By Tom Stewart
As World Usability Day looms, an expert gives his personal view on why some products are a pleasure to use and others make us scream in frustration.
Use scissors and risk scratching the case
Thursday is World Usability Day.
I'm sorry, but I'm not sure the world is ready for such a day.
It's not that I don't think usability is a good idea - of course it is.
It's not that I don't think some progress has been made. Of course it has. The success of the iconic iPod is largely down to the usability of the device, especially the click wheel interface and iTunes.
No, my worry is that the world has so far to go in making technology usable that I fear that celebrating usability is premature and conceals just how much hassle we put up with on a daily basis.
A recent study of marketing directors by e-consultancy found that most of them had no idea about usability or its importance in ensuring that their websites actually delivered business benefit.
What is the point of having trendy, gee-whizz, award-winning websites if no-one can use them to buy products? It's a bit like creating adverts which only appeal to other advertising professionals, and who would be silly enough to do that?
One of my big hang-ups with usability (and I speak as a usability professional with more than 30 years in the industry) is that many people see it as synonymous with making products easy to use.
Now, I have no objection to making life easier but I believe - and I'm supported in this view by an international standard - that a usable product or service has two other key features in addition to being easy or pleasant to use.
It must also be effective and efficient. In other words, the interface to our personal mp3 player should actually allow us to select the right music with an appropriate degree of effort and also be nice to use.
This approach to usability involves focusing on what users are trying to do with the product and making sure it delivers results without requiring us to be rocket scientists or contortionists. It doesn't need to be easy - it depends on what we are doing.
Breaking a nail
I am prepared to happily invest far more effort into using the web when planning a complex journey across the country than I am to check my current account balance.
However, some things are so difficult to use that it's hard to believe any users could ever have found them acceptable.
How many of us have struggled with packaging which seems to have been designed solely with the supermarket distribution system in mind? It may be strong enough not to break if it falls off a pallet but how do we get the bacon out without breaking a nail or risking life and limb?
How many old people have injured themselves trying to open child-proof safety containers with scissors? Can anyone get the wrapping off a CD?
Why do so many design, engineering and marketing people fail to adopt a user-centred mindset? A mind-blowing example of this failure to understand real users is the feature on some of the new trains where the toilet has a permanently installed sign reading "out of order".
Read the CD-ROM for instructions on how to operate the CD-ROM
Rather than such "design for failure", I think most people would prefer more reliable toilets. It's a bit like the call centre queues which tell you that "they really value your call" but not enough to answer it in a timely manner so they will play you some mind-numbingly tuneless music instead?
OK, I'll come clean here. As usability and ergonomics consultants, we do think World Usability Day is a good idea to focus attention on how far we still have to go but let's stop accepting such blatantly bad design.
It's time to get really angry about poor usability and demand that the people who design and supply products and services adopt a far more user-centred approach to their design.
This isn't a diatribe against design. No less a figure than George Cox, the Chairman of the Design Council argues passionately that design should put the users at the heart of the design process.
And for goodness sake, please, please, please test out products with real users before subjecting the unsuspecting market to such horrors as the phones with keys too small for a six-year-old.
Or the video with an instruction manual the size of a small encyclopaedia.
Or the "unopenable" milk carton which ought to be sponsored by the business development arm of the dry cleaners association for the amount of business it generates for their members.
Tom Stewart is joint managing director of System Concepts.