being confused by simple objects around me and started thinking about how to improve them. How can I make sense of the TV system at home, which is a mess of connected boxes and machines controlled by a cornucopia of remote controls? How can traffic signs be set up in a better context to guide drivers through the streets?

In each situation, I aim to answer several questions: who are the users? What do they want? What are they thinking? What’s the easiest way to guide them to their goal? It’s a similar process to writing where I don’t assume my audience can read my mind. I tailor the lingo and knowledge level in my writing and design to a specific audience and spell out my intentions clearly.

The good news is that more and more people are becoming aware of usability’s importance. You can see how much cleaner new websites are compared to the sites of the 1990s, even 2000s. Nuances in new processes – like the inclusion of a non-binary gender in surveys, reflects the changing world. To most tech companies, UX is now seen as an integrated part of the product design process.

Google in 1998
Google now. More examples here.

We need UX urgently. Now that we’re entrusting credit card numbers and other private information to machines, we have less tolerance for ugly and unusable technology that violates human behavior. We are understandably upset when a machine misbehaves or doesn’t allow us to undo mistakes, and such frustration is unproductive for our tech-driven world. Together as an army of usability-minded people, we can improve the world by empathizing with people who are new to products and processes that we are familiar with. If something in our environment is frustrating, like even our doors or sink faucets, we can try to imagine better ways it can be constructed. Here’s to all the designers and a more usable world.

This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write an article for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.

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