A Few Lessons From Real World Usability

February 26th, 2009
Published on
February 26th, 2009

Have you ever noticed that in some movie theaters, the steps going up and down to the seats have lights around them? Have you ever stopped to realize that in some theaters the lights around the last step before you reach the floor are another color?

Throughout the day, I often notice things that I consider “Usability Wins” and “Usability Fails”. We interact with so many objects during our day that we often don’t notice that someone actually stopped to thing about how we were going to use items. I’ve talked before about how it’s nice to have a usable teapot. But it’s also nice to have usable doors, electronic equipment, clothing, furniture, food packaging and so on.

Missing the Access Point

Sometimes, people do well and sometimes they miss the mark. Ellen Degeneres once had a section in a stand up routine where she discussed how packaging had gotten ridiculous. She was saying that these days, you need scissors to get into a pack of scissors.

When I see things like that, I often feel that those people who designed the packaging for an item missed the point. When you’re putting together a product, you have to stop and think about how users are going to access your product. When it comes to things like packaging, even though the outer wrapper isn’t what someone really bought, it is still the first thing that the user comes in contact with and, as such, will be their first interaction with your product. It is the same for websites. If you have a terrible landing page that doesn’t allow users to find the meat of your site easily, then your packaging is failing your product.

Keeping with the Times

Over time, what determines whether or not an item is usable changes. A great example of this would be buttons. Not web buttons. Actual clothing buttons. See, you may have noticed that women’s clothes have buttons on the right and men’s have clothes on the left.

In olden days, men would dress themselves, so they would want to be doing the buttons up with their right hand. Women, however, would normally be dressed by a maid or other assistant, so that meant their buttons should be on the right, to be used by someone facing them.

This seems like some good thinking when it comes to usability, but nowadays most women dress themselves and that makes the buttons on the right situation a moot point. Now, in the case of young children and babies, it would make perfect sense to put buttons on the right.

The lesson here is that sometimes things that made an item usable in the past just aren’t relevant today. In order to keep things usable, they also have to keep up with the times. Just because everyone used to design websites with tables doesn’t mean it should be done that way today!

Sometimes It’s Just About Consumerism

To me, grocery stores are Usability fails. Aisle signs tend to not describe anything you are looking for. You often have to wander aimlessly up and down aisles to locate some small item that seems to you to be unrelated to anything around it. Often times, generic brand products are really high up on a shelf or really low down.

This is where consumerism trumps usability. The location of items in a grocery store are carefully designed to make you spend more money. They want you to take your time looking for an item because the harder you look, the more things you will see, the more potential for impulse buying. Cheaper items are often in harder to reach places because they want the brand name products to be in your immediate reach. You spend more, they make more.

Now, this is a good business practice, but it doesn’t make things very user friendly. Unfortunately, stores realize that everyone does have to go to the grocery store. But, if you have a website, it’s unlikely that everyone has to go to it. In web design, usability trumps consumerism every single time. It’s important to have good navigation and make your products easily accessible.

So what usability wins and fails have you seen in life? What products are keeping up with the times and which ones are falling behind? Where do you draw the line between consumerism and usability?