Is Usability a Fad?

Usability is spreading. Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon.com, Adobe, and Macromedia all hire User Interface (UI) designers, user experience designers, and other usability folks to work as part of the software or web design teams. In big and small ways companies and individuals are starting to really press for computers that the average Joe can use. But is usability doomed to go the way of the moa? Will we see a bunch of people trying to tactfully get around saying that they were part of the usability movement in favor of the next great thing?

My short answer is ‘not likely’. While the terminology may change there is a growing appreciation that in order to make truly great computing and information systems we must not only make them fast and full of nifty functions, but we must design for real users. User centered design is the core of usability. ‘Know thy user’ is the number one mantra of usability experts. They understand that a frustrated user is less likely to spread the gospel of your product on to others, they are more likely to look elsewhere next time they buy something, and you are less likely to become a multi-bazillionaire selling things people can’t use.

Additionally, unlike some technologies that are the ‘next big thing’, usability and user centered design are not about any one technology. It is a design philosophy that gets past the old ‘if you build it they will come’ idea. It is a way of approaching any system and exploring how it can be improved to better meet the needs of the real people who are using it. It is hard to imagine a backlash to this, with people touting anti-usability as the way to go. It is an odd future where designers would be heard saying ‘let’s make these labels more ambiguous’ or ‘that Save option is to easy to use, let’s change that keyboard shortcut to Ctrl+Alt+Shift+F7+Q’.

Usability is also a problem that will never really be ‘solved’. Every new system, web site, device, or piece of software brings with it a new set of challenges to usability. Every new set of users has different abilities or disabilities that must be addressed. Improving usability is an ongoing process that has no foreseeable conclusion. But that means there is always hope and opportunity to make things even better than they already are.

Kevin Hall