Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Usability is the new Aesthetic

As someone who is regularly employed to "build" the functionality of stuff on the web, I am faced with a number of variations on the typical requirements specification. From a large folder filled with interrelated documents outlining every nook and crany of the project, to a loosely coupled set of semi-formal "conversations" about the "needs" of a project, it is clear and obvious that people are regularly and comfortably opperating at a number of levels with regard to the idea of defining work. The amazing thing is that no matter hwo much detail you get from people, a little or a lot, there is one thing people battle with in a project: it is not so much "what" the solution does, but "how" the solution does it. I can sum that up in the key phrase that we all often hear, "I get how that works, but I don't know that my customers will."

So we ebb and flow with the project sponsor and try to churn out the best match to their somewhat vague comments that we can excavate from the brains of those involved, to get the very best usability that we can with regard to the requirements that rightly constrain us. The sad reality is, outside of marketing projects, that businesses don't want to invest in Usability the same way they typically don't want to invest in aesthetics.

"You don't have to make it look pretty. Just make it work."

The truth is that once you get it to work in the most raw sense, people begin to battle with the efficiency and intuitiveness of the workflow involved in the functionally accurate process, and then usability and aesthetics suddenly become an issue. The project manager is fairly behind in the project management schedule and so they toss in the trusty opinion "You don't have to make it look pretty. Just make it work." But the truth about pretty is that while their isn't a definitively positive correlation between aesthetics and usability, the point at which something beautiful becomes a sumbling block to usability is much higher than many will be willing to imagine investing in. The fact is, there is a positive correlation between "pretty" and "pleasant," and pleasant is a close cousin of "natural" if not "intuitive" (if done well) and so we find we are not far from "usable."

The issue is not that "usability," "Aesthetics," or a "refined workflow" are waisted effort or a tack onto a project that can create a savings in the cost of the work if left out. Rather, ignoring those things typically means a reduction of effiency and productivity. We are really facing a mis-management issue when those important things are left from the project. Think about how car manufacturers would collapse if the people designing the engines built them as functional as they could, per the requirement, in their "engine design project" but those engines would not fit into the cars they were designed for? We would still be spending a majority of our time on horses.

So the next time you are faced with planning a project for the web or a traditional desktop app, be sure and factor in time to define the user experience, because the industry doesn't support making time for it later.