Can you achieve usable designs without a usability
process, without the involvement of a usability professional?
Some researchers say sure, it happens all the time. But how?
According to George Olsen, those who achieve this are very
good designers who bring a breadth of knowledge to their
work? including user focus and sensitivity. It’s usability
professionals, he says, who miss seeing the usability in what
these groups are doing. Usability must stop ignoring the
wider context. Elizabeth Buie
We start with a paradox.
Jared Spool has been reporting that the most usable sites
he studied didn’t have usability specialists or use
user-centered design techniques.
They didn’t use formal user-centered design techniques.
They didn’t do usability tests. No heuristic evaluations.
Nothing that Spool said he recognized as traditional
usability techniques. Yet they produced some of the most
usable sites Spool had seen. What’s going on?
Well it’s simple, really. These companies are examples of
how good design is produced by good designers. And no, I
don’t mean that as a tautology.
For some reason, too many usability specialists seem
unable or unwilling to step into the role of
designwhich is where the real action is and why
usability specialists may be an endangered species unless
they’re willing to take off the white lab coats and dirty
themselves in design.
Yes, user research is important. Yes, usability testing to
validate your design is important. But an experienced
designer or engineer has internalized the lessons from both
and is much more likely to get it right the first time.
The general principles of usability aren’t all that
difficultalthough the devil is in the
detailsand despite what some in the usability
community might like to think, it’s far from the only
profession that knows something or two about making things
usable. So it’s not surprising that the teams Spool studied
obviously had a good intuitive grasp of them regardless of
what they said they were doing or whether usability
professions would recognize the techniques.
In fact, Spool found that although one might never hear
the word “usability” uttered, these companies were extremely
focused on users and their goals, often going to great
lengths to learn new things.
That’s hardly surprising to me, since the best people in a
variety of professions are user-focused even if they don’t
call it that. And the successful companies profiled in the
Harvard Business Review invariably take “listening to
your customers” seriously and probably use an approach that’s
similar to the ones Spool sawalbeit in the broader
field of customer service. (Interestingly, one of the hot new
ideas identified within the business world by the review is
the notion that you don’t want to listen too closely to your
customers. You should ask them for the desired outcomes, but
customers aren’t expert or informed enough to come up with
solutions. In others words, it’s up to you to design
Unfortunately, Spool didn’t report on the background of
the teams he observed, since it would’ve been interesting to
see if they came from other professions that have traditions
that produce “usable work”for example, graphic
Skilled and experienced graphic designers, especially
those who’ve done publication design, know design
“rules-of-thumb” that tend to produce better interfaces. The
best designers give quite a bit of thought about the intended
audience for the materials (printed or digital) that they
produce, even if they rarely talk about it. Graphic design as
a field tends to be intuitive and have fewer “left-brain”
formulas than the usability field does. However, these
rules-of-thumb have been developed by centuries of beta
testing. And so, in the hands of a good designer, the user
interfaces of printed documents have been refined to the
point where they’re generally “invisible” to readers unless
the designer consciously calls attention to them (for
example, in Wired or like-designed magazines).
One of the examples of sensitivity toward users cited by
Spool was how eBay changed its background color from yellow
to white. To avoid jarring users, the eBay team changed the
shades subtly, day-by-day, over several weeks. Users never
even noticed. But this gradual change of their site is
nothing new. It’s basic knowledge of one approach to
overhauling a publication or corporate identity. I did the
same thing a decade ago when redoing a newspaper’s design
when we wanted to avoid upsetting readers. (Conversely, there
are times when you want a visible overhaul. In another
redesign, we wanted to signal a change in management and the
newspaper was no longer going to be neglected the way it had
been for 20 years.)
And speaking of newspapers, good journalists spend a good
amount of time thinking about their readers. Internalizing
knowledge of readers and what they want is a critical skill
for an editor. In fact, most editors of newspapers or
magazines would laugh at you if you asked whether the
structure of their stories had been tested with readers
before its publication. To them, creating effective story
structure is a matter of professional judgmentjudgment
refined by years of learning their craft through hard-won
experience. Typically much of that experience comes as a
reporter, where dealing with people constantly gives you a
feel for who your readers are and what they’re interested
Likewise, the best business analysts, systems analysts,
and systems engineers I’ve met tend to think a lot about
usersbut again it’s not something they normally talk
about because that’s not the way their professions think
about their jobs. Instead, they usually think about it in
terms of just doing a good job of developing requirements.
The Volere Requirements Specification Template never mentions
user-centered design but incorporates many similar concerns.
In fact, if you read Mastering the Requirements
Process, in which Volere’s creators, Suzanne and James
Robertson, talk about putting Volere into practice, you find
their approach contains elements of ethnography and
contextual design. The classic Exploring Requirements
by Gerald M. Weinberg has a similar focus on users.
And truly customer-focused marketing people definitely
share the same user-focused mentality. Procter & Gamble’s
famous definition of marketing, dating back to the 1930s, is
that it’s “the discipline concerned with solving people’s
problems with products and services for a profit”
(emphasis mine). Likewise, modern brand strategy is no longer
just about coming up with a cool name and logo; it’s about
the brand experiencethe totality of the experiences
consumers have with your company’s product, services,
communications, and people. True, many people in both
professions only give lip-service to user-focused approaches,
but far-sighted marketing and brand strategists realize that
the balance of power is shifting.
These other professions may not have techniques that
usability people would recognize as user-centered design
techniques, but I’d say that has more to do with the
short-sightedness of the usability profession and a failure
to look beyond its boundaries and recognize that other
professions just might have some good ideas. If I’m being
harsh, it’s precisely because I’m familiar with these other
professions and see the value they can bringand how
“traditional” usability has ignored them.
