Enemies of Usability

Pay no heed to the enemy propaganda. Things are not as bleak as they may seem. Never surrender, especially not now! Believe it or not, we are winning the war for a more usable universe of products, software and systems. Over the past decade, we’ve seen huge usability improvements, from cell phones to accounting software to web sites. But don’t even think about relaxing. Now is the time to advance. And, as we roll into hostile lands, it has never been more crucial to know thy enemy.

Are We The Enemy?

In a recent interview, Don Norman casts us as our own worst enemies:

Why do we have so many unusable things when we know how to make them usable? I think it has to do with the fact that the usability advocates don’t understand business.

I disagree. I know lots of usability advocates who speak the language of business quite fluently. Could we get better? Sure. But on the whole, we are the solution, not the problem. Let’s not weaken our ranks with friendly fire. We have plenty of real enemies to keep us busy.

Bad for Business

Peter Merholz reveals one of these real enemies in the following quote:

Oftentimes, what is *most* useful, usable, and meaningful to the end-user is untenable from a business perspective, and the product, while maybe popular, is a financial failure.

Why were VCRs so hard to use for so long? Why are we forced to spend several hours of our lives scrubbing incredibly sticky labels and glue residue off newly purchased toys and glassware? Why does it seem like HMO web sites and phone systems are designed to prevent us from finding people and getting answers?

Because, sometimes, investing in usability is bad for business. Sometimes, the usability of a product doesn’t affect customers’ purchasing decisions. Sometimes, understanding business means ignoring or even purposefully crippling the usability of products, software and systems. Hand-to-hand combat is useless against this foe. No sensible manager will invest in usability under such conditions.

The good news here is that conditions are changing. Online product review systems, pioneered by folks like Epinions, Amazon and CNET, enable customers to learn about product quality and usability before making a purchasing decision, thereby shifting the playing field so that usability becomes good for business. Global markets and technology will gradually beat down this enemy. As usability advocates, we should save our ammo.

Clueless Decision Makers

Perhaps we can identify a better target by focusing on the world of web usability. Unfortunately, many of today’s executives and managers spent their formative years in a pre-Internet world. They simply don’t understand the medium well enough to make good decisions about what to do and who to hire.

This has led to the proliferation of stupid Flash intros among small company web sites and million dollar fiascos among large company web sites and intranets, which in turn enable self-fulfilling prophecies regarding the Internet’s failings as a channel for collaboration and commerce.

Some managers actively sustain their own ignorance of what works and what doesn’t by burying usage stats and user research data. I know of one Fortune 500 company that hides all of its intranet usage data on an almost inaccessible server in the Philippines.

However, not all of these folks are lost causes. If you can get their attention, you may convince them to think twice about hiring the consulting firm that offers “buy a Flash intro, get a taxonomy for free.”

It is worth fighting to save decision makers from the dark side. Usability education and evangelism are our key weapons. The alternative is to wait for today’s web-surfing three year olds to get their MBAs.


It’s easy for an individual to spot usability problems, but it’s often impossible for an individual to solve those problems. In fact, in most organizations, the design of usable information systems requires collaboration across teams, departments and disciplines.

These collaborations are notoriously messy. Perhaps our tribal heritage underlies our fear of difference. Perhaps organizations fail to align goals and incentives across groups. Perhaps we secretly enjoy being difficult.

A guest speaker in my class told of her experience as the first information architect in her organization. Not long after joining the company, she was banned from creating wireframes. Apparently, the software developers were afraid she was taking away their creative control over the interface.

In the ensuing months, she managed to sneak wireframes into a few under-the-radar projects. Eventually, the developers came to depend on them. Wireframes are now a required deliverable and her usability-enhancing skills are in great demand.

When it comes to establishing trust and respect, actions speak louder than words. To beat this particular enemy, education and evangelism won’t suffice. A strange form of hand-to-hand combat that involves doing good work and being friendly to people who are different is required.

And always, as you grapple with the enemies of usability, remember that we’re winning the war, and don’t be afraid to be sneaky!

by Peter Morville