Why do we have to defend usability?

I’ve noticed I always having to defend the worth of usability–and it seems all the other usability practitioners out there are in the same boat. Why is that? Why is usability such a hard thing for people to understand?

I’ve given it some thought and here’s why I think it’s a hard thing for people to “get”.

People are self-centric. Looking at the interface from a user’s perspective means you have to step out of your own shoes, and despite what our mothers tried to teach us, most folks who design and develop software and/or web sites have a hard time doing that. Developers, managers, even graphic designers often mistakenly believe that their own personal preferences are the best way to implement something. It never crosses their minds to think otherwise. Let’s face it, folks, we’re talking about some very ego-centric people here. Developers, managers and graphic designers (especially the really good ones) are really smart people and they know that. They know they’re smarter than the average joe, so of course they know the best way to do things. The problem with that logic is actually in the fact that developers ARE smarter than most people, so they “get” what 80% of our users will never begin to fathom. What’s easy to a developer or designer is usually really hard for the average user.

  • My son reminds me of this all the time when he points out to me something he thinks is super-easy that his classmates just don’t get. Just today he showed me a paragraph in his favorite book that he had asked some of his classmates to read–none of them could decipher it. One couldn’t even pronounce the word “Galaxy”. The kids seem really stupid to him. But really, it’s an issue of usability–the book is not usable for (and perhaps not intended for) that target audience.
  • I also get gentle reminders whenever I watch someone else surf the web. Sometimes I find myself wanting to point out the right link to click on–and it’s then that I remember I’m different.

Usability people spoil all the fun. Just at the most exciting time, when the boring requirements have been developed and an initial design is sketched out and it’s time to create some code, the usability person wants to come in and take over and go do a test? What?!? There’s nothing yet to test! Usability practitioners know this is the absolute best time to test, but it’s really hard to convince management, who wants to see the thing built and generating revenue as soon as possible, and developers, who are eager to get started, to step back, take time, and consider how well the design really fits the user.

If you do it right, nobody notices. Have you ever noticed that when things work right, it doesn’t get noticed? People tend to notice what’s wrong, not what’s right. So if you do usability as it should be done:

  •  you never incur all the expense you would have had for redoing it
  • you never get the calls and complaints
  • your support traffic never skyrockets

… but see, the expense isn’t there, the calls aren’t there, the rework isn’t there. Because it’s not there, how do you tell them how much good you did? How do you demonstrate the difference? Managers think, “So what good was all that usability work? It just took up extra time and money. Why don’t we cut that usability stuff out? It’s not buying us anything.” The problem is that people really can’t see prevention–it’s invisible.

So usability becomes something that we have to sell to management, to developers, to clients. To sell it, we need proof that it works. To prove that it works, we need the proper tools. The proper tools cost money. But to get the money (and resources) to do usability, we need the proof that that it’s worth the investment in time and money. It’s a circle with no end …

But the investment to get started is getting smaller. Now Silverback Usability Testing Software is available for just $49–and hopefully some other software vendors will see the wisdom in selling usability testing software at that pricing level. Most PCs now come with a video camera and microphone embedded. Perhaps with the reduced investment to get started doing usability, we’ll see more people taking advantage of this effective tool. Perhaps. But it’s got to be enough to get us over those other three things …


1 Response to “Why do we have to defend usability?”

  1. 1 Lara July 29, 2008 at 2:59 am


    i agree with you on some of these points, but i also think developers, clients and users are becoming smarter and usability is becoming more popular, so hopefully with that there’ll be more understanding of usability and it’s importance as part of any design process.

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