Fact vs. Fiction: What Usability is Not

February 7th, 2012
Published on
February 7th, 2012

A close friend asked me a few days ago – “You’ve covered decent ground on the science, dimensions, characteristics, design aspects, process and pervasiveness of usability considerations. How about doing a reverse bit? What usability is not about? Or the myths of usability?” I jumped at the chance.

In choosing to write this, I am simply reinforcing the simple concept that it is also necessary to talk about the “NOT” part in a subject as complex as usability. This shall (I hope!) help in resolving ugly assumptions about the subject and expose more dimensions for discussion. Let’s take a journey of both – popular and unpopular myths of usability. The following are prevailing misconceptions (fast becoming legends!) of usability, in no particular order.

Usability is expensive

It is known that Stanford University, Microsoft, IBM, and many others spend tons of resources (money and human) on usability research, which is quite expensive. But regular and daily usability need not be expensive – thanks to a much evolved ecosystem that allows the science to be applied without having to spend a lot.

I agree that it’s not a commodity – that there’s a price to pay. But from a cost-benefit standpoint, more often than not, usability is not as expensive as it is perceived to be. The major contributor to this misconception is that usability is non-measurable in nature, hence it allows the argument and myth in question.

Usability is free

At the opposite end of the first misconception, a large number of people believe that usability can be free. I’ve seen many people ask suggestions on improving the usability of their site or product – on LinkedIn. There is a regular crowd that asks me personally about giving usability suggestions on their site. Well, for a matter as subjective as usability, the lack of real engagement in this kind of flat question-advice round, makes it even more subjective. Free advice and usability tips are available everywhere, but they’re more like the generic horoscope guidelines and predictions, in my opinion.

Usability is minimalism

The concept of minimalism is usually a nice and welcome change in today’s noisy world. Minimalism is about reducing clutter from your presence, by playing with content, number of pages, element sizes, images, white spaces and navigation. What we need to be aware of is that while usability will almost always get in some minimalism, the reverse is not necessarily true.

Going minimal is not alone going to get you usability. There are many areas of compromise if the distinction between the two is not well understood. Like, having graphic icons/buttons that consume less space instead of textual menus that consume more space. Or trying to fit all content on one screen by adjusting to a very difficult-to-read font size. Different solutions are appropriate at different times.

Usability is user experience

The fundamental difference is “Can easily use” vs. “Want to use”. Let’s take the best possible example here – the usability guru: Jakob Nielsen’s website. Usability guru that he is, his site is very functional and easy to use. But how do you think it scores on user experience? Would visitors love to browse the site for better experience? The answer is NO.

Again, there are some practitioners who believe building a good user experience is all that’s needed for making the site usable. That had led to the myth in question. Superior user experiences have failed miserably in usability, as it’s just one of the dimensions of usability. It is still important to have the right balance.

Usability is all art

Image by MitchellZappa

Art is something that mostly makes sense to the creator alone! Using that as an analogy, I’ve experienced my usability suggestions and advice being alienated to art and abstraction. This myth is more about a mind-block and prejudice than anything else. People think that you need to be an artist or a designer to create usability. Usability does not need artists, it requires fundamentalists and practical observers.

Being an artist can definitely provide an edge of translating the usability practice into a visual design. But otherwise, so much has been institutionalized as a science in the field of usability that companies can do without engaging an artist. However, one point in favor of the myth: There’s no denying that the best usability cases around us did have an art element and that shall continue to be the case. But…

Usability is simplicity

Simplicity is subjective. Even usability is subjective, but simplicity is consciously and directly subjective. Typical end-users are ignorant of technology/design, but they are not dumb. Making it simple is often understood and implemented, sadly, by treating users as dumb consumers.

So, most commonly, you will find people having giant task buttons, heavy label texts, prominent hints on screen, basically, all-important-functions-in-your-face attitude. Your concept of simple may not be so for your audience. This blind simplicity approach does not yield usability mostly, let alone always. Usability will drive simplicity laterally, not literally. Hence the myth is risky.

Usability kills creativity

This is one of the most common misconceptions (also nicely explained on Jakob Nielsen’s website). People think that following formal and scientific process in usability compromises the creative aspects, and leads to a compromised output. We need to appreciate here that the formal techniques, scientific processes are all a framework to guide and engage into usability practice. They are guidelines, not strict rules. Following them as such, you’ll undoubtedly fall prey to losing out on creativity. Following them as guidelines, you’ll get your out-of-the-box element inside your design.

Usability is common sense

The point of argument here is that common sense has a risk of being singular in nature, only with the assumption that it’ll be common to all. Like the famous quote: Common sense is not so common! In the perspective, common sense is merely an opinion at large with weak justifications from a random collection of users or concepts. So, it’s difficult to theorize based on the common sense equation. Very few things can command usability as common to all as a Google’s search. It’s more about amalgamation of varied wisdom and practicing that into your usability design. Naturally, this myth complements myth #2; since usability is perceived as common sense, it can be free.

Usability is good design

Good design (leaving apart the subjective angle) is only an element or output of usability – in practical sense. Otherwise, it’s more like a philosophy. Usability done with a philosophy of good design, would make it effective, error-tolerant, engaging, etc. This part I echo. My argument is towards the literal aspect about the myth, that a good design brings usability. In a way, this has a resemblance to myth #4: usability is User Experience. A good user interface design is not going to save a product if it is not useful or low on performance or erroneous. The usability and acceptance of such products have no connection with the presence or absence of good design.

Usability is about following some rules

Allow me to paint a wider picture here. Millions of books are available, being published and read all the time, that are self-help, how-to-guides, step-by-step. Thousands of blogs and articles teach and preach (including mine, I’m afraid!) about things you assume you’ll be able to learn and apply. That’s a fair assumption, albeit if all the literature is not taken literally. You need to constantly remind yourselves that there are no rules, only guidelines. You need to treat these reference materials as unbiased guidelines that you will taken into account – devising your own framework, your own rule-set, allowing enough flexibility too – if you want to apply consistently. Complex subjects are never mastered with step-by-step-wizard like software installations. Usability is no exception to this.

Usability is a luxury

The myth and the related corollaries that “usability can be done at the end”, “we don’t need usability to survive” can be near fatal, if given into. In today’s competitive times, where switching cost is so low, consumers will not hesitate switching to a more usable product with less features. Consider how DropBox scores over Minus and other similar products – only because they have done a fantastic usability job. DropBox does not even offer maximum storage space for free as others; still it commands the loyalty leading to a market valuation of 5 Billion Dollars!

Usability is fast becoming the key to survival; just that many are not aware of this. If you ignore or take it up as a low priority, the perceived quicker time to market is only going to cause harm. We cannot afford any myths. We need to be embracing reality and changing business and user needs; we need to be more agile to these demands, and from a product/website perspective, we need a more conscious effort on usability. It will enable marketing and empower sales. You will find this element common to all the successes in the world, and also find this element missing from all the failures in the world. And that’s not a myth!

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