usable or useful

It's difficult these days to find a bad word about usability. Usability is a buzz word and making a site more usable is all the rage. And rightfully so, because most sites really boast uncanny interfaces and require too much hassle to get what you want. Usability experts will spend hours of arguing and drawing just so we have to click only once instead of twice, without making it any more confusing.

dissecting the honeycomb

Besides usability, there's a lesser known term. Usefulness. This indicates the actual worth a site has for its visitors, which is actually the thing we should strife for. It is generally believed that usability is the most straight-forward road to usefulness. Making things easier is after all a Good Thing ™, no doubt about that. And yet, there is something like making things too easy. When usability crosses that line, it can decrease the usefulness to a visitor. Allow me to explain.

an analogy

I will start by setting up a little analogy, which will help to explain the problem. So imagine yourself sitting at a desk, having to work or study (or doing any other activity for that matter). Imagine yourself getting thirsty. Then imagine these two situations you could face:

  • There are no drinks at all in your house. You have to go out to the supermarket to buy some drinks first.
  • The fridge is filled, you just have to get to the kitchen to grab it.

The difference obviously lies in the amount of effort you have to put in to get the drinks.

worth vs effort

Is it worth the effort? It's a question we ask ourselves on a daily basis. Big things and little things, it's a question that controls our lives. When worth outweighs effort, we do things.

Looking at our analogy, we know that we'll get our drinks faster when the fridge is loaded with them. We might wait a little longer before we decide to go out to the supermarket, and some of us would rather dehydrate first. So that's were usability experts step in. They make sure there's always some juice in the fridge, so you don't have to go all the way to the supermarket. And if they're really good, they'll bring you the juice on a platter so you don't even have to stand up from behind your desk. That's how nice they can be.

The job of a usability expert is to try and diminish the effort as much as possible, so visitors will have an easier time navigating a site, singing up, reacting to posts or buying stuff online. If the effort someone has to make is decreased, he'll be more inclined to act upon an impulse.

quantity vs quality

But this is where it gets tricky. We sometimes tend to forget that effort is nature's solution for quality control. And by reducing effort, we might transform quality into quantity. There are examples aplenty out there. To use our analogy again, if you have a bottle and glass on your desk, you can rest assured that traffic between your desk and the toilet will increase drastically in a small amount of time.

A good example from the web is posting comments on a blog/forum. Make it too hard and nobody will take the trouble to post. But make it too easy and people post whatever they think of without considering the value. The challenge is to make the posting procedure difficult enough to weed out the spammers and flamers, yet maintain the people that contribute valuable feedback.

Another good example are rss feeds. At one point, we've all clicked that link because we thought it might be interesting. One extra click to get it into our favorite rss tool and before we knew it we ended up with a pile of crappy rss feeds we never read because they were dull as can be. I know it happened to me.

quality is useful

The trick is to find the balance between effort, worth, quality and quantity. Making something that is easy enough to perform, without making it too easy and creating clutter for the visitor. Usability remains a good thing, but not to the point where the quality of the task drops below a certain level. In that sense, usability can be a lot like commercials, driving the users to perform a task without considering the actual value. It often leaves them with a lot of things they don't actually need.

I'll finish up with the solution I found to make my rss tool useful again. I simply store my rss feeds in folders by category, making it a little more work to add them to my feed program, but at the same time weeding out the feeds I'm not really interested in. The usability decreased a little, but the tool became a lot more useful to me.

This is far from a bash on usability, simply an attempt to make people aware of the goal they're striving for. Which is making a website that's useful for people. Not a website that's easy to use.