Usability is a big concern when designing for the web, but often it gets forgotten or ignored in other mediums. This is probably because hard-to-use websites are very obvious, while many people probably don’t think that hard-to-use posters, brochures, or business cards even exist. I beg to disagree.
My dictionary defines usability as “able or fit to be used”, but for the specific instance of usability in design, I think it’s fair to define usability as a state where the average user can easily interact with the design in a manner they expect and desire to. We’re specifically talking about the average user’s expectations and desires here, not the creator’s. That’s an important distinction in usability, because a designer will always find their designs more usable than anyone else will, because he or she knows exactly how it works, and it’s is tailored to his or her personal sense of logic.
Here is an example of a situation I recently found myself in, that perfectly points to the effects that usability has in the user’s experience. The example is of usability in web and interface design, but we’ll get into how usability works in other mediums in a moment.
I recently needed to get a significant number of 4×6” photos printed. Before sending them in, I wanted to compare the pricing of a couple of different photofinishing businesses. Both were chains with enough locations that you cannot blame lack of budget for a difference in usability. Here are the steps I took trying to find pricing on the first supplier’s website:
1. Navigated to site.
2. Saw nothing labelled “pricing”, so I clicked on “print” in the navigation.
3. Waited while application loaded.
4. Clicked on “prints and enlargements”.
5. A dialog box popped up and told me that they do, in fact, offer prints and enlargements.
6. Clicked “continue”.
7. Was faced with another, seemingly redundant, set of choices. Clicked “prints” on this new set of options.
8. Another dialog box popped up and I was told again that they, in fact, offer prints.
9. Clicked “continue”, again
10. Was asked to upload photos – no mention anywhere of pricing.
11. Decided maybe I was in the wrong place, went back to home page
12. Was asked if I was sure I wanted to leave, clicked “yes”
13. Clicked “shop” in navigaion.
14. Was presented with a selection of cameras and phones – definitely the wrong place.
15. Figuring the only way to get pricing must be to upload photos, returned to “print” section
16. Waited, and waited, and waited for application to load.
17. Re-loaded page.
18. Clicked on “prints and enlargements” again
19. Was told again that they offer prints and enlargements
20. Clicked “continue”
21. Was faced with redundant choices again. Clicked “prints”.
22. Told yet again that they offer prints.
23. Clicked continue for a fourth time
24. Was asked to upload photos, clicked “add images”.
25. Given options for where to find photos, clicked “computer”.
26. Was asked to install a program on my computer.
27. Unwilling to install software on my computer just to find out a price, I left the site furious – still with no idea know what they charge.
I then went to their competition’s website. Here’s how that went:
1. Navigated to site
2. Under a list of products, clicked “prints” and was presented with pricing
So there you have it… a perfect look at how usability works. Company A’s website was unusable, and after 26 steps, I still could not find what I wanted, even though it was a very basic piece of information. As a result, they lost a customer forever. Option B’s site was very usable, and took only 2 steps for me to get the information I needed.
Usability In Other Mediums
As I mentioned above, people often don’t think about usability in other mediums, but it really is an important consideration. While you may not realize it, most books have multiple usability features including the table of contents, page numbers, headings, chapters, index, and copyright page. Without these, the average user would have trouble interacting with them the way they need to (finding the information they’re searching for).
Posters, brochures, and business cards need to be usable, too. I frequently come across posters and ads where I had to stop to interpret the information because it has been laid out poorly; brochures that don’t group information in a logical manner, or fail to create a useful hierarchy of information can be difficult to get information from; and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across business cards that fail to even tell me what the business does, never mind what differentiates them from their competition!
Usability’s Absolute Importance
As designers, we cannot afford to forget about usability in any medium of design. With competition growing in all markets, it becomes easier all the time for consumers to go elsewhere. On top of that, we’re becoming used to getting what we want, when we want, so we are conditioned to abandon companies that fail to provide us with easy access to what we want or need. That means that poor usability results in lost customers. And lost customer results in the client not hiring you again.
Stay tuned, because in a future post we’ll look at how to create usable designs in all mediums.