This ignorance of the wider context is one source of the
credibility problems usability professionals seem to
regularly complain about. Jakob Nielsen argues that the
relationship of a usability specialist and a designer should
be that of an editor to a writer. The designer creates
something and the usability specialist works with him or her
to make it better. The problem is that, too often, usability
specialists come across as editors who don’t know their
grammar and spelling.
It’s worth noting that Nielsen thinks it takes a decade
and a wide variety of experience to be able to offer great
advice. I’d agree; I just think that experience needs to go
beyond just “usability” experience. When dealing with other
specialists, usability specialists all too often appear
uninformed about the basics of the field they’re critiquing.
This can be a particular problem when they’re interacting
with graphic designers about user interface issues. Visual
design is a subtle arta change here almost always
affects something elsewhere. Rarely have I seen usability
guidelines about user interfaces that have shown much
understanding of this subtle interplay. And it’s shocking how
few books on usability engineering even touch on this vital
part of the user interface.
Likewise, usability specialists all too often appear
hypnotized by the fetish of efficiency, unwilling to consider
that competing factorsfor example, the need for
building a brand identitymay need to be balanced in
the design. Or that there’s more to life than time spent on a
In my opinion, we need to distinguish between principles
of usability and the process of creating usable Web sites and
products. I think the profession does know much about the
principles of usability. It’s just that this knowledge isn’t
as unique as many people would like to thinkit’s
knowledge shared by other professions. Instead it’s the
process of applying those principles that goes to the heart
of Spool’s paradox.
Usability as it is traditionally practiced has three
problems. First is the idea of the separate usability
specialistone of Spool’s key findings about the
commonalities of organizations that don’t produce usable Web
sites. Yes, ideally this person is a resource for and
inspires the rest of the team. Unfortunately, in reality two
problems develop. As Spool found, they often become a
bottleneck in the organization. And far more seriously, what
often happens is that concern about usability gets shuffled
off onto this person, which makes it too easy for developers
to abdicate responsibility.
You can’t research or test your way to
good design; you can only design your way there.
Second, most usability specialists I’ve met argue too
often that usability should be done because it’s “The Right
Thing To Do” (and yes, you can hear the capital letters),
instead of pointing out how usability will benefit customers
and ultimately the business. In contrast, Spool found that
the teams that produce usable products without usability
specialists have a real understanding of the business
advantages of usability. When they talked about user-centered
design, it was always in terms of how this will help the
business succeedand even if they were “The Right Thing
To Do,” user-centered improvements weren’t worth doing unless
they also benefited the business.
But a third problem is that too many usability specialists
seem to emphasize user research or testing over design. User
research is important for gaining a better understand.
Testing is important for validating your design. But in
either case, it ain’t design.
You can’t research your way to good design, you can’t test
your way to good design; you can only design your way there.
So doesn’t it make sense for those attuned to usability
issues to have a hand in it? Those who are usability
engineers already are doing sowhich is why you find
similarities in skills and responsibilities with information
architects (whose main difference is coming from a focus more
on content than on interaction). But if you just want to
analyze and critique, you’ll need to content yourself with
second-class citizenship. It may mean giving up “usability”
in your title for something else, if that’s what enables you
to get where the action is. And the flip side is that you may
also need to broaden your skills beyond “usability” in order
to be an effective designer.
It’s time to stop evangelizing usability while trying to
maintain the mystique that it can only be done by
white-coated specialists. Decisions about usability will
continue to be made whether usability specialists take part
in the design process or notand many organizations
will never be big enough to sustain a full-time usability
specialist. It’s time to “give away” usability techniques and
processes to the masses.
Will they do it as well as we do? Probably not. But
usability done imperfectly is still far better than no
attention to usability at all. And it sows the seeds for a
variety of people to see how usability connects to their own
traditions of focusing on users.
It’s also time for the usability research community to get
out of the lab and into the field. Over the years at SIGCHI
I’ve been astounded at the amount of bad and irrelevant
research. Researchers have to provide more useful research
for practitioners, instead of the sterile lab exercises,
written up in academic jargon for other researchers. The
fetish of “obscurity equals profundity” is unfortunately
widespread within academia, but it’s especially ironic within
a field focused on usability.
Likewise, usability researchers have to bring in people
from other professions to avoid repeating some of the
embarrassingly obvious mistakes they’ve made when straying
into other fieldsmistakes that cast doubt on good work
they may have actually done. Similarly, researchers need to
learn more about related professions that take user-focused
approaches (even if they’re not called that).
A critical need also exists for case studies on the
processes and companies that create usable sitesand I
mean case studies, not lab tests. Case studies have an
honorable tradition in other “soft” sciences. Unfortunately,
the research community seems to suffer from physics envy,
seemingly thinking that if we just throw enough numbers into
the mix, we’ll be taken seriously. The irony is that the
“hardest” of the “hard” sciences, quantum mechanics, holds
that probabilities, not absolutes, rule any physical system.
And that’s even truer for humans, who are far more complex
multivariable systems than mere matter is.
Who knows? If we make some of these changes, we might end
up with user-friendly research, research that might be
noticed by those “nonusability” professionalswho are
busy designing usable sites and products.
George Olsen is principal of Interaction by Design, a user
experience consultancy. He’s done award-winning Web and
interactive multimedia work for a variety of companies, from
DotCom start-ups to Hollywood studios to Fortune 500
companies. He started his career as a journalist, then
switched to graphic design, before he discovered “new media”
in the early 1990s. George is also editor of Boxes and Arrows
[http://www.boxesandarrows.com] an online magazine about
information architecture, interaction design and user
experience. He enjoys rollerblading in the dead of winter
just to torment Easterners with tales of sunny Los
Whiteboard Column Editor
Senior Principal Engineer
Computer Sciences Corporation
15245 Shady Grove Road
Rockville, MD 20850