I’ve written a fair amount on usability and expect to write quite a bit more. And I’ve taught with Paul Anderson’s Technical Communication, which places usability and persuasiveness as the most critical concepts for writing. So this week’s reading and work with usability in 480 is a pleasure: familiar but still challenging territory.
I like Whitney Quesenbery’s Looking Beyond “Ease of Use” because it returns us to the complex and interconnected definitions of usability which were at the heart of early uses. As I argue in “Extreme Usability and Technical Communication”, the shift away from these definitions has been very negative for usability and user-centered design as a whole, and we really need a definition of usability which takes the arenas Quesenbery names into account. Interestingly, four of her five concepts map closely onto Jakob Nielsen’s, from 1993; here are Quesenbery’s and then Nielsen’s (“memorability” is his fifth).
- Efficient (efficency of use)
- Engaging (subjective satisfaction)
- Error tolerant (few and noncatastrophic errors)
- Easy to learn (learnability)
Of course, you can’t talk about usability without talking about Nielsen. I’ve taken issue with Nielsen repeatedly, and this week is no different—though I’m not opposed to his “empiricism vs ideology” argument. I just think that empirical work is overrated, since as he observes:
If designers and project managers don’t believe in the usability ideology, why would they implement usability’s empirical findings? After all, if you don’t want to make things easy, knowing how to make them easy is irrelevant.
(Note that Nielsen reduces usability to ease here.) If anything, the situation is worse than Nielsen represents it here, and usability (and user-centered design) flies under the radar way more often than it should. So I don’t mind falling on the side of advocacy (which is really what Nielsen is talking about, not ideology) whenever I deal with usability. Also, because I want to argue for a certain definition of usability which is closer to the original concepts Nielsen, Dumas & Redish, and others have pushed for, I think the balance should be tipped in favor of active argument.