Usability – how easy something is to use and how quickly we learn to do so – is an important element of any design, but we often put it off until the end of the project, tripping ourselves up by thinking about usability as being incompatible with design – almost as though our best designs are five-star amuse bouche, and bending to “usability” renders them Bagel Bites.
We sometimes feel that making things more intuitive and straightforward breaks down the poetry of the design, but I do not think that this is true.
Usability does not have to combat beauty.
In fact, I think a good design inherently encompasses both aesthetics and ease. And that striking the right balance is just a matter of asking the right questions during the development process. And unless we are building for other designers (or cooking to impress other chefs), our designs, if so confusing to be deemed inaccessible, will never appeal to the market at large.
We often become so immersed in our designs, investing so much of our time and attention to the product, that we forget to check back in with our end user to ask: “does this work? Do they get it?”
Is your product being used as intended? Is it easily understood?
If not, your users may not use it.
I recently finished Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think,” which details the fundamentals of usability and outlines the process of testing users to elicit feedback. Krug points out that usability is, by its very nature, not a privilege or a choice, but rather a common courtesy. To make something usable is simply to be conscientious of your user; to build something that is truly as much for them as it is for you as the designer.
To offer perhaps the most cliched example, let’s consider the iPad. Apple has done a great job of positioning their products as being very “sexy” and setting the curve for aesthetic expectations. But here is another beautiful thing about Apple: their products are insanely intuitive. (Children in Third World countries, for example, have used iPads to teach themselves to read.)
And while it may be cliche, here is a personal example: John’s dad – who is in his 60’s – was recently looking to buy a new laptop and took a trip to Best Buy. Because he is not a “tech whiz kid,” he spent over an hour considering his options and asking associates all kinds of questions about the products. (“But can I still get the internet?”… “What about email?”) He was beginning to feel overwhelmed with all of the sparkle and pizzaz and was just about to walk out of the store when he happened to pick up the iPad. Thirty seconds into testing it, he had found everything he was looking for. Ten minutes after that, he had bought it.
If we are striving toward a standard in “beauty,” we should also strive toward one in simplicity – and celebrate the merits of making something easy to understand. And I think many, many products can similarly strike a balance – without causing either party too much heartache.
After all, this is a plate from local restaurant Alinea, which won “Chef’s Choice” as the best restaurant in the world this year. But this is a plate from one of the country’s most beloved – the place to which we return time and again.