Usability isn’t just about eliminating frustration anymore

[This is an excerpt of an article published in UX Magazine on June 16, 2010.]

I’m a devotee of TED talks. I was once assigned to watch several TED talks to deconstruct what made each a good or a bad presentation. TED topics are wide-ranging, though they generally relate to the categories that make up the “TED” acronym: Technology, Entertainment, and Design. I tend to stick to the design topics, but during my research I came across a video of Martin Seligman talking about positive psychology.

Happiness is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while. According to Darrin McMahon, author of Happiness: A History, happiness is a relatively new construct in the history of humanness. It’s only been in the last 250 years or so in the West that we’ve been safe and healthy enough to think about how we feel emotionally.

After watching Seligman and skimming through McMahon, it occurred to me that the experience design field is undergoing a similar evolution. When I started out at the same time the field was starting out in the early 1980s, teams did usability testing on products to learn where the users would encounter problems, and where they would get lost or frustrated. It was a kind of human factors quality check, and it was often done two seconds before launch. No changes could be made, but these teams could at least incorporate what they found out into training, which almost everyone needed to use technology back then.

Fast forward to somewhere between 1997 and 2005, and the usability testing dynamic shifted. Teams started performing usability testing earlier and earlier in the product development process to inform their designs. Usability professionals were still concerned with identifying issues post facta to eliminate existing problems and frustrations, but they also learned about user behaviors and habits and used this to influence design decisions earlier in the product development cycle. This was a very important step in the evolution of user research. It happened because teams started testing early designs and prototypes and using what they learned to refine designs well before they launched.

Only recently has technology improved, proliferated, and become cheap enough that design is less and less about solving problems, testing less and less about eliminating frustration. It’s all becoming more and more about making a good experience for users. Sure, we’re still eliminating frustration, but it’s happening earlier in the design process. Finally, design is at the table with engineering and business. Now we talk about experience design rather than just usability. Now it’s not good enough to just be usable. The design has to fit into peoples’ lives. It actually has to make people happy, and anticipate their needs.

It seems we’re all aspiring to an ideal of designing for delight, but most of us are landing somewhere short of delight, but at least better than frustrated. Users can use our designs, but they’re not excited about it. (Okay, you can’t be excited about everything.) We want users to trust our designs, but there’s still too much overhead for users to easily reach their goals.

Read the entire article at UX Magazine.

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