Usability in Design
Why we should watch our users more than we listen to them.
Trends and Permanence in Design.
In general terms, the design of any object, user interface, or product incorporates a number of different elements. Lifestyle trends, aesthetic value and a gap in the market all determine the success of a product, but there is one element which is now considered to be the most important in design. Usability.
So what is usability, and why is it so important, especially in terms of web and application design?
To understand the distinction between usability and other elements of design, we will examine how there has been a general shifting of focus from aesthetic quality being a priority to usability being the primary determining factor in the popularity of a product, object or service.
The evolution of design.
Very few (if any) items are so perfect in their design that they are rendered completely timeless.
Take for example, the recently reimagined Seven Wonders of the World. Originally announced around 2BC, the original Seven Wonders of the World were supposed to be architectural designs, timeless in their nature, impressive in stature and culturally poignant. Yet even they were subjected to a change as the society that once valued the original wonders evolved and anointed new architectural wonders.
Part of the reason for this change was that of the original Seven Wonders, only one (The pyramid of Giza) was still standing, so while they may live in memory, there is nothing left of their physical form.
It was also decided that quite a bit has happened and humanity has evolved drastically since they were first decided around 2000 years ago. Although the pyramids kept their place in the new list, it gives us an insight into how even the most “timeless” of designs can be subject to a shift in perceived value.
Cultural factors are not the only transitory elements in design. Sometimes it is also technology and lifestyle that drives a shift in the design of products. The immensely popular Nokia 3310, released in 2000, enjoyed such a cult status that it was reimagined again in 2017. At the time of its reimagining in 2017, the world of mobile phones had evolved through flip phones, blackberries and onto sleek, glass fronted smartphones, capable of offering computer levels of convenience, in the pocket.
Sadly, the 2017 reincarnation of the iconic 3310 never realised the full potential of its predecessor, as the design of the phone was no longer optimised to the way in which we use the modern smartphone as an extension of our lives. Both the modern iPhone and the original Nokia 3310 are flagship products of their era, both in the same product category. Yet despite their immense, era-dependent popularity, they both look remarkably different.
The dramatic shift in phone design is almost entirely down to a rapid evolution of the technology available to us in those few years.
Most obviously, the internet and colour screens became standard features for phones. No longer is a mobile phone for the occasional call, text and rudimentary pixelated game (though we’d argue Snake is pretty timeless!). Now users expect to be able to access a myriad of modern services on their smartphones.
Both at home and on the road, users expect the convenience of booking flights, cinema tickets and hotels, whilst being able to update their social media to reflect their immediate present, with a whole host of other features available too. It’s a dramatic shift from the early noughties in the way we expect to use a mobile phone, and one that some never thought could catch on.
It is here that design incorporates a permanence not found in other considerations applied to it; Usability.
People want their purchases and experience to be user friendly.
Objects such as the pyramids are impressive in structure, still aesthetically admired today. Even how they were constructed with the technology of the time remains a mystery, but they also lack a practical usability for the modern era. Thus, the beauty of their design is one of admiration and historical interest, instead of a blueprint for modern tombs.
The same applies to web design - we no longer make complex, over the top flashy websites. Instead a focus is placed on usability, with branding and aesthetics coming after.
However it’s not always clear how products will be used, so it can be hard to design and test for usability.
If you’d asked many of the users of mobile phones in the 90’s and 00’s if they wanted to have the convenience of the internet permanently on demand in their pocket, at the expense of their movement and data being permanently tracked and sold to marketers, their answer would probably have been a resounding NO. We didn’t know how the mobile phone would evolve to be used.
Designers and consumers themselves were unaware of how the technology would quickly adapt to change society across the globe. Only a handful of visionaries were aware of the potential the technology had to offer.
It also demonstrates an important point in the practice of design; sometimes we cannot simply ask users what they would like, instead, we must wait and see how they use a product.
Of course, this doesn’t mean putting a product straight out there and hoping for the best! There are far too many variables to consider in designing a quality product. That’s why we use established principles for design.
Principles of Design
So how can we design products for consumers if the criteria are constantly shifting? Lifestyles are evolving, aesthetics are subjective and usability can be unpredictable.
To navigate this complex discipline we split design into two areas, UI (user interface) & UX (user experience).
The largest shift in design in recent years is the change from aesthetic value being a priority, to usability being the primary concern. Gone are the overly flashy, complex websites and applications of the past and instead we are presented with user friendly websites and interfaces, carefully designed to maximise the user experience.
User Interface in modern web and app design applies to the aesthetics of the interface. It is here that designers have a degree of freedom, as UI design usually combines a designer's personal touch with branding and logos.
Usability is built on the user experience process. Applied to web and app design, this can be a precision scientific study.
Flagship products and apps are usually tested using focus groups, which are observed and spoken to about their experience with different versions of the product. These are then iterated and retested in a perpetual cycle until the perfect balance of aesthetic branding and usability is met.
Crucial to a successful product design though is an agile process, constantly evolving around usability.
Well, we now know that to a great extent in the modern world, usability will define the popularity of a product or service.
Going back to our example of mobile phones, it is undeniable that the Nokia 3310 was a stronger, more robust offering than modern smartphones, which makes it perfect for portable, mobile use. However with the evolution of technologies available the design was altered to become a fragile object, expensive to buy and repair; seemingly a step backwards for a product designed to be used on the go. It came with a payoff - Usability
The lacklustre sales of the reimagined Nokia 3310 demonstrate that consumer expectations have shifted - the retro design of the product does not reflect the way modern phones are used.
Design by watching, not listening.
By now, we have established that usability is a key factor in design, and that sadly, we don’t always know what the evolution in the usability of a product will be. So how can we test our design and continue to iterate it after launch, if both we and the consumer don’t know how it will turn out?
The answer comes in watching, rather than listening to our consumers.
Traditionally, design research has presented an A/B(/C/D etc.) selection of products in front of a focus group. Once the group has had a chance to interact with the different iterations of the product, they are sat down and asked for their opinion on how the experience was designed. However, when dealing with revolutionary changes, such as the internet on mobile phones, we know that consumers aren’t always able to assess their own use of a product accurately.
Unfortunately, for a few reasons, verbal feedback is not always the best way of garnering information on usability.
In a focus group, participants are subjected to peer-pressure, or the desire to fit in. If 80% of the focus group says they like version A, we can’t be sure if some of them are simply trying to fit in with the rest.
It’s well established how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be, as people can only tell you what they remember. The same is true in usability testing - consumers who test products aren’t as familiar with it as the design team, so they are much less likely to recall all elements of an interface presented to them.
Further deepening the unreliability of verbal feedback, people tend to try and rationalise their behaviour retrospectively. This means that an individual might say “I’d have clicked on the product offer if it was larger”, but we can’t be sure that’s actually true.
When to Listen
This isn’t to say we should never listen to focus groups or users' verbal feedback.
As we noted, there are different aspects to design - UI and UX. Verbal feedback is important to understand what is happening inside the user's mind as they use a product. In this sense, it makes sense to garner verbal feedback on the UI, aesthetics and overall layout, as it will be harder to observe a reaction to subjective aesthetics.
However in UX, and how a website or application is used, we should listen with an open mind, but observe with a close eye.
Curious about how we merge listening and watching in our app and web design?
Get in touch with our team today to see how we apply these ideas to designing our products with maximum usability in mind.
Get in Touch