Fact vs. Fiction: What Usability is Not

Fact vs. Fiction: What Usability is Not

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.