Comment: Usability cult sacrifices innovation

31 May 2002 View Comments
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Last week I visited the Usability Professionals Association, to hear a youthful but stern Web designer named Martyn Perks mount a refreshing attack on user-centred Web design.

For Perks, Web design mantras such as customer-as-king, the customer being one click away from the competition, and "keep it simple, stupid", are part of a safety-first philosophy that is inimical to genuine innovation. The worship of users as bewildered but somehow always right fits all too well with today's focus on security, disaster recovery, customer loyalty and return on investment at the expense of breakthroughs in content, concept or technology.

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No users, Perks reminds us, were researched when Sony chief Akio Morita invented the Walkman. Nor do the 4.5 million registered fans of the Friends Reunited site confirm the merits of user-centred design, for the Friends interface is a clunky affair. Making things usable, then, does not mean that those things will necessarily be useful.

Today's obsession with Web users, Perks says, makes different companies chase the current, explicit behaviour of the same target customers. Result: companies come up with very similar ideas.

Companies forget that behaviour masks latent needs - needs that usability studies, by themselves, may be unable to tease out. Moreover, tomorrow's users will not be the same as today's. Users can adapt to new interfaces; and this capacity to learn new tricks shows that they are not just objects, with needs that must be researched, but also subjects with aptitudes, skills, talents and improvisations all their own.

By making user-centred Web design a cheap, risk-free substitute for potentially disruptive forms of R&D, organisation or business model, Perks hints, companies put a damper on their own aptitudes. Leaps of the imagination take second place. Instead, Perks argues, the name of the game in user interfaces is to treat users as having problems that need "solutions".

Predictably the Perks thesis is greeted with anger and derision. Yet his quarrel is neither with usability as such, nor with its assembled representatives, but with usability when it is a symptom of risk-avoidance.

Perks is spot-on when he argues that society has dethroned one elite, only to ensconce another. Instead of 40- or 50-year-old white-coated "technology push" scientists and engineers, we now prefer hip 20- and 30-somethings, intent on being "inclusive" in their designs and on upholding the rights of the consumer everywhere they go. In this framework, expertise consists of working within the restraints both of corporate risk-avoidance and of consumer helplessness.

Inadvertently, Naomi "No Logo" Klein has taught us that portraits of users as victims of genetically-modified dark forces lead to more consumer protection and state regulation. Similarly, in IT, innovations can all too often be dismissed as contrary to agreed standards.

Macromedia Flash, I am told, can be an excellent way to build rich, broadband-ready interfaces. Yet usability guru Jacob Nielsen ridicules Flash as "99 percent bad".

Myself, I don't know. But I do know that many a first-mover technology has been ridiculed for overturning a cosy consensus - only for it to triumph in the end.

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