User Friendly

When a computer system, hardware or software, is easy to use and doesn’t cause us too much trouble, we say that it is user friendly.  The very existence of this term troubles me greatly.

Somehow we’ve decided that technology is hard, computers are difficult, and powerful software is tricky to use.  This has progressed to the point that we need to point out the exceptions and call them user friendly.  Anything less is the expected norm; there is no single term for it.  I’ve heard colleagues refer to things as user unfriendly, annoying, temperamental, hinky, touchy, picky, particular, and unreliable.  Is it just me, or do these all sound like things we would call a problematic coworker, rather than an inanimate object?

I would go further, and call these systems User Hostile.  Software that makes you click repeatedly and unnecessarily is actively wasting your time and effort.  It is hostile.  Systems that don’t report issues or errors until the user has gotten much further down the path of configuring or using them waste the user’s time and energy, but also confuse them and leave them exasperated.  Error messages that don’t explain the error, configuration settings that don’t tell you what your options are, VCRs with poorly labeled buttons–these thing stop the user dead in their tracks, putting up a roadblock to all further progress.  They are hostile.

The irony in all of this is that technology is expressly developed to make our lives better.  Much of it is manufactured and designed for the purpose of saving us time and energy, simplifying lengthy tasks and making them easier or more accessible.

I have some theories about where this problem comes from.  I believe most of the root causes come back to money.  Perhaps I will take them up in later posts.  For now, here’s a brief list:

  • Making a stronger user interface is harder than it seems, and the design, testing, and implementation costs seem unreasonable.
  • Time to market is very important, and the extra time implementing better interfaces can make your product obsolete when other manufacturers make their products available first.
  • Users are content with good enough, and our bargain culture deems good interfaces an unnecessary luxury.
  • There is a lack of knowledge about how to produce good interfaces in product design, and the skills, experience, and exposure to good interfaces are inadequate in those responsible.
  • Computers, like cars, are complicated systems that can have serious consequences when misused.  Shouldn’t we expect at least the same level of devoted time and training to use them as we do our cars?

There are counter arguments for all of these, and possible solutions even where they are accepted as problems.  I’d love to hear what your responses are to these, or what theories you might have about them.

The market decides these things, as it does in so many areas, but there is still some room for change.  Apple created a whole new market when it created the iPod, almost entirely on the basis of its interface, long before it became a social symbol.  Google was turning heads with its easy, straightforward search box before anyone knew the power of it’s pagerank search algorithm.  On the other hand, there are large corporations who have the market for operating systems, DVRs, various online services, computer office suites, etc., comfortably enough in hand that they can afford to spend a bit extra on better interfaces, which may give them the edge they need to keep competition from closing in.

Why do you think technology is so hard to use?  What can we do about it?

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