store shelves

Is Good Usability Bad for Business?

One of the biggest questions you ask yourself while reading “The Design of Everyday Things”, by Don Norman, is how the heck are bad design and abysmal usability still so widespread when the design community seems so confident and uniform about the modern theories and processes of industrial and software design.

I ask myself this question at least a couple of times every day, and what really bugs me is that most of my usability indignation is brought about by the very products I have bought. Yep, guilty as charged.

Surely I don’t miss those opportunities to remind myself to be more careful when I replace my TV, or my office telephone system (which is one of the instruments that really seems designed by mad scientists). But what does it really mean to be more careful when deciding which product to buy?

Spotting usability is difficult

Imagine yourself strolling along the shelves of an electronics store, looking for a new TV for your living room. You are concerned with good design and usability, and you want to impress your friends with the easiest-to-use-yet-most-complete TV set EVER.

You look around, and every TV available on the shelves is on, with big signs declaring their prices and an attached one-page specs sheet for each one, which – the geeky clerk tells you – is great because allows you to COMPARE them.

Comparing them is thus simple, just look at the specs! Look! With just $100 more you can get a TV that lets you enjoy 5 movies at the same time, splitting the video! How can you miss that bargain?

Luckily, you quickly come to your senses (and your principles), and you say to the clerk: “No, I want something that is actually usable”. He looks at you, with those big lost eyes of him, and stutters: “Err… That, that one has an Easy To Use sticker on its screen… Let’s, let’s check its specs”.

Then you get it: when you are purchasing something, a sticker is all you can get about usability. You should test all the available products to understand which one is the most usable, and still it wouldn’t be enough, because many difficulties can arise only when you start knowing your product well.

Usability doesn’t matter while purchasing

Maybe they should introduce a law that imposes usability tests for each product on sale and showing the results right in the specs sheet, just like the energy class. I don’t know if this could be a good idea though: it would hurt to see usability at the same level of, let’s say, PIP support. But well, at least that would be better than nothing!

The bad news is that even a usability-concerned buyer is instinctively struck by feature madness when choosing among products… and the marketing guys know it. We too feel weak in our knees when we can buy something clearly better (specs tell the truth, baby!) with a little more; and who knows what would happen if one day there were 5 football matches on TV, and you really couldn’t miss a second of any of them!

That’s why we still buy badly designed products, which are impossible to use and frustrate us every day of our lives.

And that is why we should really try to make people conscious that products don’t have to be so unusable anymore.