Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

The myth of usability – and the impact of crowd sourcing as needs complexity expands

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on March 16, 2010

I have touched on the issues of the user interface and usability a number of times in the preceding 207 postings I have added to this blog and throughout my career in general. I want to step back from the usual approach to usability here and examine some of the basic assumptions as to what usability involves with this posting.

Users always have multiple needs and uses for any possible tool and even for the seemingly simplest ones. I might use a screwdriver to put in or take out screws but also use it to open a paint can by prying up the lid, and with time I come up with other, and even many other uses as well. As the number of tool designer-planned uses increase, the complexity of possible uses by actual end users expands more than just exponentially, and even without taking into account the many and even myriad uses that we come up with that the tool designers and builders never thought of.

When the tool is software, and particularly when it is complex, general purpose software the range of use and usability can be open ended. The preconceptions – myths really, that I want to touch upon here all stem from a single, conceptually simple point. Problems arise when tool designers and builders assume they can always reliably predict how users will use the tools they provide, and this becomes more pressing as the tools become more functionally complex and even open ended.

So I find myself thinking of some basic design considerations and with software as a working model. New features can be built in, in basically three ways with multiple variations.

1. By making standard, routine functions and functionality easy to find and use – changing font size or other formatting functionalities in a word processing program, for example.
2. By making less routine functions harder to use without specific intent and particularly where misuse could cause significant damage – the option for reformatting a hard drive on a computer, for example, in a home computer. True, a user may need to do that, when for example deleting all content from the drive in preparation for disposing of the computer, to protect confidentiality of the personal data they have put on it. But they do not want to find they have accidently done this when they were actually looking to do something a lot less extreme.
3. By providing artificial intelligence based software wizards to help manage what would otherwise be complex, if standard tasks so they appear to the user like the routine functions of point one, above.

And even with the best of intentions on the part of software providers, users can still find themselves staring at their computer in frustration, muttering about wizards they do not want, and struggling to do something that is important to them but in ways that the designers and builders had not anticipated. As I said above, this all becomes more pressing as range and complexity of possible use and of user goals and intentions become open ended. Collisions occur there and any presumption of smooth, clear resolution to this becomes myth.

How in practice does crowd sourcing address this? I would argue that the value in crowd sourcing is in increasing the likelihood that the right features and options will be developed into the design, and with a greater percentage of those included, built in appropriately as to the three accessibility options cited above.

Crowd sourcing can feed into and improve the range of design vision for simple products and services like tee shirts, but it also holds potential for designing and developing more complex tools and systems of tools, and other user-facing products and services.

I have to add though, that simply adding crowd sourcing into the business model and its execution does not and cannot make the basic issues of feature selection limitations go away. It will still be true that about 20% of the cost of designing and developing a complex, multi-function product like a software package will go into adding the first 80% of the features on your features list, and the remaining 80% of cost are needed to include the remaining 20% of the possible features on this list. It is still going to be true that the larger the features list built in, the more difficult it is to allocate features as to the above three design and usability options correctly. And it becomes progressively more difficult to even know in retrospect if a feature that was buried and less accessible should have been more easily found in the growing potential for clutter. It is more likely there will be no single correct answer here.

Crowd sourcing can and does offer new sources of genuine value but it is important to separate that from the hype too, and this becomes a visible issue when more complex designs are created, prioritized and influenced. This approach can create new sources of value but some basic limitations in connecting accessibility, usability and functionality will remain.

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